A fresh start after fighting


Following economic struggle and violent conflict, families in Myanmar are strained to breaking point. Justine Demmer visited the country to see how our new partner network cares for children and reunites families.

To a visitor like me, Myanmar has an untouched feel to it; there are no indications of international trends found in other Asian countries. As a newly ‘opened’ nation, tourism remains largely locally-focused rather than foreign.

For the last few years, the country has been transitioning from military rule to a system of democracy after decades of isolation and internal fighting. Due to politics and fighting, two-thirds of births have not officially been reported and consequently many children do not officially exist in the eyes of society.

Even before the current Rohingya refugee crisis more than half a million people had fled their homes; over a third of these children. Witnesses to atrocity and sometimes victims of violence themselves, these children lead intensely stressful lives, deprived of shelter, protection, access to education and the most basic social services.

Many of these children are orphans but more have been separated from their families and communities through outbreaks of violence, the burning of their villages, landslides or being sent away to safety.

Vulnerable children have found their way into the city and are living on the streets or have been taken into care. In Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, it is estimated that more than 6,000 children live in unregistered institutions. These homes are often called orphanages, but it is likely that 75 per cent of these children have a living relative. Although these institutions have been started through a genuine desire to assist displaced children, carers are mostly untrained and ill-equipped for the task, and, for fear of government interference, institutions remain unregistered.

I’m here in Myanmar to meet with the team at the Children’s Development Family Network, which comprises 20 Christian NGOs and children’s projects in Yangon. Its primary aim is to care for displaced children while working to reunite them with their families and communities.

The network’s co-ordinator Ni Sat Thloo has a great deal of experience building strong relationships of trust between different players involved. Over the last two years, the network has offered information sessions and substantial training to displaced families and their children to assist them in restarting their lives. Viva connected with the network for the first time last year.

I very much enjoyed our latest training day that gathered leaders from 14 orphanages together to discuss the value of family, working together and assessing issues facing children. It was not surprising to hear that they rated family breakdown as the single biggest crisis affecting children in Myanmar.

Under such dire conflict situations, it is the family that suffers most: homes are destroyed, breadwinners killed and children traumatised and unsettled. Families often break apart as a means of survival, or the result of the emotional strain.

Ni Sat herself has become mother to her two nephews after her sister and brother-in-law were killed for suspected political intrigue – while in fact they were gathering displaced and lost children living in the forest regions where conflict was still rife.

There are many distinct ethnic communities in Myanmar, and original families need to be located for children or a child needs to be reintegrated as a member of their own ethnic community. Various engagements allow the child and the family to become reacquainted, and to establish strong, trusting relationships and connections between the village leaders, village community, parents and children.

Young people are empowered to serve their own community in some way, which requires skills training in areas such as farming, and mentorship. It is key to develop the children to become confident and capable, which reduces their vulnerability from falling victim again to exploitation.

The situation of children living in refugee camps has also motivated the network to begin response activities with them, and we hope they too can be reunited with family and helped to cope with trauma no child should have to endure.

To address a lack of basic childcare and organisational skills, the network will implement Viva’s Quality Improvement System (QIS) programme. This will increase members’ capability in the areas of finance, governance, programme design, people care, child protection and child wellbeing. During the two-year QIS course, participants will identify two areas for improvement in each category and implement changes.

I’ve seen the network’s passion, drive and Godly vision and, talking with Ni Sat, she says she’s excited by the prospect of greater working together. Please pray for the Children’s Development Family Network’s valuable Kingdom ministry.

Justine Demmer is Viva’s Network Consultant for Asia


This article first appeared in Life magazine, issue 8