Friday, June 12, 2015

Helping Children Overcome Conflict and Displacement

By Pangmu Shayi, June 11, 2015

Photo: A Kachin IDP girl (Credit: Fu Guosheng (Kaw Seng))

The Kachin War that resumed after a 17-year hiatus, has created an unfortunate legacy of 120,000 displaced civilians, of whom a significant proportion are children growing up in 72 camps across Kachin and Northern Shan State.

It goes without saying that children are the war’s most vulnerable victims. Most bear the psychological, if not physical scars of violent upheaval. Some have lost a parent, some both, and some separated from family in the chaotic flight from advancing government troops. At borderland camps there is the added danger of falling prey to human traffickers and drug dealers ever lurking in the vicinity.

As the war enters its 4th year, the internally displaced people (IDP) are living out their worst fears of becoming permanent camp dwellers, never able to return home and resume normal lives. In the meanwhile, life has become increasingly harsh with each passing year. Their dilapidated shelters are in dire need of replacement, and the food assistance provided by international donors is drying up.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimates that only 16% of the 2015 IDP assistance budget has been met. Consequently, after June 2015, monthly food rations for IDPs will be halved, with the daily ration equivalent of MMK 400 per person reduced to a mere MMK 200 (about US 20 cents).

This drastic reduction in food aid puts the health and well being of children born and growing up in camps at even greater risk. Birth rate among IDPs is reportedly high, but prenatal malnutrition means the newborns are invariably underweight. How seriously the physical growth and mental development of IDP children will be impacted by chronic malnutrition is a matter of great concern.

At borderland camps, the lack of schools and other educational opportunities compounds the worries parents have for the future of their children. The Kachin Baptist Convention (KBC) is doing its best to fill this void through its education ministry. For the 19th year in a row, the KBC has recruited and trained volunteer teachers to take up teaching assignments for a year or longer at borderland camps or remote regions where there are no schools.

The KBC estimates that for this school year, 142 volunteer teachers are needed to take care of 15,000 children of school-going age. In spite of, or because of what happened to the two KBC volunteer teachers who were ruthlessly raped and murdered at the village of Hkawng Hka in Northern Shan State, 52 young people, including 32 female volunteers, signed up for training at KBC headquarters this Summer.

With the beginning of the new school year in June, the teachers have set off for their assigned destinations. A young female volunteer teacher, upon being interviewed, has said that although she is naturally concerned for her safety, she feels the mission too important to turn her back on.

This year the teachers and students face special difficulties as UNICEF is no longer able to provide IDP children with text books and other needed school materials. Unlike in previous years, UNICEF is unable to procure the newly prescribed text books for this year’s curriculum on the market, as private presses have not been able to print them. To procure the new text books from its own budget will be a financial hardship for the KBC.

Despite facing monumental challenges, the IDPs are doing their best to survive, making the most of the situation. Some have taken up vegetable gardening, some livestock breeding or both, while some make themselves available for any kind of odd job that comes their way.

But it is not enough merely to meet physical and material needs. As Fu Guosheng (Kaw Seng), who is spearheading the Airavati Foundation’s[i] IDP Children’s Art Project says, “Life is not just to survive, but to own the feelings of meaningful life and the hope and expectations for the future.”

The Children’s Art Project aims at providing just that, by encouraging the younger camp generation to express the trauma and displacement they feel through a variety of art forms. The creative process is meant not only to address the cultural deprivation brought on by displacement, but also as a means of healing emotional scars. Topics ranging from Kachin culture and history, to current issues such as armed conflict and the loss of family members, will be dealt with.

Film documentation of the whole process will be made and the art work produced by student participants will be exhibited both at the IDP camps and major towns and cities in Kachin State and beyond.

The 15-month project, initiated in late 2014, involves 350 young people between the ages of 7 and 17 from IDP camps in and around Laiza, headquarters of the Kachin Independence Organization. 60 teachers from the Laiza area are also being trained in arts and culture, as well as sensitivity to the special needs of children and youth traumatized by armed conflict and displacement. The wider aim of the project is for the teachers to replicate these psychological and cultural reconstruction activities with displaced Kachin youth in other camp locations.

Whether the nationwide ceasefire accord between the government and ethnic armed groups actually gets signed or not is anybody’s guess. What is certain however, is that even if signed, in the absence of comprehensive political reforms, there are no guarantees that the guns will go silent.

In such a context, helping the Kachin War’s most vulnerable victims overcome conflict and displacement is a cause that should resonate with donors at home and abroad. In that spirit, the Kachin Peace Network’s theme for this year’s IDP appeal: Concern, Care and Contribute is echoed in earnest here.

[i] The Airavarti Foundation, set up by Lahpai Seng Raw, a 2013 Magsaysay awardee and co-founder of the Metta Development Foundation, aims at establishing peaceful societies that are self-sustaining and resilient through environmental conservation efforts.