For the Kids on Burma’s Streets, a Chance for Education

By Nyein Nyein 30 December 2013

RANGOON – Educating street kids is not an easy task. The kids are often more interested in making their own money than sitting in a classroom, according to one educator who is working to change that.

Decades of poverty in Burma, and the ignorance of many parents about their responsibilities to their children, mean that many youngsters nationwide stay away from formal schooling.

“The poverty brings parents down to a situation where they put less emphasis on their children’s education,” said Aye Aye Thin, a former tutor at the Yangon Education University.

Aye Aye Thin is now providing non-formal education (NFE) classes for street kids and heads a Rangoon-based educational program known as Scholarships for Street Kids, or SSK, which helps with literacy and vocational training.

Initiated under a different name in 2007, SSK has been supporting education for impoverished children or child laborers on the street.

But SSK’s regular NFE classes began only in 2011 for children who have never been enrolled in school, or who have dropped out to work.

Classes run for three hours a day, five days a week. Some students in the classes are garbage collectors when they are not studying.

Aye Aye Thin said that before enrolling them in classes, she and her teachers speak to children working on the street to assess their needs.

“They [street kids] are different from the kids in poor families, as the street kids have to struggle for their survival,” she said. “The work they do is too hard at their age.”

The educator said the organization does not work only on literacy development, but they also “help street kids with their behavior changes as they are mentally affected.”

In towns across Burma, children work as manual laborers, vendors, tea-shop waiters, garbage collectors or domestic workers.

When asked why they are working, the skinny boys or girls generally give the same answer: they work to support their families back home. Their parents may be unemployed, or the family may have split up, leaving them indigent.

Many of these children are among the 1 million students nationwide who have dropped out of public school after primary level—aged 6-10—according to official figures from 2012.

Burma was recently ranked second in the World Giving Index—the Burmese receiving praise for their willingness to volunteer, to help strangers and to give donations—but many are still ignorant of the issue of child labor. For instance, ordinary customers at teashops or restaurants would not hesitate to receive services from the young or teenage waiters.

Much of the giving in Burma goes to religious institutions, and monastic education often receives help from philanthropists. But SSK is one of the only groups led by education experts and focusing on street kids.

Thirteen classes have been running, in North Okkalapa, Mingaladon, Intai, Hleku, and Pegu, since June, with nine teachers in all. But the teacher said the number of the kids attending classes has decreased since then from 140 kids aged 9-14 to 110 children.

Aye Aye Thin said many of the children were under pressure to make money for their families, who are uneducated and do not see the need to educate their offspring.

“A student told me that he must earn at least 5,000 kyat a day for his five family members’ survival,” Aye Aye Thin said. Trash collectors, whose ages normally are 9-10, make between 2,000 kyat and 5,000 kyat per day, about US$2-$4.

“We can’t pay them such amounts, as well as give them knowledge,” she said. “We also meet with the parents regularly, and talk to them to help their children as many parents do not pay much attention to the children’s literacy.”

SSK has expanded its activities to practical vocational training, as well as parental education. Tailoring courses, for example, are provided for girls in their early teens.

Aside from parental neglect, the kids struggle to concentrate on literacy, and educators also face a lack of collaboration from authorities.

Despite the country moving forward to the democratic transition, “people’s mindsets have not changed; some local authorities dare not to work together with us,” said Aye Aye Thin.