Leaving no child behind: Access to education in Myanmar’s displacement camps
37 year old Bowk Lung, Robert Camp, Bhamo Township, Kachin State, struggles to make ends meet for her family. Credit: UNOCHA
It has been almost five years since armed conflict was reignited in Myanmar’s Kachin and Shan states, forcing people to flee their homes for the relative safety of displacement camps. Ongoing instability has stopped many of these people from returning home and today almost 100,000 people, many of them children, are still living in camps across the two States. Guaranteeing equal access to education for children in camps like these across the globe was high on the agenda at the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul in May.
37 year old Bowk Lung (pictured above) moved to Robert Camp for displaced people in Bhamo Township in Myanmar’s northern Kachin State five years ago after renewed fighting near her home village. As well as her own two children, she took responsibility for her nephews whose parents sent them to access the educational opportunities provided in camps in Government Controlled Areas. She says families living in Robert Camp struggle to support their children’s education while making ends meet.
“Everything is expensive here. We have to buy everything from firewood to vegetables. At home, I used to grow vegetables. When I prepared meals, I picked some and made something out of it. It was simple. Now we spend almost everything on food and do not have much left for education. I want to see my children growing up well and achieving their dreams. But I have no idea when I can go home,” she says.
Nationwide, nearly four million (one third) of Myanmar’s children are not enrolled in school. In conflict affected parts of the country, the figures are stark. Only 16 per cent of emergency-affected adolescents in Kachin and Shan States (5,000 out of the 31,000 estimated as being in need) are currently attending post-primary education according to the Education Cluster. Free, camp-based education is often only provided up to the end of primary school and children need to travel to neighboring towns to access middle and high school classes. This presents safety, logistics and financial issues for many families as their children get older. Cost is a major factor stopping children from attending class and it’s an issue the new Myanmar Government has started working to address.
“Middle and high school students need more support such as transportation or tuition fees. Education is as important as shelter, food, water and sanitation. We need to advocate for investing more in education for displaced children as displacement gets longer,” said Hkawng Sing who is the Humanitarian Program Coordinator of the Shalom Foundation, a local NGO providing humanitarian assistance to displaced people in Kachin State.
Cost isn’t the only problem. Students from areas outside Government control also find it difficult to get into government schools, colleges or universities because they don’t have all their documents or their qualifications aren’t recognized. Even if students defy the odds and manage to finish high school, their options are limited when it comes to further study and employment.
18 year old Seng Hkawng (pictured) has lived in the St. Joseph camp for displaced people in the capital of Kachin state, Myitikyina, for more than three years. Seng and seven members of her family were forced to leave their village of Mai Htawng, 200 kilometres away in Sumprabum Township, when fighting broke out, making it impossible for her to continue her education at home.
“I was in grade six when fighting started in the area where we were living. I had to drop out from school as fighting continued. We fled to Myitkyina where my family stayed in camp where I was able to go back to school,” she said.
Seng Hkawng was thankfully able to continue her education at a camp-based school supported by local NGOs but she says she does not know what to do next. Her family relies on the humanitarian assistance to survive and has little means to pay for further education.
“I feel quite demotivated. Even if I passed the exam, there is no way for me to go to the university as my family cannot afford it. I may end up working as a housemaid or other daily wages labour because there are not many job opportunities here. I want to become a nurse and I can only be what I want to be if someone supports my education.”
Send Hkawg isn’t alone. At the 2014 Census, only 10 per cent of 17 year olds had completed high school and gone on to pursue higher education in Myanmar. A lack of vocational programs for adolescents and school leavers has been identified as needing more attention. Many young people who cannot or do not want to continue their education end up working in border areas or neighbouring countries to support their families. Hkawng Sing from the NGO Shalom believes an increased focus on local job creation is critical to giving young people in Myanmar a future.
“Even when we provide vocational training, they are not able to start a business. We need to provide skills with materials, for instance, offering sewing courses and providing sewing machines. We also need to think about market and job opportunities when we provide training for adolescents,” he said.
Delivering on the global promise at the World Humanitarian Summit to leave no one behind requires a commitment to providing education for all children, no matter where they live. This includes children displaced by conflict and disaster in Myanmar. The 2016 Myanmar Humanitarian Response Plan requested US$2.7 million to assist in providing education in Kachin and northern Shan states. So far, only six per cent of this need has been met by donors. Humanitarian organizations are working to expand secondary education opportunities by engaging with donors to increase funding, as well as advocating for formal education to be made available for displaced children.