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Reducing Myanmar’s Child Workforce, One Lesson at a Time

What happens when you give "street kids" a scholarship that's a lot like a monthly salary? #projectliteracy

Aye Aye Thinn, center, instructing S4SK students in Hlegu, Myanmar. Photo by Sabrina Toppa.

In Hlegu, Myanmar, young Myant Min Myint was bent on the ground, watching electrical wires shake with incandescent sparks. Next to him, his father worked deliberately, twisting electrical wires from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. While other children in rural Myanmar attended school, Myant would assist his electrician father around the district. At 12 years of age, Myant was performing menial tasks in exchange for 5,000 kyat (almost $4) per day.

One day, Myant’s father had an accident that required major surgery. Afterward, he was unable to lift heavy objects. Myant’s household had lost its primary breadwinner. So without informing anyone in his family, Myant joined a tea shop as a child laborer.

Approximately 4.4 million children in Myanmar like Myant are currently out of school. Fully 20 percent of Myanmar’s youth ages 10-18 participate in the labor force, according to Kelly Stevenson, country director for Save the Children. Child labor prevails as an accepted social practice in Myanmar, often featuring hazardous, low-wage working conditions in the country’s railroads, tea shops, and other industries.

But this year, children like Myant, with the help of the Myanmar-based NGO Scholarships for Street Kids (S4SK), have left work and enrolled in an informal school. In Hlegu Township, where Myant attends classes offered by S4SK, Buddhist alms-collecting buses sweep the street, acquiring donations for Buddhist monasteries, which are the country’s sole source of free education. Here, up to 300,000 indigent pupils file into the crumbling edifices, attired in pink or saffron monk uniforms.

S4SK offers another classroom option for indigent schoolchildren ages 8 through 15: These scholarships essentially provide kids with a monthly salary for school attendance. In the past few months alone, S4SK has helped more than 300 out-of-school children participate in nonformal courses, where they can build basic literacy skills, says program director Aye Aye Thinn. Many of these children are the breadwinners of their families, their labor a lifeline for destitute rural households on the outskirts of Yangon, where S4SK primarily operates. Recognizing that lost labor equals lost income, S4SK offers remuneration to reduce a parent’s reliance on their offspring’s labor.

Countrywide, S4SK conducts two types of classes: one-hour mobile classes and three-hour classes in community centers. The mobile classes, serving seasonal workers, do not provide a salary but do offer convenient, on-the-go lessons for children locked into the itinerant life of a transient labor force. The stationary classes, which provide lessons in English, Burmese, math, and other subjects, give children access to a basic education while still allowing them the time to work after school if necessary. Although S4SK aims to wean families off child labor entirely, it recognizes the exigencies of rural poverty, and understands that many families cannot afford to lose a child’s earnings.

“They are children, but their life is not that of a child,” Thinn says. “It is rough. Some parents are in poor health or don’t take responsibility for their children—we try to train parents and provide family support.”

Over a cycle of two to three years, S4SK aims to raise students to an educational standard that affords them access to better opportunities. Most child laborers start as apprentices in low-wage family occupations, and remain unprepared for other skills-based professions such as carpentry, tailoring, and industrial mechanics. For this reason, S4SK links with vocational centers, providing a conduit to improved job prospects. Most recently, in the southern city of Bago, S4SK sent eight girls to sewing and tailoring classes, to sharpen their skills beyond their studies in English, Burmese, and math.

Ultimately, S4SK understands that academic achievement hinges on parental support. To this end, the organization invites parents to parent education meetings once a month. There, parent-led stories and discussions take center stage, as S4SK draws out opinions on the value of good hygiene, financial planning, and education. During these meetings, S4SK also focuses on how to manage income and develop financial literacy. It’s not enough to give parents their children’s lost earnings. “They need to know how to manage income,” project manager Thinn Thinn Sein says. "If a student is absent, he does not receive any money for that day." At its most basic level, S4SK hopes the income-attendance model minimizes the likelihood of parents’ re-enrolling schoolchildren in menial labor.

Given menial work’s emphasis on physical over mental labor, program director Thinn says that most children cannot transform their current work into a meaningful career. For this reason, active learning methods are the cornerstone of the S4SK curriculum. The organization deploys games, art, and teamwork to enliven the classroom environment. Tailored to students without prior schooling, the instruction is energized by classwork that doesn’t feel like “work.” Students receive assessments to mark their growth, with most teachers reporting that many formerly illiterate children transform into independent, engaged learners who can think for themselves. Among the program’s victories are students who have transitioned out of the informal school system and into formal or vocational schools.

“But some parents are really hard to change,” says schoolteacher Nwe Ni Win, 30, after teaching a lesson. “Often, this generation is poor due to the parents’ lack of education. The next generation will face a worse outcome if there is no change.”

To prevent this outcome, teachers use the same monthly meetings to address the most common issues affecting destitute families: debt, addiction, illness, and inadequate housing. The social welfare component allows S4SK to lower the probability of a family depending wholly on a child for its earnings.

“Sometimes we cannot completely persuade most parents, or cover all of their [household] expenses. We ask parents, ‘Please wait for some years, then we can see the fruits of this work,’” Thinn says.

A few months ago, for example, 14-year-old Sandar Lin was pouring soda into bottles in a factory for 20 hours a day, earning 35,000 kyat ($27) a month. Then Sandar and her twin sister War War were unexpectedly left orphaned, their parents having succumbed to a heart attack and liver disease, and school expenses were suddenly out of the question. The children became the sole responsibility of an elder sister in her 30s, Thae Phyu, who was saddled with debt. To help the family survive, Thae Phyu pressured her out-of-school sisters to continue working in the factories. For the Lin children, a life of enduring penury became one of forced labor, until S4SK stepped in to stage an education intervention—even offering to pay off some of the family’s debt.

Sandar Lin in class today. Tailored to students without prior schooling, S4SK’s instruction is energized by classwork that doesn’t feel like “work.” Photo by Sabrina Toppa.

S4SK eventually struck a deal with the elder sister, offering to shelter the two children in the Hlegu community school. While at home, it was impossible for the Lin girls to experience a true childhood free from labor, with factory schedules robbing children of school and leisure time. At S4SK, Sandar and War War discovered a love for soccer alongside an appreciation for English and Burmese lessons.

“We’re going to school for our future,” Sandar says, balancing a soccer ball on her head.

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