Global child rights organisation Plan International has expressed its disappointment at an “underwhelming and weakened” agreement at the Rio 20+ Summit on sustainable development.
Plan says the un-ambitious document contains little of substance or real commitment and represents a huge missed opportunity to tackle the linked challenges of global poverty and environmental damage.
Director of Plan’s Disasters and Humanitarian Response Roger Yates said: “It is hugely disappointing that these negotiations have produced so little hope for children and young people worldwide.
“The agreement claims it is ‘committed to free humanity from poverty and hunger as a matter of urgency’ – but any sense of urgency has been removed from a document which is almost devoid of timelines or governmental obligation.”
“Millions of people are still daily denied their basic human rights to affordable food, clean water and energy and access to land. But this document does little to envisage a more equitable, safe, inclusive world in which children can grow up free from the grip of poverty and hunger and from under the shadow of environmental disaster.”
Plan welcomes the acknowledgement of the importance of both education and women as drivers of sustainable development. But is disappointed at the lack of detail on how quality education –a key to breaking from the cycle of poverty – will be made achievable for all.
Mr Yates said: “Creating a roadmap to sustainable development agreeable to all is a monumental challenge but without a clear vision of the future we want to achieve, this is simply not going to work. We can only hope that the Sustainable Development Goals will offer a better opportunity to get this right for future generations.”
There are more than 1 million stateless people in Thailand — two-thirds of them children — who are unable to access basic rights like education and healthcare. Without Thai citizenship, many young people have to drop out of school and try and find work illegally.
In this interview, Chanchai Thongsumrit, Plan Thailand’s consultant for the Vocational Training Programme for Stateless Girls, talks about some of the challenges stateless girls face.
Q: What problems do stateless girls in northern Thailand face?
A: Stateless girls in the northern areas of Thailand face discrimination in their efforts to earn a living. Most are seen as less entitled than males because of cultural norms and because they have no legal identity. They have a difficult life. While the girls need jobs to support their families, there are not many options for good careers for girls. Most stateless girls are unable to access government services like health and education or to travel or work freely because they are not Thai citizens and have no birth certificate. If they cannot find a good job, their statelessness puts them at risk of child labour and human trafficking.
Q: What opportunities do stateless girls have in terms of education?
A: Although the Thai government provides free education to every child, extra costs, like those for computer courses, special activities, transportation and sport uniforms, still exist and poor families, especially stateless ones, cannot afford to pay. Most high schools are in the city, a fact which entails additional costs for the dormitory or other accommodation, food and transportation. The two main obstacles for stateless children are not being able to apply for a scholarship and not being able to travel freely out of their areas without obtaining permission from the district officer. Most stateless girls stop going to school when they reach grade 9 and only a few are able to continue through grade 12.
Q: What opportunities do stateless girls have in terms of livelihoods?
A: Recently, stateless girls who have not been able to pursue higher education have been seeking to marry rich Malaysian or Chinese men with the hope that their husbands will support their families. Unfortunately, very few are so lucky. For the most part, stateless girls cannot choose their own marriage partner because doing so requires that they have good connections or a good job. Most are forced to work in karaoke bars or under other exploitative conditions.
Q: Why do many stateless girls work at karaoke bars?
A: With no identification or birth certificate, stateless girls have limited access to employment and education, which both require proof of a legal identity. It is easy to get a job at a karaoke bar because owners do not inquire about identification. In fact, it is about the only job available for many stateless people, particularly girls. Such bars require no skills or papers but provide a good income. Girls are paid 500-1,000 baht per day to work from 6 pm to 1 am, but they are at risk of sexual abuse.
Q. When did Plan’s vocational training programme start?
A: Plan’s vocational training programme was first piloted in 2008. It targeted housewives in Plan’s communities, educating them on life skills like the making of local or traditional handicrafts and agriculture. In 2009, Plan revised the programme to focus on marginalised and stateless people, particularly youths, who are unable to receive government services. The programme has two main components: it encourages young people to become entrepreneurs and it develops their capacity to be employed in the market.
Q. Why did Plan Thailand initiate its vocational training programme?
A: It is our intention to help marginalised and stateless girls secure a good quality of life. If we invest in building their knowledge, the girls can use can use their newfound ability to support themselves and families.
Q. How does this programme work? Tell us about the process.
A: We start by assessing the market demand for girl workers to ensure that they will get a good job after they graduate. Then, we work with our public and private sector partners and youth networks to develop a work plan for selecting. Selected candidates are provided with knowledge about market management and market resources. Monitoring and evaluation come at the end of the process.
Q. How do stateless girls benefit?
A: Each stateless girl who participates in the programme receives a certificate from the training centre. Certified by the government sector, this certificate ensures that they will get a good job and have a better life.
Q. How many candidates have been trained under this programme?
A: Plan trained 30 disadvantaged and stateless girls in the pilot programme it conducted last year.
Q. What obstacles does this programme face?
A: Many of the graduates decided to take a job other than the one they were trained for or refused to work in the market Plan offered. The main reasons were that the Plan-selected workplace was too far from their homes and that certain workplaces were unable to hire many new staff at the same time. Some girls decided to take a job that offered a high salary but bad conditions of work. These problems led Plan Thailand to review and adjust its work process to better suit the girls it trains and the marketplaces they work in.
Q. What are your expectations for this programme?
A: Plan just received US$1.8 million from the Accenture Foundation to support livelihoods projects for the next three years. In 2013, Plan aims to expand its vocational life skill training to reach 2,700 disadvantaged and stateless youths in the northern (Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai), eastern (Chonburi and Rayong) and southern (Phang-nga and Phuket) regions of Thailand.
This post is by Quynh Tran, Plan’s communications coordinator in Vietnam. Quynh recently travelled to central Vietnam to check up on a family who have been taking part in a village microfinance scheme set up by Plan.
Crossing the hot and dry winds blowing from Laos, we returned to La Ru village in Quang Tri, central Vietnam, to visit a 10-year-old girl called Kieu and her parents. When we arrived, Kieu was playing with her friends in the front yard while her father fixed the roof and her mother cleaned the family’s newly opened shop. The atmosphere was full of laughter.
Compared to 2 months ago when I last visited, the small house by the main road looked much brighter under the morning sun. A new roof to cover the yard had been built, cement had been laid down and the small shop was doing a brisk business.
Tam, Kieu’s mother, used US$110 she had saved as part of Plan’s Village Savings and Loans (VSL) microfinance initiative and an additional US$300 she borrowed from the group to open the shop.
“My husband and I agreed that we should invest in a business. That’s why our small shop was born. Besides farming, we can earn money from selling groceries to villagers,” she said.
With money coming in from the shop and the farm, the low-interest loans should be paid back in no time.
Even Kieu is excited about the shop.
“I help mother selling goods when I am at home for the summer time. It’s really fun!” she said.
Tam signed up for the VSL initiative in 2009 when Plan and a local partner set it up in La Ru. She was voted to be the leader of the group, which has 10 members who meet 3 times a month. Through the group, the members have been able to save money, sharpen their financial skills and get access to loans.
“Last year, from saving money, I was able to buy a wardrobe and stationery for my daughter,” said Tam.
Not only has Tam learnt how to save money, she’s also learnt how her savings can be leveraged to make more money in the long run. What’s more, she’s an inspiration to others in the village.
With financial security at home, Kieu is now able to fully concentrate on her studies and she is one of the top students in her class.
Nargis, 19, used to dream of becoming a teacher. Now a mother twice over, she has had to rethink her life.
“I was studying in grade 8 when child marriage shattered all my dreams,” she says. She was 16 when her parents arranged for her to marry an older man from the same district in central Bangladesh.
More than 2/3 of girls are married before the age of 18 in Bangladesh, even though it is illegal. The proportion is even higher in the rural areas. The girls lose out on years of school, have health problems from having babies too young, and are generally less well-equipped to deal with married life. The whole of society suffers as a result.
“My first son died and I was abused by my in-laws,” says Nargis, who lives in Gaizpur district with her husband, Khorshed. “Now I have another son, but he is malnourished.
Now in her 60s, single mother Ami Zan has experienced child marriage first hand. Today, she and her daughter have taken a stand against the practice by becoming active members of their local village community organization in Gazipur, central Bangladesh.
Plan supports groups like there, which undertake many activities, some of them related to child marriage. The members visit families in the community, especially those with teenage daughters or sons, and discuss the downside of early marriage with them.
This is Ami’s story, in her own words:
I was married at the age of 13 and I became a mother to my son at the age of 14. My husband was 30 years old when we married.
I didn’t want to give my first daughter in marriage, but economic circumstances forced me to. My husband had been sick for two years and we were very, very poor. I had to give her away when she was 14 as we could not afford to keep her.
I won’t do the same with my second daughter. She is now 20. She’s just completed 12th grade. She has 1 more exam to sit and then she will have completed secondary education. A girl should not be married until she is physically ready to become a mother.
When I got married and lived the life of a wife, it resulted in bad health. I couldn’t finish my exams. I dreamt of being an undergraduate student, but the dream never came true. I had to do a lot of work immediately after I got married. I accepted it because I had to do my duty to look after my husband’s family.
There was mental pressure on me as well. My parents were not badly off, but it was not the same for my husband’s side.
Now, I am very active in the community. I’m a member of the village development committee. Most of us are women. We have a lot of activities and some of them relate to child marriage. We have visited a lot of families, especially those with teenage daughters or sons, and discussed the bad side of early marriage with them.
We’ve counselled families who were planning on marrying their children before the legal age. We concentrate on the bridegroom’s side. We try and stop the marriage from happening through them first. We always encourage the bride’s family to let her complete her education before marriage.
There’s been resistance of course. It’s not easy. If families can get their son to marry a teenage girl, they can easily control her emotions and decisions. If the boy marries a literate woman, the girl will start judging what is right and wrong. That’s not acceptable for the boy’s family. We have had bad arguments sometimes and had to get support from others –- like head teachers and the local council.
I ran as a candidate in the last election. Before he died, my husband actually encouraged me to get involved in politics.
Ghazala does not know for sure how old she is. Her guess is anywhere between 15 and 18 years. She became a child bride five years ago. For a young girl, she already has three children- two sons aged 3 and 2 and a three-month-old daughter.
Ghazala’s husband works as a manual labourer and often struggles to find long-term work. On days he is able to find odd jobs, he still earns less than 2 dollars a day. “He goes without work for long periods of time and there are days we struggle to feed ourselves well,” she says.
Left with little alternative to feed a family of five – including three young children, Ghazala supplements her husband’s meager income by rolling beedis like other girls and women in her neighbourhood. Unlike others who accomplish rolling 1000 beedis a day, Ghazala can barely roll 500. “In addition to rolling beedis and doing household chores, I also have to look after three very young children,” she says.
For a young mother who is still breastfeeding, Ghazala has little time or money to care for her nutritional needs. She sits for hours rolling beedis with her youngest child on her lap. All her children, including the three-month-old girl come in direct contact with tobacco. Like all other beedi rollers in Kadiri, Ghazala and her children are exposed to harmful tobacco dust as they sit in narrow congested lanes, surrounded by heaps of tobacco in temperatures reaching 45 degrees Celsius in summer.
“Besides severe body ache, I also get headaches and sometimes I find it difficult to breathe,” she says. “But I have to work to survive and to pay our rent, we have no choice.”
Aisha was only 13 when she became a child bride. Now, at the age of 16, she is already 4 months pregnant with her first child. Third among five siblings, Aisha’s father passed away when she was only 10. Extreme poverty, further exacerbated by the death of her father, meant that she had to drop out of school after just completing her primary education and get married.
She has been rolling beedis ever since she came to live with her husband’s family after marriage. Aisha’s 25-year-old husband Asif is a painter and often struggles to find regular work. For rest of the days he stays at home.
With her husband’s meager income, a significant burden of running the household has fallen on Aisha. “We do not own a house and have to pay our rent. If we don’t pay we will lose the roof above our head,” she says.
Far from looking after herself and meeting her nutritional requirements, Aisha spends all day squatting on the floor rolling up to 2000 beedis along with other female members of the family. “I feel the pain in my chest and lungs. I also suffer from back ache,” she says.
Eleven-year-old Salma is suffering from jaundice. She is so frail she can barely sit straight. Yet, she is tasked with rolling up to 1500 beedis a day to support her family. It takes her over 12 hours of painful labour to earn less than 2 dollars.
Youngest among four siblings, Salma dropped out of school last year when she completed grade 4. “I wanted to continue going to school but we are very poor and have been struggling to pay our rent. We have to work to survive,” she says.
Salma is in need of medical attention. She looks drawn and gaunt. Her parents spent every little saving they had for the marriage of their two elder daughters. They are now left with nothing for Salma or her 15-year-old brother Yousuf who is training to be a carpenter with a local tradesman.
With her illness and excruciating work Salma’s condition is deteriorating. She has also developed a ringworm infection on her wrist. Infections like this are common in the area due to poor sanitation, lack of hygiene and crammed living conditions.
Very low levels of education further compound the dire conditions in which people live and work in the area. Salma’s parents and neighbours believe her ringworm infection is related to her jaundice and both can only be cured by branding her sore, infected wrist with a hot iron rod. Many children and adults in the area bear similar scars caused by branding.
Munni (pictured, right) is 17 years old. By the time she was only 7 she learned to roll beedis, like most girls in her neighbourhood, and helped her mother after school. When she turned 12 she dropped out of school to supplement her family’s income. “I had just completed grade 6. My parents were facing financial difficulties and could no longer afford to keep me in school. I had no choice,” she says.
Five years since, Munni has processed thousands of kilos of tobacco with her bare hands for up to 14 hours - every single day of her life. She and her 35-year-old mother Gausiya must roll 2000 beedis each day to earn less than 4 US dollars. “I am stressed all day to meet this target,” she says. Come holiday, festival or even illness, Munni works every day. “We have no choice. If we don’t work we won’t be able to survive,” she says.
With their wages linked to meeting the target in multiples of 1000 beedis, Munni does not have a moment to spare. Squatting in one position for hours, she deftly rolls beedis with the speed and precision of a robot in an assembly line. “Even when we are talking to each other our hands are still busy,” she says.
Deprived of the chance to continue her education and pulled into hazardous labour Munni still considers herself lucky that she can at least read and write. Her elder sister, who is 20 and already married with a child, was not even sent to school. “She rolled beedis full-time from when she was 6 or 7 years old due to our financial situation. I don’t even remember if they even played as young girls,” says Gausiya. Life continues to be the same for Gausiya’s elder daughter even after marriage. She now rolls beedis to support her husband’s family.
Munni says she feels totally exhausted. “There is no respite from this work from morning to evening. My legs ache, my arms also hurt. I cannot sit straight nor stand properly. I do this work but would never wish this upon anyone,” she says. For Munni the punishing regime of rolling beedis is also the only way she can save money for her dowry.
“We went totally broke marrying off our elder daughter not very long ago and now we are worried about Munni. We have to save for her dowry too,” says Gausiya. Munni is unsure if she will be able to break free from the economic slavery she finds herself trapped in after her marriage. “I don’t want to work but if my husband says I have to, I won’t have any alternative.”
She cannot even bear to think of her children getting pulled into tobacco trade. “I will never allow my children to roll beedis. It must end with me. It must not continue.”
Plan International, a child rights organisation that works to protect the children’s right to a good and healthy start in life, strongly opposes House Bill entitled “An Act Promoting a Comprehensive Program on Breastfeeding Practices and Regulating the Trade, Marketing and Promotions of Certain Foods for Infants and Children” on the following grounds:
1. This bill will adversely affect the significant improvement in exclusive breastfeeding rates in the Philippines and will reverse the positive trend that has been gained in recent years. The 2011 study of the Philippine Food and Nutrition Research Institute shows that there is a 10% increase in exclusive breastfeeding rate from 35.9% in 2008 to 46.7% in 2011, and 16% decrease in the use of artificial milks with complementary foods from 55.4% to 39.4%
2. It narrows the application of the Milk Code only to artificial feeding products (such as formula milk) for the age group of 0 to six months instead of the current 0 to 36 months
3. It lifts all restrictions on donations of breast milk substitutes in times of emergency
4. It makes lactation breaks for breastfeeding mothers at work unpaid.
Plan International asserts that breastmilk is vital to infant and child health for several reasons:
1. Breast milk is the perfect and complete source of nutrition and energy for the first six months of life
2. It provides protection from infectious diseases
3. It improves cognitive development
4. Breastmilk is one of the most cost-efficient ways of improving the health and survival rates of infants and young children
While infant formula milk has been adjusted so that it is more like human milk, it is far from perfect for babies. The quality of protein in the animal milk can never equal the quality of protein in breastmilk. The protein in animal milk is difficult for a baby’s stomach to digest and this can lead to diarrhea, abdominal pain, rashes and other illnesses.
Breastmilk is also the safest food for babies under worst conditions and in exceptionally difficult circumstances when safe water supply and sanitation are scarce.
It is a common misconception that in emergencies, many mothers can no longer breastfeed adequately due to stress or inadequate nutrition. While stress can temporarily interfere with the flow of breast milk, it is not likely to inhibit breast-milk production, provided mothers and infants remain together and are adequately supported to initiate and continue breastfeeding. Mothers who lack food or who are malnourished can still breastfeed adequately. Adequate fluids and extra food for the mother will help protect their health and well-being.
Plan, thus, urges the proponents to withdraw the bill “An Act Promoting a Comprehensive Program on Breastfeeding Practices and Regulating the Trade, Marketing and Promotions of Certain Foods for Infants and Children.”
Give Filipino babies a chance to a healthy start. Ensure the survival rates of infants and young children. Withdraw the bill now.
Plan has been working in the Philippines since 1961. For 50 years now, our work and investment have been broadly based around key issues affecting children: education, health, livelihood, governance, water and environmental sanitation, child protection and disaster risk reduction and management.
For more information, contact Malou Sevilla, Plan’s Program Advisor on Health at 0917-5838913 or Mardy Halcon, Communications Officer at 0917-5435210.
A new Plan-supported project in rural Laos is mobilising communities to take responsibility for their sanitation and bring an end to open defecation. Plan staff member David Cook recently travelled to Bokeo Province in Laos and saw firsthand the impact this project is having.
High on a ridge in north-western Laos, villagers chatter excitedly as they drop handfuls of rice husks on to the dusty ground.
A closer look reveals that the whole community is gathered around a giant map of the village. Different coloured chalks mark the boundary, the roads and the water sources, and bright pieces of paper held down by stones identify the location of every household.
Awkward laughter ripples through the crowd, and the reason soon becomes clear – the rice husks are being used to mark where each member of the village relieves themselves in a community that has no toilets.
The laughter increases as an elderly woman places rice husks on the paper representing her home; fellow villagers tease her for suggesting she relieves herself inside her simple, one room house.
But the laughter slowly fades as an unavoidable picture emerges of a community that is full of exposed human waste – a big problem across Bokeo Province, one of the poorest in Laos.
This village mapping session is the first step in an innovative process known as Community Led Total Sanitation (CLTS). It’s designed to help communities realise the scope of the problems caused by going to the toilet in the open and motivate them to take control of making changes that have real outcomes for them and their children.
It’s a vital learning experience. Water-borne diseases such as diarrhoea are some of the biggest killers of young children in the developing world, and they are rife in communities where people continue to relieve themselves in the open.
When parents or children get sick, access to healthcare is limited and expensive, and illness has a huge impact on families that already struggle to provide enough income or food for all their needs. There are other important benefits from changing the situation, such as improving the safety and security of girls and women, who can be at greater risk when relieving themselves in the open.
When the map is complete, it’s clear the community is starting to realise just how much human waste is around their village. To reinforce the impact, the Plan team begins a presentation that appeals to all the senses.
A shovel with human waste found in the village is brought into the gathering. The sun is now high overhead and the day is heating up, so Plan Laos WASH Co-ordinator Thipphavanh Malaithong kindly offers the villagers a drink from a clean bottle of water; a number of people gladly accept.
But then he uses a twig to take a tiny sample of waste from the shovel, places it into the bottle, shakes it up and offers it around once more.
The revulsion on the faces of the people is understandable. Why would anyone want to drink that?
But you already are, say the Plan staff.
The penny is starting to drop.
Over the next half hour the presentation uses picture cards and other creative learning methods to teach the community about the ways that exposed human waste enters water and food supplies, and ultimately causes illness and disease, with its many costs to health, productivity and finances.
The impact is remarkable. At the end of the presentation, the community as a whole is convinced that they have been eating their own waste, and immediately 37 of 42 households register their commitment to build simple toilets with the materials they have available and within their household budgets.
Plan staff and local government health workers will return periodically to support the community with ongoing encouragement and advice about how to build their toilets and improve hygiene practices such as hand washing after toilet use. But, most importantly, the villagers have the passion to do it themselves.
It all sounds impressive. But why not just build toilets for the community if that’s what they need? Won’t that fix the problem?
Plan in Australia WASH Programme Manager Lee Leong says building toilets for people doesn’t guarantee they will be used.
“There’s no point building toilets for people if they don’t know why it’s important that they use them or how to fix them if they’re broken,” says Lee.
“We’ve seen many examples of villages that have had toilets built for them, and 12 months later many of them are unused, broken, or are being used to house livestock.
“The CLTS process takes longer, but it’s simply more sustainable, and much more effective.”
The next day in a nearby village, we see some of the impact of the CLTS process as local villager Hak shows us the toilet that he built for his family 12 months ago after he learnt about the dangers of exposed human waste.
At first, he says, he wasn’t sure if he could build a toilet, but after receiving technical support and advice from Plan, it only took him 10 days to build the simple, sheltered structure.
Now he has become a champion for toilets in his village. His family can comfortably and safely relieve themselves in any weather, and he says his health has improved as well.
Plan has been using the CLTS approach with positive results in countries all over the world, and Plan Laos is working closely with local and national governments in Laos to generate greater support for this approach so it can be used to reach more people in the remote areas. The aim is that by eliminating open defecation and ensuring healthy hygiene behaviour, communities and their children become healthier and safer, with a better quality of life.
‘Mobilising Communities to Improve Sanitation – pilot in Laos’ is funded by donations from the Australian public and supporters, combined with grants from AusAID. To contribute to this project, go to www.plan.org.au or call 13 75 26.