VOICES FROM THE FIELDTHE IRC BLOG
Myanmar: Aid workers reach the country's poorest communities [Photos]
October 21, 2013 by Peter Biro
|Children play in the Kaledan River in Myanmar’s rural Chin State. The communities here are the poorest in the country. Photo: Peter Biro/IRC|
Story and photos by Peter Biro/IRC
KHA OHN WA, Myanmar — In remote Chin state, Nga Aung, 56, eked out a living for himself and his family of five by planting vegetables on a small plot of eroded land. Occasionally he found odd jobs that earned him about US$4 a month to buy additional food—still not enough to survive.
“Life here is very hard,” says Aung. “My land doesn’t produce enough to feed my family. Many days we would go hungry.”
Ethnic Chin number about half a million and, like most of Myanmar’s minority groups, have a history of conflict with the government. Until recently, outsiders had little access to the mountainous and strikingly beautiful region. Some 70 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, according to the United Nations. The rate is even higher in the most remote, inaccessible areas.
One of only two international aid groups allowed to operate here, the IRC has been providing food, water and health services, and rebuilding schools, bridges and other infrastructure, since 2008. During a recent trip by small boat up the Kaladan River, which snakes its way through Chin, I accompanied a team of IRC aid workers on visits to a number of villages that receive IRC support.
Kha Ohn Wa, a hamlet of made up of thatched houses and narrow, muddy paths, relies on small-scale slash-and-burn farming, a method that, combined with scarce arable land, makes the soil especially prone to erosion. Many farmers, like Nga Aung, are unable to meet their basic needs and have stopped planting crops, relying on loans to survive. Village markets no longer function.
Last year the IRC launched a new program to help the poorest villagers earn a viable income by moving away from farming. The IRC gave Nga Aung four piglets.
“It turned my life around,” he says. “The pigs are now breeding and I have already sold one for a big profit.”
The IRC also is setting up community rice banks to help villagers become more self-reliant. The banks enable farmers to borrow rice seeds at the start of the growing season and replenish them after harvest.
Access to health care is another major problem in Chin. Most villages are cut off from even basic services. Poverty and low levels of literacy contribute to a lack of knowledge about hygiene and health.
In response, the IRC has trained 100 community health workers to detect, refer and treat common diseases like malaria. Meanwhile, 50 IRC auxiliary midwives have been trained in safe delivery, newborn care, first aid and patient referral. One of the midwives, Tintin Nwe, 20, cares for expectant mothers in Kha Ohn Wa.
“I can treat common illnesses and I know when to send women to the nearest health post if I recognize complications,” she says as she examines a patient in her house. Five other pregnant women patiently wait for their monthly check ups.
“The health post is far away and hard to get to, especially during the rainy season, when all the paths turn to mud,” says one woman. “For us, this is a very important help.”
Photos from Myanmar's Chin State
A woman demonstrates her cooking in an IRC-sponsored event aimed at learning about nutrition.
Children attend classes in a new school building, constructed as part of a large IRC development project.
A math class at an IRC-built school in a rural Chin.
Food is always in short supply in Chin. Here, Thet Thet Phyo, an IRC nutrition officer, hands out seeds and teaches villagers to protect the crops from insects.
Auxiliary midwife Tintin Nwe examines an expectant mother. Chin State is desperately lacking in health services and the IRC has trained 50 midwives and 100 community health workers in basic care. Health workers refer serious cases to rural clinics.
Nga Aung received four piglets from the IRC to help his ailing economy. “It turned my life around,” he says. “I’m a pig farmer now.”
Daw Aung Yoe, 40, helps manage an IRC-sponsored community rice bank, which enables villagers to borrow rice seeds at the start of a harvest season and refund it at the end.
A woman collects water at an IRC-installed water system in a small Chin village.
A man shelters from the rain on the banks of the Kaledan River. Chin is highly inaccessible, especially in the rainy season, when rivers, roads and tracks become nearly impassable.
At a Glance - Myanmar
Location: Southeast Asia
Neighbors: Bangladesh, China, India, Laos, Thailand
Size: 676,578 sq km
Major ethnic groups: Burman, Chin, Kachin, Karenni, Karen, Mon, Rakhine, Shan
Chief of state: President Thien Sein
The IRC in Myanmar
In 2008, the IRC launched aid programs following the devastation wrought by Cyclone Nargis. Today, the IRC provides health, water and sanitation, livelihoods and social development programs in some of the most remote areas of the country including Rakhine, Chin and Kayah states. The IRC also aids nearly 140,000 refugees from Myanmar in nine camps along the Myanmar-Thailand border.
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