September 24, 2017

Two among many!

In the evenings, the over one mile-long Inya lake bund near Pyay road with its beautiful view of the Inya lake, clean air and a backdrop consisting of a few islets with clumps of trees and tall buildings with their bright light attracts people of  all ages from the nearby townships of Kamayut, Mayangon and beyond.  Older people come there to take a walk; stylishly clad young couples, who monopolize the few available benches facing the lake, come to the lover’s paradise to enjoy each other’s company undisturbed, or to have a lovers’ tiff; groups of male and female teenagers come there to celebrate their birthdays; groups of females come there to pose for photographs; males come in groups to gather there to play the guitar and sing songs, or to have snacks and get drunk; lonely young males and females come there to sit by the lake and stare at their mobile phones, or the lake as if the answers to their problems can be found there; local tourists come there to find out what the Inya lake bund’s fame is all about; families with young children come there to let loose their kids so that they can enjoy the spacious grounds, and stray dogs come to feast on the discarded leftover food. Sometimes, there are also groups of foreigners, some young, and some old, talking in their native languages and a few foreign lasses with their local beaus, who keep reminding the lads that the relationships are just to have some fun in halting English.
Mingling among the motley crowd are persons, ranging from age eight to fifty, mostly girls and mostly in their early teens, holding heavy plastic baskets. They are not there to enjoy each other’s company, or the view, or the breeze, or to sing, or to play games. They are there with more serious intent. They are on the bund to earn their daily bread, or to be more precise, their daily rice. They sell purified water, cigarettes, potato chips, fish crackers, sunflower seeds, also sour stuff, and tissues. Older vendors are bold enough to sell bottled and canned beer and hard liquor. The vendors walk from one end of the bund to the other end tirelessly, announcing their wares incessantly and competing with each to make a sale. They make their way home only when the number of those who have come for rest and recreation dwindles. Some lucky ones manage to sell all that they have brought and the unfortunate ones only manage to make small profit.
Among the vendors, a small thin boy with a huge basket stands out. It is after ten p.m. when I am able to talk to him while he is sitting on one side of the concrete path after walking up and down the bund for the umpteenth time. Next to him sat an unhappy looking girl vendor slightly older than the boy, without slippers and dressed in old clothes.  He is reluctant to talk to me until I buy a packet of sunflower seeds for 300 kyats from him. I am particularly interested in his age as he is rather small made, and because it is surprising to find a child of his age out at this time of the night selling snacks. He tells me that his name is Kyaw Zeyar and is eight years old. He lives in Hlinethaya, one of the satellite industrial towns about one and a half hour’s ride by bus from where the bund is. I also learnt how he happens to be selling things so late at night.  He is together with his father, mother, and eleven year old elder sister who are all vendors like him. His youngest sister who is nearly five comes along with them. It reliefs me a bit to learn that he is attending school and is in the fourth grade, his eleven year old elder sister is in the seventh grade, and his eldest sister has given up vending to concentrate on her matriculation examination. Tonight, he has earned a little over five thousand kyats and is hoping to earn a bit more, before he goes back home with his family. He is not very happy with the amount of money he earns. Older persons, he says, earn as much as twenty thousand kyats.  He looks drowsy and when I ask him whether he is feeling sleepy, he says, “Yes,” but, he says he gets home at round about twelve midnight and his parents do not let him sleep unless he has learnt his lessons. I next turn to the grubby barefooted girl next to him. She isn’t particularly interested in my questions. As she has finished selling everything she brought, I cannot buy anything from her. As incentive to talk, I give her three hundred kyats as pocket money. Htet Htet Hlaing takes the money and becomes more willing to share with me a bit about her life. She also lives with her family and has five siblings. Her stepfather is an unskilled labourer and her mother does not work. She is eleven years old and has only attended grade one. Htet Htet Hlaing is waiting to go home with Kyaw Zeyar and his family because they live in the same area.  Probably because she is fed up with answering my questions, she says she wants to look for her friends and leaves. After she leaves, Kyaw Zeyar comments that her stepfather never buys her slippers.  Kyaw Zeyar too leaves saying he has to try to sell some more before it is time to go home.
Their departure left me wondering how many children like them there are in the country. It might not be possible to say exactly how many child workers there are in Yangon, or the country, but gauging from the number of children working in the area where I live, the number does not seem to be small. There are children vending flowers, drinking water bottles, magazines and snacks at traffic lights. There are children serving as waiters in restaurants and helpers in food stalls nearby. There are boys working in workshops and both boys and girls working in cottage industries. There are many girls working as domestic helps. All of them seem to have to work long hours. Those who work at teashops and restaurants seem to be well-fed and appear to be quite happy. From the stories I hear, I do not think many of the children working as domestic helps fare as well as those working in restaurants, especially those working for big families. Most of those vending things at traffic lights live with their families or relatives in outlying townships. Most of those serving as waiters ranging from about age eleven to late teens live at the restaurants where they work sleeping on the floor or on tables at night.  Many of the children working in Yangon come from villages in the delta region and they come from families of agriculture workers and tend to have many siblings. In general, child workers are either orphans, or come from poor broken families, or from poor families with many children. Some lucky ones have completed their primary education, while others have only attended grade one and can barely read and write.
The lives of many of the child workers are undoubtedly tough and filled with misery and hopelessness. Some are working to feed themselves. Some are working to earn money to help their families. Some people may feel that the deprivations children from poverty stricken families suffer are part of the inequalities in life they see every day and they are not interested in the plight of child workers. However, many people do feel anguish for these children as they cannot enjoy the freedom and joy of childhood and the benefits of education like their peers from better-off families. Many people would also like to see an end to the use of child labour. But for those children from a poverty-stricken background who need to fend for themselves, or help feed their siblings, leaving school and serving as child workers is their only choice.  In order to ensure that all children enjoy the rights to a carefree, happy and secure childhood, it is important that the poverty alleviation programmes in the country meet with success swiftly so that everyone enjoys a certain standard of living and parents can send their children to school and do not need to make them work to supplement the family income, so that no child, whether from rural or urban area, is left behind because of abject poverty. But for the poverty alleviation programmes to succeed, it is vital for those who have the authority, vast financial means, the expertise, and the goodwill, to be fully committed to and work together for its success and make it a national as well as a personal priority.  Let us remember that there is no pleasure greater than seeing the face of a happy child, that there is no deed better than ensuring a secure and promising future for a child, and that there is no investment more profitable for a nation than investing in the holistic education for children to ensure national prosperity as well as individual prosperity, and join in to help in whatever way we can to creatively improve the lives of the many children in need.

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