Living in peace: Community engagement for child protection in Myanmar’s Rakhine State

How UNICEF and Community and Family Services International (CFSI) are shielding children from inter-communal conflict, discrimination and poverty

By Mariana Palavra
Saw Myat Thu in her town of Maungdaw.
UNICEF Myanmar/2016/Palavra
12 October 2016

Rakhine State in western Myanmar has seen years of ethnic tensions, causing death, displacement and loss of livelihoods.

MAUNGDAW, Rakhine State, Myanmar, 12 October 2016 – When Saw Myat Thu was 20 years old, she discovered a new passion. Done with school and eager to help her family, she took a job as an assistant teacher at an Early Childhood Development (ECD) centre in Maungdaw, Myanmar. To her surprise, she loved it.

“I used to read poems to children, sing songs, help them draw and paint, tell them stories, teach them how to wash hands and brush teeth,” she recalls. “I loved taking care of children. It was a great environment and I was happy.”

The ECD centre was run by the NGO Community and Family Services International (CFSI), and was located in Rakhine State – an area that has seen years of ethnic tensions. Saw Myat Thu taught at the centre twice – first with Buddhist children, and then with a mixed class attended by Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus. But to the children, she says, there were no differences.

“It was a similar environment, it was the same dynamic. They are all children playing together with no fighting.”

Now, two years after her first class, Saw Myat Thu will soon work with children again. She was one of the first assistant facilitators recruited to work in one of the Child Friendly Spaces (CFS) formed by CFSI, a project supported by UNICEF with financial assistance from the European Commission - Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection (ECHO).

She and the other facilitators received specialized training, which included life skills, HIV prevention, risks faced by adolescents, and training of trainers to help build capacity in the community. 

“The religion of the communities I am working with doesn’t make any difference to me. Whatever group I am given, I will be happy,” she says.

Strong partnership

The CFS project is part of a larger ECHO-funded programme carried out by UNICEF and CFSI. The organizations are working together to strengthen child protection in three townships in the northern part of Rakhine State: Maungdaw, Buthidaung and Rathedaung. With the overall goal of preventing the abuse, exploitation and neglect of all children living in these townships, the programme will establish strong community-based child protection mechanisms and public awareness.

“The main child protection concerns in northern part of Rakhine stem from poverty, discrimination and inter-communal conflict,” says Aaron Greenberg, Child Protection Chief at UNICEF Myanmar. The area is also prone to natural disasters, such as the 2015 Cyclone Komen that affected 15 per cent of the total population in these three townships.

“Children still feel the effects of inter-communal tensions and dedicated support is still very much needed,” Mr. Greenberg adds. Adolescents, too, have limited access to youth services, which can lead to child marriage, child labour, risky migration and conflict with the law.

The UNICEF-CFSI programme will work closely with communities, including women leaders, to identify protection concerns and implement appropriate responses. The programme also provides case management services to child survivors of abuse, exploitation and neglect. Another key part of the programme is establishing safe spaces, like the one where Saw Myat Thu will work. These spaces provide physical, psychosocial, and cognitive protection to children while teaching essential life skills.

The activities will be inclusive of the affected populations across the community divides, and will focus particularly on the vulnerable – those girls and boys affected by conflict, the floods, migration and trafficking. More than 140,000 people will directly or indirectly benefit from the year-long project.

UNICEF Myanmar/2016/Palavra

Ebrahim with children from his community. “Every day, I encourage children to come to school, create a happy environment for them, and provide health and hygiene awareness activities,” he says. “I wish that all children can go to school.”

Community forum

One of the ways the programme is working with communities is through child protection forums. These platforms encourage participants to identify the most significant child protection issues affecting their community, particularly the impact of inter-communal violence, child trafficking, sexual abuse, parental neglect and vulnerability to migration.
Ebrahim is a volunteer teacher in a post-primary school in Phar Wet Chaung village. Since he was a member of the child protection group from his community, he was chosen to participate in the village’s forum. He is one of 15 participants, including community and religious leaders, youth, children and single mothers.

“As a teacher, I am in a privileged position as I can make a difference by identifying child protection issues and trying to find solutions, together with other community members,” Ebrahim says.

According to the village leaders, since these child protection mechanisms started to be implemented, a few things have already changed in some communities, namely an increase in the participation of children and a decrease in cases of corporal punishment.

Living in peace 

Despite the challenges, both Ebrahim and Saw Myat Thu believe in a brighter future for their community.

Saw Myat Thu recently learned that she will be placed in a mixed Child Friendly Space for adolescents from different religious backgrounds. She is ready for the new challenge.

“Children between 3 and 5 don’t look at each other differently, but adolescents may be already influenced by society,” she says. “So, we need to focus more on peace messages so that adolescents can contribute to peacebuilding.”

She adds, “Wouldn’t it be so good if we could all live in peace?”