Rakhine State, located on the western coast of Myanmar, has been witness to ongoing conflict and instability since 2012, which re-escalated in August 2017. This has caused over 700,000 of Rakhine State’s ethnic Muslim population to flee into neighboring Bangladesh.
Since January 2019, the region has seen a resumption of ethnic armed conflict between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army, an insurgent group comprised of mostly ethnic Rakhine Buddhists. This has led to a protracted period of armed conflict in northern and central Rakhine with sporadic incidents of intense fighting which has caused the additional internal displacement of more than 60,000 people.
Since 2014, Plan International Myanmar has been responding to the conflict, including through programmes to keep children safe in 27 conflict-affected villages in Rakhine state.
Child friendly spaces
Aside from case management, psychosocial support and case referral systems, one of the key elements of the project has been the establishment and support of both dedicated and mobile child friendly spaces.
The child friendly spaces provide a safe and protected place for children to play and engage in regularly organised recreational activities, which often include sports (badminton and football) as well as creative and imaginative activities (singing, dancing, painting).
These activities allow staff and volunteers to discuss with children and raise their awareness of child protection and their rights. They also strive to build life skills, including strengthening communication and ways of resolving conflict.
Mg Kaung Myat, a 15-year-old 9th Grade student who attends a child friendly space, shared how he put these lessons into practice. “I will talk with other children not to fight or bully each other, recently I stopped 2 children from fighting after they got mad at each other during a football game,” he said.
Parents and caregivers often bring their children to the child friendly space, which allows for informal discussions with them about children’s protection and rights. Regular awareness raising sessions are also organised in each village, with an emphasis placed on non-violent forms of communication and parenting. These sessions are often appropriate for children who are also encouraged to take a leading role.
Sporadic incidents of fighting in Rakhine State often cause travel restrictions for NGOs in the region. This means Plan International staff members are not always able to conduct activities themselves. In these cases, the support of volunteers is more crucial than ever for the implementation of the project.
Volunteers play key role
Ma Lone May, a 29-year-old mother, has been a volunteer for over 2 years in her community. “I’ve learned a lot from Plan International’s project, I always take a positive approach with my child now and I encourage other parents to do the same,” she said.
“I have lived in this village for over 20 years and I have noticed a big improvement in the way parents treat their children since the project started.
“At first, the parents did not always respond positively when I explained to them about child protection. I no longer have hesitation when I am speaking in public at the meetings and the parents listen and accept the information I share to them.
“I have really found my personal satisfaction through speaking about child protection with the other parents in my village.”
Law change boosts children’s rights
In July 2019, the government of Myanmar enacted a new law which was a significant improvement and more closely aligns national policies with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Under the new law, the official age of a child is now defined as anyone under the age of 18.
Plan International staff and community volunteers are ensuring that communities are aware of and understand the new law. A perfect example was shared by Ma Shwe Nang San, a 17-year-old girl who greatly enjoys attending the child friendly space in her village. “As my body is changing, my mother was discouraging me from attending the child friendly space, yelling “You are no longer a child!” However, I learned from the child rights session that everyone under 18 is still a child.
“When I told my mother this, she no longer objected, which I guess means that she agrees!”