Published in The Myanmar Times on 25 February 2013

A young boy child of a gypsy family, wakes up from his sleep in his shelter. Pyay. Myanmar.Photo by Shehzad Noorani/UNICEF

A young boy child of a gypsy family, wakes up from his sleep in his shelter. Pyay. Myanmar.
Photo by Shehzad Noorani/UNICEF

During the decades Myanmar spent under military rule, the mere mention of poverty and children’s rights was completely off limits. For an organisation such as the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), whose purpose is defined as promoting the rights of children by overcoming “the obstacles that poverty, violence, disease and discrimination place in a child’s path,” it’s difficult to comprehend the scale of challenge it faced.

“Now we can speak about [these issues] openly and constructively,” UNICEF’s representative in Myanmar, Bertrand Bainvel told The Myanmar Times.

Mr Bainvel took up his position in Myanmar in November last year and described the speed of change over the past year as “surprising.”

One of the biggest breakthroughs, he said, was the Tatmadaw [army] signing a national plan of action in June 2012 to prevent children being recruited to the armed forces and to discharge everyone under 18 years of age.

A hotline has been set up, as well as a series of public awareness campaigns, and on 15 February, the Tatmadaw officially discharged 24 children.

Bertrand Bainvel, UNICEF Representative to Myanmar

Bertrand Bainvel, UNICEF Representative to Myanmar

“In the past, this was also a sensitive issue and difficult to speak about.”

Mr Bainvel said that the impact of war on children is manifold, both for active participants and unfortunate bystanders.

“Firstly there are the immediate violations… of being killed or maimed. Education is disrupted [by war] and it’s very difficult for children to catch up later on in life. It’s also a very traumatic experience because the child doesn’t feel in control of his or her own life and the adults who are supposed to protect them are unable to do so.”

Mr Bainvel welcomed the signing of a ceasefire last year in Kachin state because along with obvious benefits, the ceasefire allowed UNICEF to immunize children in the area for the first time.

Another “demonstration of commitment,” said Mr Bainvel, is the fact that the government is paying for students’ textbooks; a gap UNICEF filled until a year ago.

These positive changes have allowed UNICEF to “evolve from managing projects to looking at the bigger picture of policy and supporting reforms.”

And with almost every sanction lifted, Mr Bainvel said that “more donors are interested in contributing to UNICEF’s work [in Myanmar], because it’s seen as a way for them to be part of the changes underway.”

Since setting up operations in Myanmar in 1950, UNICEF has worked directly with the government. Unsurprisingly, in the past, “some [donors] were a bit reluctant to engage directly with the government, so partnering with UNICEF was a way to avoid that,” he added.

The international non-government organisation currently has 170 staff in Myanmar and works in 61 of the country’s most vulnerable townships, providing services related to education and maternal and children’s health.

Mr Bainvel said Myanmar will continue to benefit from strong interest among the international community and increased private investment.

He said, “Other parts of the world aren’t exactly as economically dynamic as this [region]. Change could happen more quickly here.”

However he cautioned, “We have learnt from quite a few countries with very strong growth that if the growth is not redistributed equitably you see increasing disparities and very few people benefiting – sometimes the majority don’t benefit.”

Mr Bainvel believes there could be an adverse offshoot if young people aren’t provided with the opportunity to receive a quality education and in turn, a livelihood.

“It could produce a new range of issues that will impact on the rest of the society and are very costly deal with – whether it be an increase in drug use, gang activities or early pregnancy,” he said.

Likewise, if parents fail to benefit from the country’s economic expansion, “there may be a perception of quick income opportunities – that it would be better to have children [begging]on the street than to send them to school. We need to look at that,” he said.

Mr Bainvel emphasised the importance of taxation as a means to share resources equitably, particularly in Myanmar’s poorest regions.

UNICEF is supporting Myanmar’s upcoming census – the first undertaken in 30 years – which is vital to “make investment [in social services] more intelligent,” he said.

A young girl carries a basket full of sand in Pyay to a boat nearby. She earns less than one US dollar a day. Photo by Shehzad Noorani/UNICEF

A young girl carries a basket full of sand in Pyay to a boat nearby. She earns less than one US dollar a day. Photo by Shehzad Noorani/UNICEF

“Demographics drive a lot of decisions, such as the allocation of resources across the country. The more tools we have to count people and see how the population is distributed, the better.”

When asked whether February’s MTV EXIT (End Exploitation and Trafficking) concert, was deemed a success, Mr Bainvel replied in a measured tone: “We have to be very realistic about who we speak to. Those in the concert possibly were not the most vulnerable to trafficking and I think all of us were aware of that. But it’s a matter of spreading the word from ‘Yes I heard about it,’ to ‘No, it’s unacceptable. This increases the demand for better services and protection. It was a way of changing norms.”

When it comes to gender norms, Mr Bainvel believes that “in other countries, gender disparities are more visible. However this requires us to be more refined in our analysis to understand what the expected roles for boys and girls are, and how femininity is constructed and from what age, at school and at home.”

Although Mr Bainvel praised Myanmar’s inheritance laws, which give children of both sexes an equal right to inherit family property, he said that their application may not be uniform if the law conflicts with traditional beliefs among ethnic minority groups.

He also said that the disproportionate representation of men in Myanmar’s parliament is a “reflection of some inequality.”

While the potential to improve living standards in Myanmar is promising, Mr Bainvel told The Myanmar Times that “On many issues, [Myanmar] must catch up” with neighbouring countries.

He cited the fact that Myanmar has the highest rate of under-five mortality in the region: UNICEF hopes to see a decrease “as fast as possible.”

“Quick wins” can be made tby improving health services and nutrition, providing better access to safe drinking water and promoting hygiene practices.

Mr Bainvel said that the draft children’s policy currently being discussed in parliament is “very innovative, and something [UNICEF] hasn’t seen implemented in other countries. It will definitely help to accelerate progress.”

There’s no doubt that ensuring the gains made in the coming months and years benefit all Myanmar’s children is a task UNICEF will continue to pursue with zeal.

Click here to visit UNICEF in Myanmar’s website.