Preventing Opium Use among Myanmar’s Youth

It’s a rainy Friday afternoon in Myanmar’s Shan State and some 50 concerned villagers, who represent six different villages in the region, have come together to help further devise a plan to put an end to drug use in their communities. One woman, a 45-year-old mother of three named Nadhaw, is more than eager to share her thoughts about the increasingly destructive problem that has plagued so many lives and families in her village, including her own.

Nadhaw is committed to preventing at-risk youth in her village from becoming drug users.
Nadhaw is committed to preventing at-risk youth in her village from becoming drug users.

“There are many drug-users in my village,” Nadhaw shares, “and now many people are migrating to China.”

The number of drug users in and around Shan State in northern Myanmar—part of the infamous Golden Triangle—has steadily increased over the past few years. According to the United Nations, poppy cultivation—the key ingredient to heroin—has tripled since 2006. And China reports that 90 percent of heroin seized in 2014 was produced in the Golden Triangle.

It’s not surprising that men—who have better access to the poppy fields that are nearby the rice and corn farms they work in everyday—are more likely to use drugs than women. Such men admit to using drugs because of peer pressure, its easy accessibility, and because they believe it will help them work longer so they can earn more money. In actuality, drug users become less productive, not surprisingly, and end up dragging their families deeper into emotional and financial stress. The result is women being left to fend for themselves after their husbands are no longer able to work or support their families. Desperately seeking a better life for themselves and their children, women and children often migrate across the border into China where they end up being trafficked into the sex or child labor trade.

This reality impacts many women like Nadhaw, whose husband—the village leader—is also a drug user.

Volunteers from several villages in Myanmar's Shan State share tips on how they are working to prevent drug use in their villages.
Volunteers from several villages in Myanmar’s Shan State share tips on how they are working to prevent drug use in their villages.

During the past year, World Concern has partnered with proactive community members like Nadhaw to create sustainable drug prevention programs in these villages. The main goal has been to prevent first-time drug use, especially among at-risk youth, as well as to raise awareness of the negative effects and long-term damage that drug use causes.

With a background in health, Nadhaw is one of the few people in her village who already had some knowledge about the harmful effects drugs like opium can cause to one’s health and mental state. But for many who are learning these things for the first time, this information is shocking.

As a mother of three adolescent children with a husband who is a drug user, as well as being a trained midwife and health volunteer, it is no wonder that Nadhaw is so concerned about putting an end to this issue.

Nadhaw talks with other moms who are working to curb drug use among youth in their villages.
Nadhaw talks with other moms who are working to curb drug use among youth in their villages.

“I want to stop drug use in my village immediately,” she said. Her concern for her own family as well as others and her background in health has enabled Nadhaw to facilitate health awareness trainings each week for at-risk youth in her village.

“More than 10 youths who have never used drugs come to the meetings every Sunday,” Nadhaw proudly shares. She teaches them about why using drugs is dangerous, how easily they can become addicted, and about the long-term effects of using drugs. “Since we have been giving trainings to the youth in our village, most people see that [the trainings are] a good thing,” she said.

Nadhaw’s 16-year-old son, who has already started drinking alcohol, has undoubtedly been exposed to the drug-use that is prevalent within his community.

“I worry a lot about my oldest son,” Nadhaw says, “I try to tell him why doing drugs is bad and hope he doesn’t ever use them.”

Last year, Nadhaw recalls there were 17 tuberculosis cases in her village. “I think there are probably many more hidden TB cases in our village that we don’t know about,” she said. Among the many health problems related to drug use, TB is spreading rapidly through these villages. Drug users, with their weakened immune systems, are more likely to contract the disease that is already common in rural, villages like these.

Despite the damaging effects of drug use on her community and so many others, Nadhaw’s inspiring commitment to raise awareness and put an end to this devastating problem is the first step in tackling such an overwhelming issue.

Real transformation comes from within

There was no complaining or pleading for more help at the goodbye ceremony in the village. Only a sense of empowerment and hope for the future. It was a true celebration. This village was ready to stand on its own.

water pumpThe tiny community of 40 families in rural Mon State, Myanmar, was “graduating” after seven years of development. Things look very different here than they did seven years ago, but maybe not in the way you’d expect.

There’s are several protected wells that supply clean water, and an absence of human waste on the ground – things you’d hope to notice after an NGO had been working there. The fields surrounding the village are producing abundant rice, and crops are thriving. Families are earning income, and children are healthy. But in terms of traditional rural village life, it is lived much like it has been for decades, maybe centuries.

rice fieldWhy? Because these changes came from within. All credit goes to the village development committee, made up of residents and community leaders, not World Concern.

Instead of dependence on our organization, the residents see our staff (who live and work amidst a cluster of local villages) as true partners. Relationships are built on mutual respect and empowerment, not a provider-beneficiary model. We are a catalyst to change, but not the change-maker. People taking responsibility for and pride in their community produces change.

Poverty is messy. The absence of trash and human waste is one indication people here care about their environment. But the real difference is seen in the confidence on people’s faces. They know they can continue moving forward on their own. This village is ready to say goodbye to World Concern – and this is our goal. We want to work ourselves out of a job.

babyWhat’s the biggest difference in the village? According to one grandma who has lived her all her life, “Our babies aren’t dying anymore.”

All the training, supporting, educating, and encouraging for seven years comes down to this: children are surviving. That’s transformation.

There’s a lot of talk about sustainable community development. Other than occasional follow-up visits from a development officer, how do we know this method is sustainable? Here’s a great example.

vegetable ladyRecently, one of our staff members visited an IDP camp in another region of Myanmar. Hundreds of families had fled their villages when the fighting came too close and threatened their lives. The staff member noticed that the families in the camp were well organized. They had taken their horrible circumstances (not enough food, no water or sanitation, and cramped quarters) and made a plan. They were working together to solve problems and meet needs.

“Where did you learn how to do this?” the staff member asked a man who appeared to lead the resident committee. “World Concern taught us when they worked in our village,” he replied.

These displaced families were able to replicate and use their skills in a camp when life took an unexpected turn and they were forced from their homes. And when they resettle back home, or in a new village, they’ll be able to do it again. That’s sustainable change.

To learn more about transforming villages like this one, visit worldconcern.org/onevillage

Photos: Meeting critical needs for displaced families in Myanmar

Last month we told you about thousands of innocent families who were forced to flee their homes because of fighting in Northern Myanmar. These families arrived in overcrowded camps with nothing. People were sleeping outdoors in the cold and children were sick. Many of you stepped up and donated. Here are some photos just in from our staff in Myanmar showing how we’re helping.

New latrine in Mynamar camp.
A new latrine to protect the health of displaced families living in a camp in Kachin State, Northern Myanmar.
New well.
A new well being dug in one of the camps.
Nutritious food in camps.
A World Concern staff member (right) checks the nutritious food families are receiving in the camps.
Sick mom and baby receive medical care.
A sick mom and her baby receive medical care.
Hand washing training in camp.
World Concern hygiene trainers conduct a hand washing training in the camp to help keep families healthy and stop the spread of disease.
A water tank holds safe drinking water.
A brand new water tank holds clean, safe drinking water in one of the camps.
Well being dug.
Another angle of a well being dug to provide a sustainable source of clean water.
Families receiving supplies.
Families receive blankets, mosquito bed nets, and emergency supplies.