Conflict-affected adolescents change their and others’ lives in Kachin, Myanmar
22 July 2022
Champions of change empower young people
Ji Taung and Htet Myat Aung, both 22, live in Kachin State, the northernmost state of Myanmar, bordering China. But their life experiences have been poles apart.
For the past 11 years, Ji Taung has lived in a camp for internally displaced people (IDPs) with her parents, grandparents and six brothers and sisters. Her family, like tens of thousands of others in Kachin, were uprooted due to protracted conflict.
At first, Ji Taung found it hard to adapt to conditions in the camp. “It was suffocating - there were too many people,” she said. “I missed our own home where we raised cattle and farmed. But we adapted to our situation here.” However, the communal unisex bathrooms and the lack of educational opportunities have been much harder for Ji Taung and other girls living in the camp to adjust to.
By contrast, Htet Myat Aung has never been displaced and lives at home with his parents and two brothers in Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin State, where his family runs a rice store. Yet in recent years, his family has been facing hardships.
“We used to make enough money before the COVID-19 pandemic, but the daily price increases and security challenges worsened our situation,” said Htet Myat Aung. Moreover, like Ji Tuang, his studies were disrupted by the current crisis.
“Most of the youths here feel lost and hopeless”
The huge rise in security incidents across conflict-affected states in Myanmar has been particularly catastrophic in Kachin State, coming on top of almost 50 years of conflict in the State that has left more than 97,000 people displaced. Girls are particularly at risk of early and forced marriages, trafficking, and gender-based violence, while boys are likely to be recruited into armed forces or fall into the hands of drug dealers.
To support adolescents in Kachin State, UNICEF and Plan International, with funds from the Government of Canada, have started a life skills training programme called Champions of Change. The programme provides adolescents and young people like Ji Taung and Htet Myat Aung with eight weeks of curated training and ‘sharing sessions’ on topics like reproductive health, gender equality, and gender-based violence, and soft skills such as confidence building.
The programme prioritises vulnerable children who cannot afford to pursue an education. Graduates of Champions of Change are given the opportunity to pursue vocational training that will prepare them to start small businesses or work in local organisations.
Ji Taung and Htet Myat Aung were trained with other Champions of Change graduates for leadership roles as facilitators in peer-to-peer knowledge sharing in their community.
Since 2021, Ji Taung has been facilitating discussions with pregnant women, mothers and young people.
Htet Myat Aung saw for the first time how his peers in the camps have been living, after he became a facilitator. “Unlike our wards, the camps are tightly packed with not much spare space. Each family gets only one room, and it must be unbearably hot in summer,” said Htet Myat Aung.
These days Htet Myat Aung visits the camps both to facilitate sessions and to meet friends that he has made there.
“I have gained the ability and courage to speak up for myself and others.”
Besides helping their peers and communities, Ji Tuang and Htet Myat Aung both say they have been empowered, too. Ji Taung recalls how she and her friends from IDP camps used to be bullied at school, and they were sometimes called ‘exiles’. “I was young and was afraid to stand up for myself,” she said.
Now, Ji Tuang said, “I have gained the ability and courage to speak up for myself and others.” She also found the session on gender-based violence powerful. “We have a saying here that a husband beats his wife because he loves her too much, and I learned that it is wrong and it's just domestic violence. It has stayed in my mind ever since.”
Htet Myat Aung, too, said he has personally gained from the programme. “I used to believe females were inferior to males and that they'll never become good leaders.” He admitted that hearing about gender equality “was challenging to accept at first.” But he said, “Now, I treat everyone equally with respect.”
To date, the Champions of Change programme has benefited over 1,100 adolescents and young people from Kachin State. So far, 700 people have taken part in the vocational training, and 117 of them are now working as professionals.
Saw Wai Moe
Communication Officer, Advocacy, Partnerships and Communication