“There were no public transportations back then. My family and I had to walk for 14 hours from our hometown in Mawlamyaing to Myawaddy. I remember having to walk barefoot while crossing the border to avoid getting caught by the guards,” Aye recalled her migration journey from Myanmar to Thailand.
Two decades ago, together with her family, Aye left her home in Myanmar at the age of 17 and crossed the border to Thailand in search of work and a better life. Despite the daunting start of her journey, Aye found greener pastures in Thailand. She found a job in a garment factory in Mae Sot, Tak, later got married and had children.
“When I was about to give birth, I did not know where to go. I could not go to the hospital because I was scared the police would find out about me. I also could not register my child’s birth because I did not know how,” recalled Aye.
Like Aye, many migrant women in Thailand face difficulties registering their children’s birth due to a lack of access to information and language barriers. Migrants with irregular status, in particular, face additional challenges in approaching government authorities due to fears of being identified and deported.
Without a birth certificate, a child can be denied the right to subsidized health care and social services. Unregistered children are also more vulnerable to abuse, trafficking and exploitation, as their status makes it more difficult for them to file complaints or access related support services.
“I do not want other migrants to face the same challenges as me,” said Aye. Because of this experience, Aye found a new purpose in helping other migrants, especially women, as a Migrant Health Volunteer (MHV).
MHVs are a network of bilingual migrants who provide information, training and support to other migrants in their community. They help ensure that migrants receive updated, accurate and rights-based information in languages they understand. MHVs like Aye receive training from civil society organizations and government institutions on a wide range of topics, from birth registration of migrant children to human trafficking and COVID-19 prevention. They then share the information received with migrant communities.
Aye volunteers with several organizations, including World Vision Foundation of Thailand (WFVT). IOM partners with WVFT to provide trainings for MHVs on several topics such as safe migration, labour rights, grievance mechanisms, access to social services, family planning and sexual and reproductive health, among many others.
After becoming an MHV, Aye learned that under Thai law, any child born in Thailand, including to non-Thai parents or parents who lack legal status, has the right to be registered and obtain a birth certificate. She also learned about the process of birth registration. “I share this information with other expecting mothers,” said Aye.
As of 2021, there are around 4,000 MHVs in Thailand. With over 4.9 million migrants residing in Thailand, MHVs account for only 0.08 per cent of the total migrant population. In Aye’s community with 150 households, she is the only volunteer. While data on gender is not available, Aye hopes that more migrant women become volunteers.
“In my eight years of volunteering, I realized that migrant women tend to feel more comfortable opening up to other women and sharing any concerns they may have,” said Aye.
“There are many migrants who shy away from seeking support as they do not know who they can trust and rely on. This is why we need more volunteers, especially women,” she added.
This year marks Aye’s eighth year of volunteering. “People around me asked why I continue to volunteer even though I am not earning from it. I want to help other migrants, so they do not feel alone and helpless.”
Today, as we celebrate International Women’s Day, we highlight the contribution of women Migrant Health Volunteers like Aye, who act as frontline drivers in keeping their communities well-informed and connecting them to others who can provide them with support, especially in times of crisis.