Poverty is the main factor denying girls access to basic education, silencing their voices and making them vulnerable to sexual exploitation and trafficking.
Many children in Myanmar cannot afford to go to school. While the public schools are meant to be free, many families cannot afford to send their children to school. Families have to still pay for uniforms, books and other fees.
Buddhist religious schools are the second largest institution providing basic education to children of the poorest families. Nevertheless, school dropout rates are getting higher and higher every year even though all Buddhist monastic schools provide free education.
Girls have to drop out of school earlier because they have to work to pay back the debts of their families. Also, they have to look after their siblings as girls have traditionally been working in the home, at the expense of education. They don’t know that they have a right to education.
Due to a lack of education, most of the girls end up working in teashops, restaurants or as street vendors. Many are physically and psychologically abused by their employers or shop owners. Even though people around them know that they have been victims of abuse and exploitation, no one seems to care or try to help them. They lose self-esteem and develop severe psychological problems. Eventually, these kinds of problems force them further into marginalization. It is this combination that makes women vulnerable to trafficking and sexual exploitation.
I met one girl who had to work and feed her family. She was only 9 years old and came from a small village. Her family migrated due to an economic crisis in their region. When they arrived in Yangon they had to pay 30000 Myanmar kyat’s (27$) per month for a hut. The girl had to abandon school for her family. Her parents were unemployed and she had to take responsibility for her family. She collected spoiled potatoes and onions in the market to sell in her neighborhood. Sometimes she had to collect plastic in dumpsites for extra money. One day police arrested her and the officers beat her. The police told her she had to pay 5000 Myanmar Kyat’s (4.9)$. Since her parents couldn’t afford to pay, she had to spend a night in jail which was very traumatic for her. She told me that “I want to be an educated person one day. I want to escape from this kind of poverty”.
I wonder: “Who should take responsibility for these young girls? How should we ensure their rights and protection?”
In Myanmar, community based organizations are trying to address violence against women. They try to advocate on behalf of women to the community and government sector. For example, one women’s organization called Colorful Girls is a community-based leadership organization dedicated exclusively to girls ages 12-17. Colorful Girls’ programs help girls to avoid the pitfalls of trafficking, dangerous labor and other forms of violence by increasing girls’ ability to make strategic life-decisions, generate choices and exercise bargaining power. This kind of real empowerment creates opportunities for girls to better cope with their difficulties, envision alternatives and take leadership into their own hands.
There is much we can do to help girls in Myanmar. International solidarity, investment and capacity-building is key in giving the girls the tools and skills they need to improve their lives. Women’s organizations need to be better supported as they have the solutions and strategies to address these issues. We need strong coalitions between survivors of sexual violence and women leaders to advocate to policy-makers and make governments accountable.
Su Thet San was one of the Nobel Women’s Initiative Sister-to-Sister Mentorship Program participants in 2013. She has just returned home after spending six weeks in Ottawa with our team and two other young women’s rights activists from Guatemala and Liberia.