Story by Luis Ramirez
Photos by Nina Strochilc
Located in Southeast Asia, bordering China, India, and Thailand, the Union of Myanmar, previously known as Burma, is a diverse nation torn by civil strife. Despite being rich in natural resources, Myanmar is one of the poorest countries in the world. The average annual income per family is around $1,900, making education a privilege rather than a priority for those in dire economic straits. For many children born into poverty, entering the labor market at a young age offers families a means of survival.
Children are required to attend school up until the age of ten; from then on they are free to decide whether they want to continue their education. For many children, leaving school comes as a relief for their families. Parents struggling to make ends meet often choose to send their children into the workforce as a necessity. If a child continues their education through high school, they are forced to pay student fees — causing an even greater financial strain. As a result, only about a third of the secondary school age population is enrolled in school.
Growing up, many Burmese children only have three options. Reaching secondary education is a shrinking prospect for kids in this poverty-ridden land. Along with basic student fees, books, and the suggested uniform, many teachers require additional tutoring. Without this costly add-on, students find themselves falling behind the rest of their class. Therefore, many students are unable to afford an education and end up becoming monks or joining the military.
According to the Human Rights Watch, Myanmar’s army has enlisted over 70,000 children under the age of eighteen, making the country home to thenumber of child soldiers in the world. However, the government has vehemently denied these allegations.
Finally, when a family cannot afford education and does not want their children in the military, they send them to learn at monasteries. In Buddhism, men are required to take up temporary monastic residence at least twice in their lives. Their first duty is between the ages of ten and twenty as a samanera (novice monk) and later, after the age of twenty, as a hpongyi (fully ordained monk). The 50,000 monasteries in Myanmar are home to around 500,000 monks. Monks are viewed as the country’s reigning civil institution, since the majority of Burmese are strict followers of the Buddhist faith.
Left with meager options, the children of Myanmar are constantly overlooked in their own society, and forgotten by the rest of the world.