By a World Vision spokesperson in Myanmar who wishes to remain anonymous.
OPINION: Parents in Myanmar are being forced to make desperate choices to ensure the safety and protection of their children. When a global pandemic is eclipsed by conflict, vulnerable families and communities are tested beyond measure, and children are most likely to face the brunt of the choices made in distress.
Myanmar had been making steady progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and reducing violence against children until COVID19 restrictions of the past year and the current crisis brought that to a halt. Violence against children is no longer improving. It is getting worse. Very quickly.
Since the start of the pandemic, World Vision has witnessed a worrying rise in cases of early marriage and sexual and physical violence against children. Over the last three months, this trend has only intensified.
A World Vision Child Protection Incident report, compiled through regular monitoring across 32 project locations in Myanmar, identified 270 child protection incidents in 2019, 94 (35 percent) of which were cases of child marriage. In 2020, when the stay-at-home directive was put in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic, communities reported an 18 percent increase in early marriage cases. While results for 2021 are not available yet, the last two months alone saw 18 instances of early marriage in the communities we serve, as families struggle to cope with the current situation. These figures are probably the tip of the iceberg as many child protection incidents go unreported.
These are dire times for children, who are often living in households experiencing financial, physical and mental strain from the uncertainties facing Myanmar today compounded by the lasting aftershocks of COVID-191 .Parents are finding it hard to cope and are lashing out. Through no fault of their own, children find themselves in increasingly vulnerable situations as they try to survive each day, while their family’s financial hardships worsen with no end in sight.
Unable to feed their children, some parents feel they have no option but to get their children married so that someone else can support them. It would be unfortunate if we, as part of the larger community, cannot steer parents to see and make better and more informed choices with approaches that address their social, mental, physical and economic well-being.
Child marriage not only destroys childhoods, but it also has long-term consequences for girls as they mature into adulthood. When marriage takes place before physical and mental maturity occurs, it can significantly impede their development. Early marriage is generally a precursor to early childbirth, which is dangerous not only for young mothers but also for their infants. It also reduces their chances of returning to school to finish their education, hampering their lifelong income earning capacity and trapping them in a cycle of poverty.
We recognise that this is a global problem that is all too often born out of social inequality, but addressing this issue is critical to achieving several SDGs. Reports from UNICEF indicate that 18 percent of girls worldwide are married before the age of 18 and that 61 percent of these marriages are between a girl under 18 and a man approximately 15 years her senior.2 Seeing the issue embed itself more deeply into Myanmar’s society over the past year is cause for alarm, but more importantly, immediate action.
World Vision Myanmar is deeply concerned for the well-being of children who are at risk. We are working closely with children, communities and leaders to prevent child marriages. Engaging parents, men and boys in solutions to address child marriage is critical. Even at a time like this, World Vision is providing counselling, food and financial aid within our limited operating context. We believe all humanitarian actors must work towards equal access to quality education and advocate for greater protection against child marriage and other forms of gender-based violence.
World Vision appeals for more robust child protection mechanisms and more stringent law and policy implementation at all levels that empower children to weigh in on choices affecting their lives. We urgently call for a peaceful resolution that respects international humanitarian law, so that the children and families in Myanmar can hope for the future and live life to their fullest potential.
Whatever the problems facing families, child marriages can’t be the solution. Not in Myanmar. Not anywhere. Not ever.
This opinion piece was written by a World Vision spokesperson in Myanmar who wishes to remain anonymous.