School Hits the Road for Burmese Teashop Boys

education, Myanmar, Burma, child labor, Myanmar Mobile Education Project, teashop, Rangoon, Yangon

After a long day of work, boys at a teashop in Rangoon listen to an English lesson by the Myanmar Mobile Education Project. (Photo: Sai Zaw / The Irrawaddy)

RANGOON—Kauk Ya has to wake up at 4:30 every morning. While other children his age wait for school buses to arrive, this 13-year old boy starts working, taking orders from customers at a teashop in Rangoon.

“I used to go to school, until I finished sixth grade,” he says.

Born the middle son of a toddy palm climber in Upper Burma, he left the classroom when he was 11 years old because his parents were too poor to support their six children. He found a job at the teashop, sending back every kyat he earned to his family. He also all but gave up on his dream to go to university—at least until recently, when a chance to learn came to him, on a bus.

“Our mission is simple: When children can’t go to schools, we bring schools to them,” says Grace Swe Zin Htike, country director of the Myanmar Mobile Education Project (myME), a program that provides non-formal education via mobile classrooms to children in Burma who are forced to leave school to support their families.

The interiors of the buses are converted into mobile classrooms, where children have an opportunity to learn basic literacy in Burmese and English, as well as math, computer skills and critical thinking skills through innovative, interactive instruction.

Since last month one of the buses has been driving the streets of Rangoon as part of a six-month pilot project, opening its doors to 120 teashop boys like Kauk Ya who want to resume their studies. Classes meet six days weekly for two hours per session, in the evenings after the boys finish work.

“We started with teashops because you can mostly find primary and middle school dropouts working there,” says Tim Aye Hardy, director of the project.

He says the mobile education project will be expanded later to include four levels of classes, from beginner to advanced, to prepare students for either formal education or vocational training in the future.

“We are just shedding light on what needs to be done and filling in the gap: providing education to some working children who can’t go to school. But to address the entire problem, only the government can take care of it,” he says.

Burmese culture traditionally places a high value on education, and net school enrollment rates are at over 80 percent for both boys and girls. But the drop-out rate is also high. According to Unicef, less than 55 percent of children who enroll actually complete the primary cycle.

Over five decades of dictatorship, Burma’s government invested very little in the education system. While tuition is free at government’s primary schools, parents have long been required to pay for books, school building repairs and even furniture for classrooms—expenses which often present an insurmountable financial obstacle for impoverished households.

Facing tough economic conditions under the former regime, families around the country and especially in rural areas have frequently been forced to send their young boys to cities or towns for jobs in teashops or factories. Many girls also drop out but typically help with chores at home, rather than working at teashops.

This situation has not been greatly alleviated by education reforms initiated under President Thein Sein since 2011; although his administration has called for free compulsory primary education, offering free textbooks and school supplies to students at the primary level, a lack of income for families means that many children are still required to work.

Aung Myo Min, a human rights activist and director of Equality Myanmar, says the mobile education project will not only promote children’s rights, but also hopefully help to identify some of the root causes of child labor in the country.

“The project is an oasis for working children who cannot go to school,” he says, adding, “They should consider a long-term strategy to eliminate child labor. Otherwise, the project will be caught up in an endless cycle.”

Just minutes after one of the buses arrived at a teashop in Rangoon on a recent evening, 65 child employees hopped on board. Despite a long day of working as waiters, cooks and tea makers, known locally as a phyaw saya (brewmasters), they seemed enthusiastic about the opportunity to practice writing the English alphabet.  Others sat around tables inside the teashop, paying attention to the lesson, and when their teacher pointed at a picture on a whiteboard, the students correctly identified it in unison as a “map.”

“I don’t feel tired. Instead, I am happy because I want to learn,” says Kauk Ya, the 13-year-old son of the toddy palm climber, while completing an in-class exercise on building simple sentences in English. “I’m just grabbing my chance to learn now, because I want to be a university graduate to get a better job.”

7 Responses to School Hits the Road for Burmese Teashop Boys

  1. Government has tons and tons of money for needless and countless soldiers. Why can’t government introduce free breakfast and lunch for students from Primary level, Middle level and High School level. “No child left behind” was President George W Bush policy for American kids. It may not be perfectly successful but somewhat successful. Thein Sein has no proper vision for the future of Myanmar and the people at all. Poverty was introduced in Myanmar by military dictatorship. Thein Sein may not know how to fix our problems(even though military dictators were good to cause countless problems including poverty), however, Suu Kyi is not the only one who can fix. There are plenty of people with great ideas and education who can fix our problems and hardship. Ma Ma Grace Swe Zin Htike deserves our salute and we all salute her. Keep your good deed and good job. It is more blessed in giving than gaining.

  2. Congrats Swe Zin Htike…….it is up to each and everyone to take responsibility in whatever he or she can help…….I remember Swe Zin from the Institute of Economics….I read her final paper and did her vive voce ….she has become a credit to her alma mater from what I have been hearing about her . Good for you….keep up the great work.
    Khin Aye Than

  3. What a nice project. Who knows, there is a hidden talents among these youths, that can lead the country in future. What Myanmar needs, at the moment is an informal education system that can link up with the tertiary education system that can provide applicable knowledge and skills. At present, Myanmar university education cannot produce graduates that are useful for country development. We need a generation with better English, better vocational skills, and better thinking abilities. In Australia, there is something call TAFE ( Technical and further education). These institution can provide, higher diploma level education that train a young high school graduate on varieties of vocational skills and these diploma program should be accessible through non formal education system like this when they fulfill the entry requirement. I think, we should use models like this to build a better future for our country.

  4. Congratulations, Tim Aye Hardy.


  5. Great work! Our deep respect and best wishes are with the teashop workers, program staff and supporters of the program. It would be great to see more of such effort to give opportunities to working youth (boys as well as girls) improve their knowledge, skills and potential to do better for themselves and their families.

  6. Should we be proud we are having to go to this extent to extend education to our nation’s little generation?
    Shame on our governing authorities who put our people in this pathetic predicament. When will we ever ever get opportunities that governments in other countries provide to their peoples?
    While benevolent people undertaking such projects are no doubt honourable and we are thankful, why do we have to face indignation in consolation to real solutions such as alleviation of poverty through proper education? Is it all too much to ask for?

  7. I like this idea.That is useful E.D.U
    My dream was out; I hope successful.

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