‘I lost hope’ – a child labourer’s story
Ko Ko’s education seemed destined to end before he even had the chance to finish primary school.
During his third year at school, he was forced to drop out and work on the streets scavenging plastic bottles to support his family.
“I lost hope when I was scavenging,” he says. “I was alone. I searched for used plastic bottles, holding back the feeling that I would never be able to do what I wanted.”
Ko Ko is now back in school, advocating for children’s rights in Myanmar and trying to ensure more children do not have to suffer the same challenges he faced.
The challenges of education in Myanmar
Despite the political and economic changes that have swept through Myanmar in recent years, poverty continues to be a defining factor in children’s access to basic education.
Many children work to help their families earn a living, particularly older siblings who sacrifice their education for the younger children.
Sadly as a result, one in four children do not complete primary school. It seemed Ko Ko was destined to become one of those children.
Before starting school, Ko Ko spent the first eight years of his childhood moving from one place to another, as his parents moved from one unstable job to the next.
Ko Ko was eight when he started kindergarten. Three years older than most of his classmates.
“I started school late because of our financial problems,” he says. “We didn’t have enough money to eat regular meals each day. How could my parents afford to send me to school?”
When he was in Grade 3, his education came to a halt due to a financial crisis in the family.
Working full-time at 11 years old
Almost half of all children working in Myanmar are engaged in hazardous child labour which puts a child’s physical and emotional wellbeing at risk.
Those in formal employment work mainly in agriculture, forestry, fishing, manufacturing trades, mining and brick making.
Children like Ko Ko can be found plucking their way through rubbish looking for plastic and other materials they can exchange for cash.
Ko Ko was 11 when he stopped attending school and began walking through the streets scavenging plastic bottles to sell.
“I was very young at that time. I walked with a big bag on my shoulder although I couldn’t even fend for myself,” Ko Ko says. “I got caught a couple of times by the police because they thought I stole things. But, in fact, I didn’t steal.”
Returning to school
A year after Ko Ko left school, opportunity knocked. His family situation improved.
He was able to go back to school thanks to a neighbour, San, who became a member of a child protection group formed by ChildFund Myanmar in 2015.
“I spoke to Ko Ko’s mother, who was eager to send her children back to school,” San says. “I encouraged her and helped her get the documents needed for enrolment. So, we enrolled Ko Ko together with his three siblings.”
Returning to school was not easy for Ko Ko, who was still scavenging to help his family.
“At school, some people didn’t want to be friends with me because they said I smelt,” he says. “When I grew older, I didn’t want to do that job in front of my friends anymore because I was embarrassed. So, I told my mother and I quit.”
“I was disheartened when I was bullied. I couldn’t keep my head up and I burst into tears. But I reminded myself that one day I must be able to lead these people who looked down on me.”
Back in school and more confident about the future
Ko Ko’s life has changed significantly since he joined the child group formed by ChildFund Myanmar in partnership with Precious Stones in 2015.
The project, which is supported by the Australian Government through the Australian NGO Cooperation Program (ANCP), empowers children by teaching them about child rights, child protection, good citizenship and helps them to gain valuable life skills.
This training has transformed him into an active and confident person.
“Before I joined the Child Group, I was lonely,” he says. “I was depressed. Now I have friends and mentors.”
Ko Ko is now a child ambassador in the child protection group. He helps children to be heard by conveying the messages and the information between child group members and child protection group members.
He enjoys working with children and helping them avoid his fate as a child labourer.
Win, Ko Ko’s mother, says the new role has helped her son develop.
“He has changed very much,” she says. “He is more polite and he treats his family members with respect.”
Ko Ko doesn’t give up. To supplement the family income, Ko Ko is now doing two part-time jobs after school hours.
“I work as a trishaw (a bicycle that carries passengers) driver as well as a sand truck loader,” he says.
“I see it as a life training to go to school and work at the same time.
“I feel that it’s giving me strength. I think I have become stronger.”
Ko Ko is back in school since enrolling in Grade 3 and is determined that he will not have to withdraw again. He believes in the importance education and looks forward to school.
“I am very thankful to my mother and San for sending me back to school,” he says.
“I am delighted to wear the school uniform.
“I want to be a doctor – but first I need to pass school with high marks.”
How you can help reduce poverty
ChildFund’s work in Myanmar helps children like Ko Ko access quality education. To make a difference in our work to reduce poverty, all we’re asking you to do, is to help one community.
Community sponsorship is a meaningful journey, where you’ll make a huge impact on an entire society. Your sponsorship will be used to deliver high-impact projects that benefit the most vulnerable children and their families.
Help us tackle the root causes of child poverty and empower communities to become self-sufficient.