After 17 years of ceasefire between the Myanmar military and Kachin Independence Army (KIA), fighting once again broke out in June 2011 in the country’s north, internally displacing some 50,000 people who have sought safety in the camps. Partners Asia works with community leaders in areas controlled by either side. One local partner operating in KIA areas, the Kachin Development Group (KDG), has been working feverishly in these overcrowded camps to counter problems that have proliferated among the children and youth.
There is little for young people to do in the camps. If they leave the camps, they risk getting caught in the fighting or even being trafficked to China, which lies just across the border of these disputed areas. KDG recognized growing sexual activity among the camp’s youth, leading to adolescent pregnancies, illness and even death from dangerous abortions. KDG started programs in the camps to teach sexual and reproductive health, usually taboo subjects in this conservative society. Using peer group discussions, and involving older pregnant women to discuss their experiences with younger girls and boys, KDG has so far held 16 workshops in five camps reaching nearly 500 youth. KDG also delivered monthly supplies of sanitary packs (lack of which was a major cause of urinary tract infections in the camps) to more than 500 girls, supported nutrition for 50 pregnant women (adolescents and first-time mothers), and held 127 peer-group counseling meetings.
In the course of their work in the camps, KDG became frustrated that international agencies were not meeting the refugees’ basic needs. The Myanmar government was not allowing foreign assistance to those in KIA-controlled areas. In order to advocate for the large agencies to extend assistance, KDG teams wanted to conduct health surveys among children in the camps, but they felt insecure in the technical knowledge they had among themselves. Partners Asia was confident they could carry out a rigorous study with the right support, and so Partners Asia linked KDG with Thailand’s Thammasat University professors in public health, who volunteered to help design research protocol and analyze data. The resulting report confirmed high rates of malnutrition among the camps’ children under-five and was key to unlocking resistance to international agencies reaching the camps. In February 2013, just two months after the report was released, the United Nations drove the first aid trucks into KIA camps.
The refugees remain in these camps, and KDG continues to work on prevention of unwanted pregnancies as well as advocate on behalf of the refugees. Aid from international agencies remains sporadic and insufficient, and local organizations like the KDG are the only reliable source of assistance for thousands of displaced people.
Partners Asia finds and works flexibly with local leaders like KDG who are already trying to assist their communities to improve lives, offering these leaders the financial and technical assistance they need to strengthen the work they start. As with the tie between KDG and Thammasat, Partners Asia links community groups into local and regional networks of similar organizations as well as to international donors.
Aung San Suu Kyi at a World Economic Forum meeting on June 5 asked the international community to “Help us to find the solutions to our own problems in our own way”. Partners Asia hears and echoes her call.
We need your continued support to ensure that strong grassroots leaders like KDG, who emerge from the communities they help and understand best the shifting local contexts, can keep responding effectively and immediately to their communities’ needs.