Ma Phyu Pwint - Courtesy of Andrew Stanbridge
Child labor is prevalent in Burma. Any visitor to the country will notice children, sometimes very young, delivering tea in corner shops, selling sweet jasmine to drivers at urban intersections and hawking snacks outside the train station. Out of view of the casual observer, children are also in garment production, food processing and both large-scale and family agricultural production.
Girl Determined is a leadership project designed to assist girls ages 12-17 to avoid the pitfalls of trafficking, dangerous labor and other forms of violence, by facilitating girls' recognition of their personal and group potential. Girl Determined educates, connects, supports and fosters the development of personal and group voice amongst marginalized adolescent girls so that they can attain their rights.
Almost all of the girls who attend our weekly programs are enrolled in secondary schools. Throughout the two consecutive years that we work directly with girls, most will confront the issue of dropping out of school to work - either for money or to alleviate the household workload. The reasons for drop-out and entry the workforce are complex and cannot be viewed simply as an economic imperative. Certainly the need for additional family income and help around the house is real, though various factors come into play when girls make their decisions. In some cases, parents or relatives put direct pressure on girls to work, but for most of the girls with whom we work, the issues are subtler. Girls describe discrimination in the classroom for being poor, ethnic minority or struggling with the material and harassment on the way to and from school as reasons they drop-out. Many of the girl seek to gain respect and appreciation from their parents for contributing. The relatively low-value placed on girls in many households means that girls are constantly seeking ways to be valued. Unfortunately, the dangers they face in the work place and the paltry earning usually do not translate into long-term respect or any real shift in girls or women's place on the ladder.
Girls in our programs work as domestic helpers, as candy makers in factories and even cutting the uneven 'hairs' in a wig factory. According to the current law on child labor, children as young as 13 can legally work in 'light' industries, which is below standards set forth in the International Convention on the Rights of the Child. Children often work for very low-wages, long hours and in hazardous conditions. Girls are particularly at-risk of abuse in their work situation as their work goes largely unrecognized seen as the helpers and supporters - their "natural" role. Broadly, child labor is socially accepted and is viewed as necessary and desirable especially for girls who "aren't that bright" or "too shy to be good in school."
As international trade negotiations progress and banking infrastructure in the country continues to develop, there will be increasing foreign investment in Burma, namely in manufacturing and resource extraction - both industries have a history of exploiting child workers. In the absence of strong laws for violators and strict regulations we will likely see increased pressure for children to move into wage-labor.
Data is not available but through out the lives of the girls in our programs we can see that wage and transactional work increase dramatically in early adolescence for girls - around 6th,7th and 8th grades. Girl Determined programs reach girls during this critical stage of emotional development providing tools to help girls to find their own personal worth, analyze risks vs. opportunities, draft plans and communicate with peers and adults. Girls in our programs have witnessed their own individual change, which in part comes through the recognition that gender discrimination and rights violations, as opposed to their own worthlessness, have created challenges to achieving their potential.
Ma Phyu Pwint, aged 13 describes her experience working outside the home and the ways in which weekly participation in Girl Determined's programs has helped her to stay in school and not move full-time into the candy factory.
"I have worked in the factory since the summer after 6th grade. I was about 11 or 12 then. I work there during the summer holidays, weekends and also during the long school breaks.
Basically, we are given a big ball of tamarind paste. I have to break down that ball and roll it into 100 small sticks to be eaten like a candy. I then roll each single stick in sugar, then wrap it in the colorful wrapper and twist the ends. I get 100 kyats (about 10 cents) for every 100 sticks of tamarind candy that I can finish. It takes about 30 minutes to complete 100 pieces. We are allowed to get to work as early as we want because we are paid by the piece. I like to get there at 6 am and sometimes, especially on payday, I leave at five, but other days I leave between 6pm and 9pm. I only take a break for lunch.
There are about 60-70 women and girls working there at a time. Most are around my age and some are between 20 and 30. There are also some boys who do the lifting and loading of the products. Some of the girls have dropped out of school and work there full-time.
A few years ago, my neighbor said that she had heard of the job and asked me to go their with her to get the information. At the time my family was struggling financially and I wanted to help. My siblings are 5 in total, three older ones and one younger. My parents both work. My father buys wholesale candles and resells them and sometimes makes snacks and sells them in the community. My mother buys old plastic buys and makes them into smaller woven bags which she sells to vendors for their beans and rice. At the time, my sister had dropped out of school because my parents could not afford the fees, and my mother told me that if I worked, my sister could go back to school. Most of my wages are spent on my older sister's education. She goes to government school. But, I go to monastery school so I don't need as much money. My eldest brother is in his final year of university and my older brother just completed high school.
On payday, I take that money home and give it to my mother. Sometimes, she uses it to buy me new clothes to motivate me to keep working. I walk to the factory with my friend everyday. It takes about 20 minutes. On my way to work at the factory I am really sad to see the other girls heading to the tuition classes or summer school as they prepare for their high school years. Because I work, I can't go there. If I quit the job, it will be difficult for my siblings to go to school.
Girl Determined has helped me a lot. First of all, I noticed that because of the weekly activities on discrimination I have changed my relationship with other girls. There is a Hindu girl in my school. I used to be afraid of her and tried every day to sit far away from her in the classroom. Because of the Girl Determined workshops, I started to think more about her life and how she must experience school since most people don't like her because she's Hindu. So, I started making friends with her and she now attends Girl Determined every week too! I found that she and I have a lot in common. I am now happier in school and want to go every day. In Girl Determined groups we discussed the ways to talk to adults. When my mother suggests that I leave school because my marks are low and my family needs the money, I now negotiate with her. I explain to her that if I leave school to work, my salary will never increase much over the course of my life. And, besides, we girls have the right to our education."
For the 2013-14 academic year, your support goes towards keeping 1400 girls away from dangerous work so that they can stay in school! Give now to help us enhance our programs to ensure girls safety.