Difficult then, difficult now: Rakhine State and COVID
• Many people living in Rakhine State, have long struggled to take care of their wellbeing and have their basic rights respected.
In one of the poorest states in Myanmar UNICEF has supported continuation of essential nutrition serviced in Rakhine during the COVID-19 pandemic. The support includes provision of life saving nutrition supplies, such as therapeutic milk to Sittwe and Pauktaw camps, for treatment of severe acute malnutrition; and the expansion of the Maternal and Child Cash Transfer (MCCT), to provide pregnant and lactating women with a financial contribution to improve their children’s nutrition. The Maternal and Child Cash Transfer programme (MCCT) grants 10,000 -15,000 MMK Myanmar kyats (about US$6-10) per month to eligible pregnant women and mothers of children under the age of two to ensure that women are able to afford the purchase of nutritious foods and access antenatal and post-natal care. In addition, nutrition messages aiming to promote breastfeeding have been integrated to communication materials developed as part of the mother and child cash transfer programme.
For some mothers maintaining breastfeeding and dealing with effects of malnutrition on their babies is a daily struggle.
Many people living in Rakhine State, have long struggled to take care of their wellbeing and have their basic rights respected, within the challenging environment of complex and bitter armed conflicts. The consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic add to the widespread deprivation here.
Daw Mya Than Aye, a mother of three, from Maungdaw Township shares, “For us, there has been no difference. Living was difficult then; living is difficult now. The challenges and poverty that people in other places are now suddenly facing due to the COVID pandemic are what we in Rakhine State have been forced to endure for a long time.” Because of the armed conflicts, Maungdaw residents have been living with imposed curfews for months, before the lockdown.
“Our kids don’t go out to play and the adults haven’t been going around much either. As far as personal freedoms, this age of COVID is not so unusual for us here in Maungdaw. I suppose other people might be finding the confinement annoying,” assumes Daw Mya Than Aye.
Ten years ago, Daw Mya Than Aye, now 33 years old, opened a teashop and soon after that she was experiencing the turmoil from violent conflicts in and around the township, which have continued over the years. For people like her, curfews and movement restrictions were already the reality of people in northern Rakhine state, now facing additional pandemic-related challenges imposed by the COVID-19 measures, making their difficult lives even more challenging and for her teashop to survive, let alone succeed.
“We can’t open the shop as usual, only takeaways, no sit downs. So, the daily takings are down, from 15,000 Myanmar kyats (approx. US$10) to 5,000 Myanmar kyats (approx. US$3), just enough to feed my family,” reflects the disappointed businesswoman.
Daw Mya Than Aye’s husband works at the Myanmar Posts and Telecommunications earning a monthly salary of 340,000 Myanmar kyats (approx. US$240), so the family is managing, but just.
Every three months Daw Mya Than Aye receives 45,000 Myanmar kyats (approx. USD30) from the Maternal and Child Cash Transfer (MCCT) programme that was initiated in Rakhine State in March 2017 and provides financial aid for pregnant women and women with children aged under-two years to improve the nutrition status of a child in first 1,000 days of life . Managed by the Department of Social Welfare, the MCCT programme operates in 17 townships around Rakhine State. With the teashop earnings down, Mya Than Aye is finding that she must use the MCCT aid supplement to pay for other house utilities.
“I know that this payment is for the children, so we usually kept that money separate and only touched it to buy things for them. But now we are having to use it to cover the household expenses,” she confides.
Grocery prices have gone up during this time of the virus outbreak and subsequent tumbling economies.
“Usually we eat fish three or four times a week, but these days, fish is more expensive than meat and now rice prices are up too, “says Mya Than Aye. “We can’t afford nutritional supplements for the baby, so I have been feeding him a mixture of rice and red lentils, along with breast milk. My two other children who are aged ten and three are eating vegetables and beans as the main part of their meals. I’m trying to ensure everyone is getting nourishment.”
As governments and individuals around the world are juggling health and wealth priorities and having to make tough decisions, this entrepreneurial mother is doing her bit to make ends meet and keep her family safe. The grant from the MCCT payments are enabling families like Mya Than Aye continue to meet the minimum needs of their children.