Serving children in Myanmar

UNICEF@75

By Ruth Ayisi
UNICEF Myanmar
UNICEF/ UNI42508
09 December 2021

UNICEF’s journey in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, began in April 1950. To mark UNICEF’s 75th anniversary, this photo essay takes us through the past seven decades, highlighting some of UNICEF’s achievements, with a special focus on UNICEF’s humanitarian support during Cyclone Nargis in 2008.

 

Early achievements

One of UNICEF’s first major achievements in Myanmar was its support to a massive vaccination campaign against tuberculosis, which reached 80 per cent of newborns every year. Also remarkable was UNICEF’s response to leprosy in Myanmar in the 1970s, which then Executive Director of UNICEF, Henri R. Labouisse Jr., described as the most successful in the world.

UNICEF Myanmar
UNICEF/ UN03819
In the 1970s and 1980s, UNICEF supported efforts to provide healthcare for all communities

Then, in the mid-1970s, UNICEF supported a drive to provide basic education for all, which resulted in an increase in the number of schools in the country to over 18,000. Adult literacy also received a boost with 200,000 people volunteering in a literacy campaign which resulted in 1 million people in the country learning to read and write for the first time. In the 1980s, UNICEF supported community health workers who began to play a crucial role in the country’s healthcare, particularly in rural areas. UNICEF also equipped and trained auxiliary midwives who were selected by their communities.

UNICEF Myanmar
UNICEF/ NYHQ1995-0130/ Charton
Basic education for all

The late 1980s saw a global push for governments around the world to take action to protect children’s rights and on 20 November 1989, there was a breakthrough as the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). In 1991 Myanmar ratified the CRC and in 1993 passed the country’s first Child Law. It was in the 1980s that Ramesh Shrestha, UNICEF Representative in Myanmar from 2006 to 2012, recalls having a desire to join UNICEF after reading in his local newspaper how UNICEF had supported piped water projects which provided drinking water to millions of people in rural areas in Nepal.

In 2006, Shrestha welcomed the opportunity to head the UNICEF office in Myanmar. He remembers being impressed by Myanmar’s ‘large pool of highly skilled professional people’.  And while movement around the country was restricted to most foreigners, Shrestha’s position at UNICEF meant that he was able to access almost all parts of the country, even areas affected by conflict. This proved to be crucial to UNICEF’s understanding of the situation in the country, allowing programming to be rolled out that saved many lives, especially during periods of emergency.

 

Rising to humanitarian challenges

Myanmar is a country that has experienced many emergencies and difficulties. The country has been affected by violent clashes and conflicts and is highly prone to natural hazards including cyclones, tsunamis, floods, earthquakes and drought, as well as landslides in mountainous areas. Yet, nobody was prepared for the scale of Cyclone Nargis – Myanmar’s worst natural disaster of modern times – which landed in the Ayeyarwady Delta region in the middle of the night on 2 May 2008. The cyclone took the lives of 140,000 people, displaced 800,000 people and left at least 2.4 million people in need of immediate humanitarian assistance. 

UNICEF Myanmar
©UNICEF Myanmar/2008/ Jim Holmes
Cyclone Nargis ripped through homes leaving 800,000 people displaced

Shrestha recalls, “it was like a war zone. Buildings were destroyed, trees and power lines had fallen; there was destruction everywhere.”

Under Shrestha’s leadership, UNICEF was quick to respond to the disaster, dispatching staff within the first 24 hours to assess the damage and pre-position relief supplies. “It took UNICEF drivers many hours to get to where they had to go as most bridges were broken and there were mudslides,” says Shrestha. “Although they had to drive through broken roads full of mud and debris, no driver ever complained. Without their dedicated support, we would not have been able to access so many villages.”

UNICEF Myanmar
©UNICEF Myanmar/2004/ Myo Thame
Maung Maung Hla driving a UNICEF vehicle

Local staff at the forefront  

U Maung Muang Hla, a retired UNICEF driver, remembers how, during the Cyclone Nargis relief efforts, he assisted with the delivery of necessities such as food, hygiene products and family kits to affected populations. He made four trips per month from 2008 up until 2010.

“It was tiring, and I faced many hardships. One time, while I was on one of those trips, I fell asleep on the deck of a ferry and four young men had to watch over me because they feared I might fall into the water.”

Yet there was no stopping U Maung Muang Hla. He says he follows the mantra, “Not for me, for others”. He adds, “I always tried to keep calm and find solutions for the problems that I faced as a driver.”

UNICEF Myanmar
UNICEF Myanmar/2008/ Myo Thame
Maung Maung Hla seen distributing emergency supplies with his colleagues during Cyclone Nargis

For the cyclone effort, UNICEF had agreements with 15 international non-governmental organizations (NGOs), 16 local NGOs and four faith-based organizations (FBOs). UNICEF also collaborated with 465 community-based organizations (CBOs) who assisted with school and water supply rehabilitation. “Without their support, UNICEF would not have been able to accomplish what we did,” says Shrestha. “The highly dedicated staff from all the organizations were instrumental in the successful relief and rehabilitation efforts.”

UNICEF Myanmar
UNICEF Myanmar/2008
Former UNICEF Representative, Ramesh Shrestha, visits a temporary learning space set up after Cyclone Nargis had destroyed thousands of schools

Learning provides structure in times of emergency

The school year normally begins in June in Myanmar, and even in times of emergency, UNICEF and its partners try to ensure children can continue to learn. The aftermath of Cyclone Nargis was no exception, even though as many as 4,000 schools had been damaged.

UNICEF Myanmar
UNICEF Myanmar/2008/ Jim Homes
Giving children a chance to learn during emergencies is critical for their wellbeing

Working together with partners, UNICEF set up temporary learning spaces using tarpaulins and flew in thousands of UNICEF school kits including exercise notebooks and pencils. “I visited the sites several times and saw how happy the children were in the temporary learning spaces, away from the disaster areas, at least temporarily,” remembers Shrestha.

“School is so good for mental health. It allows children to interact with other children and keeps them busy,” says Shrestha.

UNICEF also traced many children who had been separated from their families during the cyclone and reunited them with their families. In addition, UNICEF set up more than 100 child-friendly spaces for children to play in; those children who were traumatized were able to receive psycho-social support. 

UNICEF Myanmar
UNICEF Myanmar/2008/ Ramesh Shrestha
A mother who gave birth during the cyclone in a tree, and named her daughter Nargis

Supporting the most vulnerable in emergencies

Pregnant women, breastfeeding mothers and newborns are amongst the most vulnerable in emergencies. Shrestha says one memory that has been etched in his mind was meeting two young mothers who gave birth in the trees as the floodwaters surged. “Many houses got submerged so people climbed trees. The two women were heavily pregnant, and both delivered in trees. I talked to them in the shelters when their babies were just a few weeks old. One mother had named her daughter, Nargis, after the cyclone; in Hindi, Nargis means daffodil. If I ever go back, I would love to meet those women and their children again,” says Shrestha.

UNICEF Myanmar
UNICEF Myanmar/2008/ Ramesh Shrestha
Displaced families washing clothes in floodwaters

Preventing disease outbreaks

During the Cyclone Nargis emergency, all the water sources in the disaster area were contaminated by seawater. At first, UNICEF had to transport water from the nearest town where fresh water was available, using trucks. Then, with funding from donors, UNICEF installed eight water plants in different locations which were able to produce between 4,000 and 15,000 litres of treated water every hour. “People were able to come with their jerry cans and collect and store water; that’s something to keep in mind for future disasters,” comments Shrestha.

Other examples of good practice which were carried out included fumigating all low-lying areas, distributing water treatment chemicals and giving chlorine tablets to every household. “It wasn’t an easy task as you need lots of volunteers to spray disinfectant manually, but local village people volunteered. We managed to prevent a cholera outbreak and avoided any diarrhoeal outbreaks.”

UNICEF Myanmar
UNICEF Myanmar/2008/ Ramesh Shrestha
A water filtration and treatment plant

Supporting the second decade

In recent years, UNICEF has drawn its attention to how adolescence and youth provide a second window of opportunity to promote child development, and has strengthened focus on how to empower and consult with young people, rather than considering them as just recipients of support and services.

UNICEF Myanmar
UNICEF Myanmar/2018/ Nyan Zay Htet
A U-Report volunteer explaining about the U-Report programme at a camp for displaced people in Kachin State

In 2016, U Report, a social messaging tool and data collection system developed by UNICEF, was launched in Myanmar, and has now grown into a community of more than 53,000 young people who regularly share their views and opinions through online and mobile-based polling.

UNICEF Myanmar
©UNICEF Myanmar/2021/ Nyan Zay Htet
A health worker prepares a COVID-19 vaccine injection at Inya Quarantine Centre, in Yangon

Finding innovative ways to serve children in Myanmar

Now, Myanmar is going through another humanitarian emergency – the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the humanitarian crisis following the military takeover on 1 February 2021.

The current emergency could drive millions of children into poverty, denying them the ability to access basic services, depriving them of opportunities to fulfil their potential, and putting them at huge risk of abuse, exploitation and even death.

UNICEF Myanmar
UNICEF Myanmar/2021/ Nyan Zay Htet
Ma Nilar Than,42, a beneficiary of UNICEF’s humanitarian cash assistance, receives her monthly cash at Hlaing Thar Yar Township of Yangon

But UNICEF remains in Myanmar, delivering as it has done for over 70 years. UNICEF continues to draw on its vast experience and network of partners, finding innovative ways to assist the people of Myanmar, particularly the most vulnerable and hard-to-reach children.

UNICEF Myanmar
UNICEF Myanmar/2021/ Nyan Zay Htet
Zwe Htet Paing ,6, pouring water from a bottle provided by UNICEF in Hlaing Thar Yar Township of Yangon

“What UNICEF was, is, and will be doing is what I have always wanted for children.”

U Maung Muang Hla puts it succinctly when he says, “I always wanted to see the children and youth of my nation and the nation itself develop. What UNICEF was, is, and will be doing is what I have always wanted for children.”