PHAUNG DAW PYIN, Myanmar – Determined to create a brighter future, young Rozeya is becoming a role model for the Muslim community in Myanmar, managing to challenge decades-long obstacles which prevented generations of young girls from receiving a proper education.
“It's always been common for boys to get education, but not girls,” Rozeya, the first resident of UNHCR-sponsored girls' hostels to pass the national matriculation exam, told Reuters on Friday, May 11.
“But now it's changing.”
Like other Muslim girls, Rozeya was passed over for education and stayed at home in the hamlet of Phaung Daw Pyin while her two younger brothers were sent off to school.
Her future changed when her father, Awli Ahmed, a 55-year-old basket maker and widower who struggles to support his family on the equivalent of 60 US cents a day, encountered a problem at the market.
Facing a translation problem, he found solution in an educated girl who volunteered to translate from his local dialect to Burmese.
“He came home and said one of his daughters should study and get an education,” Rozeya, 21, recalls, taking a break from teaching middle school in another UNHCR-funded program.
Nevertheless, the road was not easy for Rozeya.
Missing out on primary school, she tried to catch up by enrolling in a children's language program sponsored by the UN refugee agency.
After one glance, the teacher judged her to be too young and sent her away, even though she was actually old enough to qualify.
Undeterred, Rozeya went to class every day regardless- until the teacher finally relented and allowed her to replace a drop-out.
As she passed through primary and secondary school, her father fended off pressure from other villagers who wanted Rozeya to drop out and come home.
“It's because my whole family was supporting me that I was able to overcome all the obstacles on my way,” Rozeya says.
“When I first started travelling around, many mullahs looked at me with an uneasy eye,” she says.
Currently, many of the mullahs are now trying to secure places for their own daughters.
“But now they appreciate my work. Almost the whole community is happy to receive me back,” she said.
Achieving her own success as a teacher for young girls, Rozeya now serves as a role model for Myanmar girls.
“There are no women engineers from this area so I want to become the first one,” says 16-year-old student Tawsmin, one of seven children from a hamlet of only 28 houses.
“Most of the families are poor, so the girls have to go to the mountains and deep jungle to collect firewood [to sell],” Tawsmin explains.
“When I went home for the break, all the village girls told me I was different after living in the hostel. They said, 'You are so changed in your appearance, your bearing, your confidence, your communication.' They were really impressed.”
Rozeya now reflects on how different her life would have been if she had not single-mindedly pursued her education.
“I would just sit at home 'behind the curtain,' never going out of the house, waiting to get married. Or maybe I'd be a housemaid in the village or grilling chili peppers” to earn a pittance, she adds.
Instead, she's determined to get a university education.
“I'd like to become an English teacher, go back to work at one of the hostels and eventually work for UNHCR.”
Today, her father's pride glows in every soft-spoken word.
“Because of Rozeya now many girls want to study,” he said outside his daughter's classroom.
Muslims make up nearly five percent of Myanmar's more than 53 million population.
The largest group of Myanmar Muslims is the ethnic-Bengali minority, generally known as the Rohingyas, who mainly live in the western state of Rakhine.
Less numbered are the Indian-descended Muslims who live in Yangon and ethnic-Chinese Muslims, known as the Panthay.
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