World Day Against Child Labour

“I just want to go to school”: New Myanmar photo exhibitions offer powerful insights into the lives of children trapped in child labour

A six-year-old who begs at a Pagoda to buy medicine for her sick mother, so desperate to return to school that she often still wears her old school uniform. A fisherman who has worked on Or Khom lake since he was five years old. A girl who burns plastic for 1.20 US dollars a day on a rubbish tip, dreaming of becoming a dress maker and giving her younger brother a better life.

News | 18 June 2020
‘For Mother’ a photo-documentary by Lwin Htoo Wai and Khin Htet Htet Myo on display at Yangon Central Railway Station. Photo by PhotoDoc Association.
Meet the stars of a new series of photo-documentary exhibitions launching online and in locations across Yangon this week, before travelling to major cities across Myanmar. The exhibits are part of a World Day Against Child Labour awareness-raising campaign coordinated by the International Labour Organization (ILO) in collaboration with the Ministry of Labour, Population and Immigration (MoLIP), the Embassy of Switzerland and the PhotoDoc Association.

Some 1.13 million children are subject to child labour in Myanmar – more than one out of every ten under 18-year-olds in the country. Globally, 152 million children face the same plight. However, it can be hard to grasp the complexities of the situation just by looking at the statistics.

The photo exhibitions hosted in Yangon Central Railway Station (June 14 to July 10), on Dala Ferries (June 17 to July 10) and Junction Square Mall (June 22 to June 28) bring the issue to life in a relatable way, using striking images accompanied by moving interviews to draw us into the lives of real children with real challenges but also real dreams.

Each photo-documentary has been produced by young journalists and civil society activists who attended one of the five hands-on photojournalism workshops focused on child labour run by PhotoDoc and the ILO since 2016.

“At first we weren’t sure the exhibits would be possible due to COVID-19 restrictions, but it was important to go ahead as the impact of the pandemic may exacerbate child labour and the photo-documentaries serve as an important call to action, sharing the perspectives of children who are often invisible,” explains Selim Benaissa, Chief Technical Adviser of the ILO Myanmar Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour. “Thanks to the active cooperation of the Myanmar Railways Department, the Inland Water Transport Department and Junction Centre Group, we were able to share the resilience and hope of children with a mass audience, while also complying with all of the COVID health measures.”

“The stories’ impressive reach on social media is testament to their power and professional quality,” adds Christophe Loviny, Director of PhotoDoc. “For example, Three Famous Brothers, a short documentary by youth activists Hlwan Moe and Min Htet Aung, already has half a million views on our Facebook magazine Myanmar Stories since it was posted on the World Day Against Child Labour, 12 June.”

Like Hlwan Moe and Min Htet Aung, the creators of the photo documentaries showcased in the exhibitions – Lwin Htoo Wai, Khin Htet Htet Myo, Than Maung and Pyay Kyaw Aung – have succeeded not only in exposing the harsh realities of child labour and the wider issues linked to poverty, education and social justice that are at play. The stories also allow the personalities, playfulness and endurance of each of the children to shine through.

Amid a bleak wasteland we see one of our heroes giggling with her brother, for example. We observe Thu Zar Hein the beggar take a moment out to play with food sellers’ children nearby, and the 14-year-old fisherman splashes in the lake which to him is ‘like a giant swimming pool.’

These signs of hope allude to the bigger and more positive goal of the exhibitions – to change mindsets and behaviours, and ultimately help eradicate child labour in Myanmar altogether by 2025.

Significant challenges remain, but progress is certainly being made. On 8 June, for example, Myanmar confirmed its commitment to addressing child labour by ratifying the ILO Minimum Age Convention, which prohibits hazardous activities for anyone under 18 years old and requires countries to establish national policies for the elimination of child labour.

The three photo stories, King of the Lake by Than Maung, For Mother by Lwin Htoo Wai and Khin Htet Htet Myo, and Give him a Chance by Pyay Kyaw Aung can be seen in person in Yangon or online on the Myanmar Stories Facebook page.

In Myanmar, the ILO’s work to combat child labour is led by the Myanmar Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (My-PEC), funded by the US Department of Labour.