Three youth volunteers and a closed youth centre
Volunteers wish the youth centre was never closed
Mongar: “This is the first time I am meeting my friends since the youth centre closed,” says Deki Tshomo. “The pandemic has disrupted communications,” adds her friend Tshiteem Lhamo. “It has disconnected many of us,” chips in their friend Yeshey Zangmo.
All three teenagers are youth volunteers at Mongar’s lone youth centre, which has remained closed since the pandemic scare hit Bhutan in early March. The 16 -year-olds are in grade XI at Mongar High School and were recently elected as office bearers - Deki as the treasurer, Tshiteem as the member secretary and Yeshey as the vice president.
As new office bearers, they had just begun to get new volunteers for the centre when the pandemic struck. The centre has some 50 volunteers but only about 15 of them are active. “Most volunteers have left for higher studies so we have started getting new volunteers,” says Deki.
Like youth in other parts of the country, these youth in Mongar, say they miss school and that their biggest fear is the impact of prolonged closure of schools on youth and their education.
“The problem here is that not all students have smartphones. Some have limited access to TV or internet unlike those of us in town,” says Yeshey. “For instance, in our class, only 10 are day scholars and the rest 22 are borderers and today in remote places. So, most are not online and cannot attend e-classes.”
The three said they help their classmates access Google classroom and share lessons but insist that e-learning is not the same as learning in school. “We miss our friends, going to the canteen, chatting with friends and teachers and seeking clarifications,” says Tshiteem. “On a positive note, I learnt to cook.”
However, even for those who have access to TV and reliable internet connectivity, the volunteers say they face problems. “ We lose track of the lessons and often wonder which topic the teacher is referring to,” says Tshiteem. “We feel that those in class 11 are not given as much importance as those in class 10 and 12,” adds Yeshey.
The unlimited data provided at night keeps them up the whole night, says Yeshey adding that many youth are today online until morning. Deki says that they are neighbours but they still don’t see each other.
“Whenever we wake up, we have this fear and so we don’t go out. All we do is stay inside and stay online. Sometimes, if we wake up early, we go for morning walks.”
During these morning walks, Yeshey says that they educate residents on maintaining physical distance. “These days, we have children taking morning walks and they are usually together. When we come across such groups, we tell them to keep some distance.”
When the centre, located at the heart of town was open, the small community of young people used to meet often. Out of school youth and children also dropped by the centre for indoor games and reading.
Today, the three volunteers keep track of news through social media. In many ways, their lives have moved online.
With schools across the country closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, children’s learning environment has moved online. This new reality has increased their risk to harm from being online and remain vulnerable to violence, abuse, and exploitation.
To address this issue and empower children with the necessary knowledge, skills and resources to keep themselves safe online, UNICEF supported the Department of Youth and Sports with the Ministry of Education to orient center managers on facilitating virtual training on safe use of internet and social media. The training held from May 30 to June 20 will equip 600 children and adolescents across 20 districts to be safe online.
The three volunteers will be part of this training. Even as they do not yet know when their centre and the schools would reopen, they still wish that their youth centre was never closed.
“We used to get children here and we volunteers used to help them with the readings,” says Deki. “If the centre was open, we would be able to help our juniors access Google classroom and help them with their lessons,” says Yeshey.