Displaced Mothers Struggle to Feed Their Children

By Moe Myint 16 August 2017

SADUNG, Kachin State — On a foggy evening, a few women trundled along the slope of a valley, grasping bundles of green leaves, and carrying their babies in slings on their backs. They entered a compound of dozens of bamboo homes roofed with blue tarpaulin, some displaying the UNHCR logo, in the backdrop of paddy fields lush with rain and leading to mountains.

The women walked inside homes venting smoky waves, a sign that dinner was cooking in the camp for internally displaced people (IDPs). Based in Sadung town in Waingmaw Township, Kachin State, about 70 kilometers from the Kachin capital of Myitkyina, the camp was established with 408 people in early 2017.

It was the result of renewed fighting between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Myanmar Army, or Tatmadaw, near Zai Awng camp, which forced thousands of IDPs to flee to Waingmaw and Myitkyina townships.

Known locally as an area of displaced Lisu people, an ethnic minority of several hundreds of thousands living mostly in Kachin and Shan states, the residents of the camp often gather edible plants from nearby highlands, as international aid agencies in 2016 changed their ration schemes to provide cash rather than food.

Children at Sadung IDP camp in Kachin State. (Photo: Moe Myint / The Irrawaddy)

The change has proved crippling for IDPs such as Daw Wo Mi, a Lisu mother-of-five who is fluent in Burmese, unlike most other people in the camp who only speak the Lisu language.

“I cannot afford to cook meat for my children very often in one month. Our table is mostly decorated with a couple of side dishes,” she said.

Cash Rations

According to the most recent UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) estimation, nearly 100,000 IDPs have been sheltering for up to six years across Kachin State and along the border of neighboring Shan State since the collapse of a 17-year ceasefire agreement between the Tatmadaw and the KIA in 2011.

IDPs make up 9 percent of jade-rich Kachin, and among this figure, 70 percent are women. Many of them—including residents of the Sadung camp—have little hope of returning home and reclaiming the lives they had before the conflict.

From 2011 to early 2016, international aid agencies provided rice bags for Kachin IDPs, but in March 2016, the World Food Programme (WFP) replaced the food with cash, because of the refugee crises in the Middle East and “donor fatigue,” according to Hka Li, the director of the humanitarian department in the Kachin Baptist Convention (KBC).

U Thein Soe, committee member of Thagara IDP camp in Waingmaw Township, told The Irrawaddy that each beneficiary used to receive 13.5 kilograms of rice, two bottles of oil, salt and two cups of beans every month from 2011 to 2016. Now, each IDP is given 9,000 kyats (US$6.60) monthly, or, for those deemed the most vulnerable, 13,000 kyats ($9.53).

Nang Shwe, a 23-year-old Shan mother of two who lives in Thagara camp, said, “We can’t even buy meat for a few days a month. How can I pay for tuition fees for my children?”

Not Enough Food

The current aid package means most IDPs receive just 300 kyats per day ($0.22)—in the commercial capital of Yangon, this is not even enough to take a round trip journey on a public bus, and will barely cover the cost of a bind of watercress and roselle, the leaves of which can be fried or boiled in soup.

During The Irrawaddy’s recent visit to Kachin’s IDP camps, Lisu, Shan and Kachin women spoke through the assistance of a translator of their financial hardships. Shan mother-of-two Nang Shwe said, “I cannot even give 100 kyats ($0.07) of pocket money to my child when he goes to school.”

Nang Shwe, 23, (pictured) who lives in Thagara camp, is struggling to provide for her family on the aid rations. (Photo: Moe Myint / The Irrawaddy)

Daw Wo Mi, the Lisu mother, explained that her family of seven recently arrived at the camp and falls under the “most vulnerable” category, therefore receiving 91,000 kyats ($66.70) altogether every month from the WFP.

She initially focused on buying low-grade rice bags of 50 kilograms instead of clothing for her family. A rice bag costs between 30,000-40,000 kyats ($22-29) in Sadung town and her family consumes at least two bags per month. She used the remaining 30,000 kyats on oil, salt, and other basic commodities.

“I have to spend at least 4,000 kyats ($2.93) if I want to buy meat in the market, so vegetables are the main dishes on the table,” she said. The children, she added, sometimes even refuse these dishes and eat only rice.

Mother-of-three Daw Lang Yu, 44, who recently arrived at the camp on the compound of Lhavo Church in Waingmaw Township said, “We eat rice with salt when we have no money to go shopping.”

Women at an IDP camp on the compound of Lhavo Church in Waingmaw Township sit near the cooking area. (Photo: Moe Myint / The Irrawaddy)

Finding Work

The struggle to put enough food on the table was a story that repeated itself in every camp The Irrawaddy visited in Waingmaw, Myitkyina, and Sadung towns. IDPs and aid workers told The Irrawaddy that the typical tasks of women in the camps include cooking, washing clothes, and parenting, while their husbands look for day labor in town, cutting bamboo or collecting firewood.

Some women would leave the camps to seek recruitment on paddy farms, and some IDP camps located near urban areas see residents earning small amounts of money for selling crafts such as amber beads and necklaces in local markets.

KBC humanitarian department director Hka Li said aid organizations give vocational training to IDPs as well as small grants for livelihood projects. International religious organizations occasionally give donations, he added.

However, he conceded, “I suppose meals with meat would be very limited for IDPs.”

Local relief organizations reported that dire financial needs drive some young women to travel to China in order to find work; some marry Chinese men, and others are known to get trafficked, although the organizations said there is no systematic data available on trafficking cases among these populations.

A lawyer in Waingmaw Township who asked for anonymity said IDP women have been working as prostitutes at an illegal casino near Bala Min Htin Bridge that is under the control of militia groups. The Irrawaddy could not verify this claim.

KBC delegates told Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in Naypyitaw last month that addressing the food shortage of IDPs must be prioritized, Hka Li said, but it was undecided when the problem would be addressed.

But mostly, the women in camps are burdened by the perpetual fear of more armed clashes—even more than cash or food concerns. Tatmadaw battalions, militias, and KIA Regiment No. 6, for instance, contest the area of Sadung.

Daw Wo Mi, the Lisu mother of five, fled the fighting in 2011 and again in 2016. “I have no idea about politics, but we are always caught in the crossfire whenever they fight,” she said.

A view from Sadung IDP camp in Kachin State. (Photo: Moe Myint / The Irrawaddy)