Beaten and burnt: Myanmar's invisible child servants

Duped by promises of good wages, may impoverished people from rural Myanmar send their children to work for the growing urban middle class. But the children are cruelly abused and rarely paid, yet the authorities do nothing.
San Kay Khine, a 17-year-old Myanmar child slave, shows her scarred arms and twisted fingers as she recovers at her family’s village in Baw Lone Kwin, outside of the capital Yangon. She is among the tens of thousands of children from poor rural areas who are sent to work as domestic helpers for the country’s growing pool of wealthier, urban middle-class households. Ye Aung Thu / AFP
San Kay Khine, a 17-year-old Myanmar child slave, shows her scarred arms and twisted fingers as she recovers at her family’s village in Baw Lone Kwin, outside of the capital Yangon. She is among the tens of thousands of children from poor rural areas who are sent to work as domestic helpers for the country’s growing pool of wealthier, urban middle-class households. Ye Aung Thu / AFP

BAW LONE KWIN, MYANMAR // San Kay Khine stares at her burnt, scarred hands, her twisted fingers a reminder of her years as a child slave.

The 17-year-old was rescued this month from a tailor’s shop in Yangon, where she and another girl from her village spent five years as housemaids.

There they were beaten, cut with knives and deprived of sleep and food by the shop owner and her family – all for an occasional few dollars thrown their way.

The pair are among tens of thousands of children from poor rural areas who are sent to work as domestic helpers for Myanmar’s growing pool of wealthier, urban middle-class households.

Human rights groups say they are at high risk of abuse, enticed by promises of jobs that can support their families.

But the issue is under-researched in an impoverished country where the justice system favours the wealthy.

San Kay Khine, whose fingers have set at unnatural angles after being broken by her captors, remains too traumatised to talk about what happened, only whispering that she wants to stay at home in her village, a few hours’ drive from Yangon.

Instead, it is left to 16-year-old Thazin to give details of the suffering they shared at the tailor’s shop.

“I have a scar from where an iron was stamped on my leg and a scar on my head as well,” she said.

“This was a wound from a knife, because my cooking was not OK,” she said, pointing to a mark on her nose.

Like many child workers, the pair were brought to Yangon by a friend from the village who promised to find them good jobs.

After years of failed rescue attempts by their families, who twice confronted the owners but were rebuffed, they were freed when a local journalist alerted the national human rights commission.

The shop owner and her two adult children were arrested this week in connection with the allegations and charged with human trafficking.

Despite their arrest, San Kay Khine’s mother fears the tailor’s family will want revenge.

“I am really afraid,” said Nyo Nyo Win, 32, outside the small bamboo and thatch hut where she lives with her three other children. “I cannot eat or sleep. They said they would send us to jail by accusing us of stealing things from them.”

Tackling child labour is a key challenge for Myanmar’s new democratically elected government as it seeks to reform the country after half a century of brutal military rule.

The country is the world’s seventh-worst for child labour, according to risk analysts Verisk Maplecroft, just ahead of India and Liberia.

One in five children aged 10 to 17 – about 1.7 million people – are working, according to a United Nations analysis in 2014 census data.

Most come from poor, displaced communities in areas affected by ethnic insurgencies or regions hit by natural disasters. Many can be seen clearing tables in Yangon’s tea houses and roadside cafes, or helping bar owners late into the night.

Thousands more make up an invisible workforce behind closed doors.

“They are the most vulnerable,” said Aung Myo Min, executive director of Equality Myanmar, an NGO that helps former child workers. “Many of the children live in fear. They feel valueless. They have lost their childhood and they can’t get it back.”

Recent cases of abuse have cast a spotlight on the conditions of Asia’s migrant domestic workers, including of an Indonesian maid who was tortured for months by her Hong Kong employer.

After the case made headlines in 2014, Myanmar temporarily banned its women from going to work in Singapore and Hong Kong over concerns they would be vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.

Inside the country, however, child helpers have no legal protection and many fear going to the police.

“There is so much corruption in our country, the owners give money to the police to look the other way,” said Aung Myo Min.

Myanmar’s foreign minister Aung San Suu Kyi pledged to promote human rights in her country when she addressed the UN on Wednesday.

“By standing firm against the forces of prejudice and intolerance, we are reaffirming our faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, ”

said the Noble laureate making her debut as her country’s voice in the international arena.

But some Western observers, including some supporters who campaigned for her freedom when she was under house arrest, have voiced dismay at her apparent refusal to recognise the Rohingya, a Muslim minority who are persecuted in overwhelmingly Buddhist Myanmar.

Certainly the families of young women like San Kay Khine and Thazin have little cause to trust any of the authorities. They say the police did nothing to rescue the girls, despite repeated appeals for help..

In the end, they were paid a total of about US$4,000 (Dh14,700) in compensation by the tailor’s family.

San Kay Khine’s mother, Nyo Nyo Win, said she will never let her daughter go away to work again.

“I’m not going to send her anywhere,” she said. “I will keep her at home.”

* Agence France-Presse

Published: September 23, 2016 04:00 AM

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