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Education continues in troubled Rakhine

(Photo: UNICEF)

September 21, 2015

Unicef, WFP, & many states back schools in Myanmar's west

THU ZAR MOE, 12, is one of the brightest girls in her class, but she can no longer go to school due to the problems in her hometown of Rakhine. 

In 2012, her family fled their home in Ahnauk San Pya village leaving behind a successful business and ending up dependent on food aid from the World Food Programme (WFP).

Now, Thu Zar lives with her father and four siblings at Thea Chaung displacement camp, near Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine state. 

"I preferred living in the village," Thu Zar said. "We lived close to school, and I could go every day. My father owned a mechanic workshop and made a good living. My mother was still alive. Our life was much better then."

Thu Zar was speaking as she sat with her father, Hla Kyaw, on the porch of their small house, built with wood, bamboo and part of an old tent from UNHCR, the UN refugee agency. It is one of many such homes, tightly packed together. It's raining, and the ground between the houses is wet and muddy.

"I still do some mechanic work here," said her father. "I earn up to 4,000 Kyats a day [about Bt100]. But it's not enough to live on or pay for health care. We get handouts of rice, beans and oil from WFP. We're safe here, but we cannot travel beyond the market. I don't think we will ever be able to go back home."

Without access to health care, his wife passed away.

Rakhine State, one of the poorest and most isolated parts of Myanmar, suffers from complex humanitarian problems and unaddressed development issues. Already marked by a high rate of poverty, the socioeconomic situation in Rakhine further deteriorated in 2012 following the outbreak of violence between majority Buddhist and minority Muslim communities.

The floods that hit Myanmar in July and August this year have exacerbated these problems, with no regard for the lines that have divided these communities for so long. Children from both communities - in camps and not in camps - have felt the impact on their education.

Luckily for Thu Zar, there is a way for her to continue her studies. She attends non-formal primary education at a temporary learning centre in the camp, supported by Unicef (the United Nations Children's Fund) and run by the Lutheran World Federation.

The camp is home to 115 children who study at the learning centre. Last year, the top students got a chance to go to a new government-run middle school near the camp. Thu Zar's teacher says that she is also likely to go.

"She learns very well," he says. "I've seen her improve since coming here. She can already speak Rakhine in addition to her mother tongue, and is now learning Burmese and English."

Thu Zar rarely misses an opportunity to learn. "I go to the learning centre in the morning, and in the afternoon I read my books and help with the housework," she says. "I like learning languages. If I can speak and write English well, it will be very useful in life."

Although she has ambitions for her future, Thu Zar also assumes that she will still be living in the camp. "When I grow up I would like to work for WFP, because they give food to other people," she says.

In a village not far from the camp, 11-year-old Hlaing Hlaing Oo's family struggles with poverty. Conditions in their community are poor, and many children and families have some of their basic needs unmet, with limited opportunities to earn a living.

A few years ago, Hlaing's parents left Myanmar to work in neighbouring Thailand as migrant labourers. They left Hlaing and her younger brother with relatives in Yangon. When the family returned to Sittwe, they did not have the right paperwork to get Hlaing into the local school.

Unable to attend regular classes, Hlaing joined a non-formal primary education scheme at Mingan School, supported by Unicef and run by Myanmar Literacy Resource Centres. Classes are held every day in the evenings for out-of-school children, including those who work during the day to support their families or stay at home to take care of younger siblings.

Hlaing completed the programme, and this term she entered formal school as a Grade 6 student.

On the first week of term, the school is full of noisy, excited children in white and green uniforms. Most wear the traditional Burmese longyi skirt. 

"I'm very happy to be back at school," Hlaing says. "My favourite subject is Burmese studies. I prefer coming during the day with the other children. My friend Sen Sen is in the same class as me. When I grow up, I want to be an engineer and construct new buildings."

Although they belong to two different communities and live in different circumstances, both Thu Zar and Hlaing have similar hopes and dreams, and both see the value of education for their future. Education has the power to build on these shared dreams, to bring children together to build a joint future for Rakhine State.

Unicef, with support from Australia, Denmark, the European Union, Japan, Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States, is working to ensure that all children in Rakhine State can develop to their full potential.

As well as the non-formal education provided to Thu Zar and Hlaing, Unicef also supports life skills education for adolescents, provides school backpacks to all Grade 1 students in eight townships in Rakhine State, and stationery for Grades 1 to 5. 

"Unicef has worked in Myanmar for 60 years," says Cliff Meyers, Unicef Myanmar's chief of education. 

"We're now working with the government and civil society to ensure that all children in Rakhine State can access education, regardless of their ethnicity, religion or legal status."

The future of Rakhine lies in Thu Zar and Hlaing's common dreams, as well as the aspirations of their supportive fathers. Thu Zar's father is pleased that she is continuing her education. 

"I really want my daughter to be educated," he says. "She's so smart. I'm very proud of her."

Hlaing's father echoes the same sentiment. "My main hope for my daughter's future is that she gets a good education," he says.

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