musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

Dropout Dilemma

One of the boys in the photo below just dropped out of school. He was in the sixth grade at a school in Mandalay.


I know these kids well, and this boy in particular. They are among the regulars that I take on trips in the area when I’m in Mandalay. Over the years I finally learned all their names (not an easy task, I assure you!) and I’ve gotten to know a little more about them each time I visit. Needless to say, I was shocked to hear that this one kid had dropped out of school at such a young age. According the report I got from a mutual friend in the 90th Street neighborhood where they all live, this boy has not been going to school for a few months already.

When I was in Mandalay the last time this boy told me that he wasn’t happy living at home. I don’t know all the details, but I know that his parents are divorced and that his father has a drinking problem. No indications of any physical abuse, but again, I don’t know the full story. But I think there were/are problems with the mother also, and this boy had been living with the grandmother and/or an aunt. In any case, the grandmother and the aunt are the ones who seem to be trying to take care of the boy.

My friend told me that this boy was now working at a car body shop on the outskirts of time. Far enough from “home” that he was also now staying and sleeping at this shop each night. What can you say about this situation? Bad … sad … tragic … outrageous … heartbreaking. It’s all of that.

My first instinct was to ask; What can I do to help? How can we get this kid back in school? Well, it’s not so easy. He was apparently “signed out” of the school by the principal after his lengthy absence and his only recourse, if he DOES want to go back to school, is to wait until the next term starts in June and try to enroll again. I’ve gotten mixed signals about what the boy wants to do. At first he seemed to have no desire to return to school and only wanted to work. But the latest I heard was that he was open to the idea of going back next term, but to a different school. Perhaps he feels embarrassed about dropping out and doesn’t want to face his friends from the old neighborhood.

I asked for advice from two trusted and wise friends; Ma Thanegi and Khin Nwe Lwin. They were both very helpful, but also very honest and realistic in their suggestions. They reminded me that there are a lot of kids like this boy in Myanmar nowadays: teenagers, or children even younger, who have stopped going to school and are working in teashops, restaurants, factories, and workshops. Nevertheless, the typical Westerner is outraged at such situations, thinking that the child should be in school and not toiling away the day in some sweat shop. But the reality is that many of these kids either need to work or want to work. And if the child is able to learn some sort of trade by working, it may actually be beneficial for him in the long run. Going to school doesn’t pay the bills or put food on the table, and many families benefit from having their children employed. No, it’s not ideal, but it certainly beats seeing a child homeless, living on the streets, begging, or resorting to crime.

On a related topic I read an article in the Bangkok Post last week. The headline read: Fishery Working Age to be Raised. The article reported that the Thailand Labour Ministry was raising the minimum age of workers from 16 to 18, part of their efforts to suppress human trafficking, help deflect criticism about human rights violations, and to help curb the high brokerage fees that job brokers charge migrant workers. Again, this sort of thing sounds good on paper, but to put the minimum age as high as 18 strikes me as much too strict. It’s also a lazy and rather ineffective way of trying to fix these problems and penalizes teenagers who would like to work.

I’ll say it again: staying in school is not always the best solution. Children’s “rights” should reflect what the children wants, not what some NGO or government bureau thinks they need.



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