Rangoon, Burma — Like thousands of orphans, Jo Jo was fit enough to survive last month’s cyclone Nargis.
Sheltered now by church members in Rangoon, the main city in Burma (Myanmar), he faces more challenges: finding his parents even though, like most Burmese, he has no surname; and surviving in a society where children are widely considered a source of cheap labor.
“The price of everything these days is rising, except one thing – the price of life,” says a Burmese celebrity who has been quietly bringing aid to villages in the delta. “Cheapest of all is the cost of children.”
In a working-class area of central Rangoon, children pump gas, fix generators, sell fruit, serve tea, cook food, clean monasteries. Across the country, kids steer coconut boats loaded with contraband or fight in ethnic wars in the jungle. Most have at most four years of schooling. Almost every mom-and-pop business employs children for less than a dollar a day. While some seem happy to be working with parents or relatives, many have been bought and sold.
“Trafficking has always been big in this region. That needs to be addressed very quickly,” says Marvin Parvez, a development activist who has been working with several aid agencies in Burma. “Delta children were the poorest of the poor to begin with. They had food shortages in the delta area before the cyclone. The cyclone put them back at least one century. Families are desperate now, so sometimes they sacrifice their daughters or sons. Children are very vulnerable at this time,” he continues.
Many hurdles in reuniting families
Many agree that after most disasters, the best way to protect children is to reconnect them with their families or villages. But finding out who children belong to is difficult in a society that doesn’t use surnames.
Instead of passing ancestral lineage down through family names, Burmese parents typically give their children a combination of names, such as Aung, Win, and Tin, which give no indication of who is their father or mother. Many Burmese also go by nicknames. “We are taking down names of parents and children. But without surnames, it’s going to be difficult,” says Steve Goudswaard, the first foreign relief expert from World Vision allowed into southern Burma’s Irrawaddy Delta, where the cyclone hit hardest.
Many children, especially younger ones who lost everything, including identity cards, may be unable to recall the name of their village or find it on a map. The cyclone, which left 134,000 dead or missing and another 2.4 million affected, also erased many villages completely, obliterating schools and homes, and even shifting earth or scrubbing away topographical landmarks such as trees or patterns of farmland. Unable to retrace their steps home, many survivors have drifted between makeshift camps and temples. Many children sit with vacant expressions, in shock and grief.
The number of displaced children is hard to estimate. Forty percent of people in the delta before the cyclone were under 18, according to Save the Children. UNICEF says 1.1 million children were attending 4,000 schools that were damaged or destroyed. UNICEF says that at least 2,000 are orphans or are missing parents, but many Burmese say the number is much higher, because delta families were known for having many children. Some say there are 5,000 orphans in the delta town of Labutta alone.
Returning kids to school, and routine
Aid agencies say Burma’s military government has been closing refugee camps in towns and sending survivors back to their villages – a move the junta denies.
Officials say they are working on a voluntary resettlement program that will allow parents to find their children, rebuild their homes, and get children into classes as soon as possible, to keep up with students nationwide who began the school year on June 2. Andrew Kirkwood, country director for Save the Children, says he supports the government’s push to get kids in school: “If kids get into school, it creates a routine. It’s easier to identify which kids are traumatized or malnourished.”
To fill the gap before schools are ready, UNICEF has opened 80 “child-friendly spaces” in the delta, where kids in groups of 50 to 350 can sing, play, read, and enjoy one another’s company. It has also provided learning packages, textbooks, kits for affected schools, and roofing sheets and construction kits to repair them. With thousands of people cast adrift, Burmese relief volunteers say they hope their government, as well as the United Nations and nongovernmental organizations, will at least protect orphans from child traffickers and even citizens hoping to adopt them. “Many people come and ask to adopt these children, but we don’t allow them to,” says a Burmese woman, who works in child-protection programs for the UN and other groups. “The [children] need to remain with their families.”
Some people “say they want to adopt children to take care of them, but they have other reasons,” she continues. “It’s very important to protect these children.”