School Under a Bridge Offers Free Education to Yangon’s Poor

Beneath a Yangon flyover, child workers study for a brighter future.

Tun Tun can’t bear to see schoolchildren. The sight of a green-and-white school uniform is painful to this young flower-seller. Down under the Hledan flyover, he will even close his eyes, ignoring the risk from passing cars, when he sees another child heading off to school.

Tun Tun (not his real name) dropped out of school when he was 12 years old. He has been selling flowers for a living for the past two years, since his father died. He lives under the flyover, along with about 10 other youngsters selling flowers, drinking water and boiled eggs.

Myanmar has been trying to open up its education system since 2011, making it more accessible to children. But still almost 3 million school-age children drop out, according to the Ministry of Education. The International Labour Organization says 1.3 million children in Myanmar are already in work.

UNESCO says every country should educate its children to the 12-year basic education level. But it’s just too expensive for many poor families and for street children.

A middle-aged flower-seller told The Myanmar Times, “My 12-year-old attended fourth standard and my daughter, who is seven, attended first standard. But I can’t send them to school. I’m struggling to make K5000 a day to feed the three of us. I lost their birth certificates, and it will cost me K10,000 to replace them. I can’t afford that.”

Enrolment fees for state school may have been abolished, but it costs K3000-K5000 for school expenses per child per month. Says one mother, “Documents, backpacks, lunchboxes, even an umbrella – I have to buy all these things. They want pocket money for snacks like all the other children. The time it takes to drop them off and pick them up, when I have to work – it all adds up.”

Voluntary teaching organisations have sprung up to help fill some of the gaps, with one in particular offering lessons in a surprising location: under the Hledan flyover.

Together Hands (Twe Latt Myar) offers classes to a dozen or so children under the flyover every evening, after the working day is over.

With no walls, the railings of the bridge serve as the only boundary between them and the cars racing by. But for Tun Tun and his fellow students – mostly child labourers and children who live under the flyover – it offers the chance of an education.

As the sound of traffic thunders overhead, scores of children hunch over pieces of paper, copying from a small board fastened to the railings.

Volunteer teacher Ko Swan Nyi Nyi said, “We teach them to read, and we instil discipline and moral character. We give children flowers to sell so that they don’t need to beg.” But, he said, some children beg because their parents or controllers force them to.

Sonne Social Organisation, supported by donations from Germany, helps street children and those who live in illegal squats at the three daycare centres it has opened in Yangon since 2014. Between 9am and 2pm, volunteers teach nearly 120 children, who receive food and healthcare.

The children learn enough about personal hygiene to teach other family members, as well as receiving some training in sewing, furniture-making and motorcycle repairs.

“We persuade them to come to the centres when they are hungry and need to rest. The most important thing is they come, even if it’s just to rest. We count it a success if we can teach them just a little when they come for the food. We persuade them to take an interest in education because they have to work to earn money. They are learning not just lessons but also a way of life,” said Ma Cho Thandar Win, Sonne’s assistant project manager.

The “myME project”, Myanmar Mobile Education, is a well-known volunteer group that works with children who move from the countryside to the cities and find work in teashops and restaurants, or operate trishaws or repair dynamos. Since 2014, the project has already helped 6500 children, mostly aged 13 or 14, offering a three-year child-centred curriculum.

There are five six-month stages in the myME project, following which the organisation tries to offer its “graduates” job opportunities.

“Children of nine or 10 should be at home with their parents and families. But these children have been abandoned by their parents or sent to cities to work. That kind of experience is terribly damaging for a child, not least because they have such long working hours,” said U Tin Maung Maung Aye, director of the Myanmar Mobile Education project.

But while project volunteers do what they can to offer street children the best education, there is little they can do to counteract the after-effects of their way of life, particularly the psychological stresses.

“We can only do so much,” he said. “We try to offer the children a better environment and to combat poverty as much as we can, but you have to be realistic. We’d like to see them receiving much more benefits, but we need government help to accomplish that,” he said.

Government schools started to introduce free and compulsory primary education in 2011-12, and free middle-school education was adopted in 2014-15. It was not until last academic year that the government provided free education from primary to high-school level.

Non-formal primary education was launched in 2008-09 for children aged between 10 and 14 years old who had dropped out or who never accessed education for whatever reason. Non-formal middle-school education began in the 2015-16 academic year.

Although educational charities are working with street children and children who had to drop out of school, they have yet to connect with non-formal school education in a comprehensive effort to enable all children to go to school.

Moreover, the non-formal primary system has managed to help only about 60,000 youngsters over the past eight years, a small proportion of those in need.

In 2008, non-formal primary education was available in only five townships, but is now offered in 105 townships. However, though about 10,000 students a year access non-formal primary education, the number of students who then go on to non-formal middle school education is only half that, and the number attending high school is only 27.

“Even 10,000 a year is too few,” said U Tin Nyo, vice chair of Myanmar Literacy Resource Centre.

The government has set up the Alternative Education Department to help children study anytime and anywhere, in line with an amended national education law proposed by the education ministry, encouraging young students to access education from school or non-formal education programs, or self-study.

“Our department will give priority to children who had to drop out of school, those who have no permanent home or community, those from ethnic minority families, the disabled, and those from conflict zones so that they can access suitable and high-quality education,” said U Khaing Mye, director general of the department.

Section 31(b) of the National Education Law says the ministry shall help children to pursue their studies through non-formal educational programs and to complete their education even if they are forced to drop out of school. Section 29(g) of the amended law requires that students forced out of education for various reasons must be offered access to a suitable education.

Education experts say schooling forms the basis of the country’s future, helping children to avoid crime and want and preparing them for an increasingly complex work environment, driven by foreign investment, in which skilled labour is essential. The higher pay earned by skilled workers will also feed into the country’s tax revenues.

Government officials say all ministries must cooperate in improving levels of education, health and social security in an uncertain environment marked by the threat of economic downturn, food shortages, unemployment and poverty.

“The number of children who have to drop out of school and live on the street is relatively high. Most of them don’t want to go back to school. Non-formal education programs can support them,” said U Tin Nyo said.

“I don’t want to be a doctor or an engineer, but I’d like to be an aeroplane mechanic,” said young Tun Tun. “My teacher told me that I could do what I wanted if I studied enough. But I don’t know if I still can.”


Source: The Myanmar Times

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