Tagbilaran, The Philippines: From the moment I stepped outside, I was bombarded by street children asking me for help. They crowded around me and begged for my money. They were all thin and frail, ranging in age from toddlers to preteens. I was instantly surrounded by dozens of innocent faces caked with dirt and framed by grimy unkempt hair. The children's eyes and cheeks sunk deep into their skulls as a result of malnutrition. Many of the girls seemed as if they might topple over at any moment, faint from starvation and hindered by the weight of infants carried upon their protruding hip bones.
It would be impossible to get an exact figure of just how many children are living and working on the streets in the Philippines, but it seems that all sources are in concurrence that the numbers are extremely high and rising.
"Depending on who's counting and why, estimates of the total number of Filipino street children vary, even as they continue to rise tsunami-like in the swelling tide of this country's seemingly endless political and economic crisis. The figures range from a low 100,000 to a high (but raw) figure of 250,000-300,000 nationwide" (Mayuga: 2006).
Mark Watkinson, the CEO of HSBC Philippines, estimated the number of street children in The Philippines to be closer to one and a half million. He described,
"The exact number of street children…is impossible to quantify.But just looking at the accessible statistics can paint a grim picture…You see them begging on the streets or rapping on car windows for alms. Their clothes are dirty and smelly because they rummage trash bins for food scraps. Some huddle in street corners, sniffing rugby [inhalants]. Children sell cigarettes or sampaguita leis while others resort to stealing, prostitution, and other petty crimes" (Lee: 2007).
In Bohol, I found myself surrounded by dozens of street children. It would have been impossible to help them all. My only option was to say no over and over as I pressed on with my day. It hurt me deep down inside to have to do this. Children should be playing and enjoying their childhood. They should not need to work the streets, worrying about where their next meal would come from, or if there would even be a next meal. Yet, there is an overwhelming absence of parental guidance in these cases, largely because they are overwhelmed by the weight of extreme poverty. The forsaken children of these ill prepared guardians have no choice but to work the streets, all too often resorting to criminal occupations at early ages, just in order to survive.
I went into a café and ordered a sandwich. The children gathered by the window and watched helplessly as I ate my breakfast. Their filthy faces pressed up against the glass, until the café owner went outside to shoo them away with a broom as if the children were nothing more than pesky rodents. I did not finish my meal, so when I went back outside, I offered one of the boys the remainder of my food. He quickly snatched it out of my hands and skipped down the street waving it in the air for the other children to see. He then devoured it as if it were the most delicious meal he had ever tasted.
Coming from a big American city, I learned long ago that it is better to give homeless people food than it is to give them money. After seeing this boy's reaction, I got an idea for how I could help the children of Tagbiliran. I went to the Bohol Quality shopping center, where tight security guarded every entrance, vigilantly preventing any street children from entering the complex. Bohol Quality was a bustling multi-level mall filled with professionally dressed Filipinos. These well off patrons enjoyed peaceful meals and shopping ventures within the confines of their neat and tidy symbol of capitalism without having to deal with the unpleasantness of the less fortunate who's stomachs rumbled outside.
I went into the first floor grocery and grabbed as much food as I could carry. I tried to focus on buying as many vegetables as possible. Since arriving in the Philippines, I had noticed that everyone seemed to eat nothing more than fish, meat, and rice. The concept of vegetarianism seemed unknown to vendors, because vegetables were difficult to find in Southern Philippine cuisine. So uncommon were vegetables in this part of the world that to buy them was more expensive than other types of food sold within the Bohol Quality grocery store. Yet, I figured that if I was going to bring nourishment to hungry children, the best way to go about it would be to load up these youths' growing bodies with the kind of vitamins and minerals that can only be obtained by eating vegetables.
There is a serious problem of starvation among youth in The Philippines, and according to Childhope Asia, many street children suffer from malnutrition and anemia. This results in stunted growth. As it turns out, an article entitled Information about the Street Children ranked the Philippines as one of the top ten nations in the world with regards to malnutrition for children under the age of five.
I walked out of the grocery store with four large paper bags overflowing with food items. Since the cost of living in the Philippines is so cheap, the total price of the food for only seven hundred pesos (about seventeen dollars), even after I'd loaded up with fresh fruits and vegetables. I had this self-gratifying fantasy that I might be able to distribute the food in an orderly fashion and walk away feeling pride in doing my part to help the less fortunate. I imagined the children lining up as I handed them apples and zucchinis one at a time.
This isn't quite how it played out. As soon as the children realized I was giving away food, they ran at me yelling and screaming like a vicious mob of desperation. I dropped the bags to the ground and stepped back, out of harm's way, as they ripped and tore at the bags and their contents. It was a dog pile of dirty, desperate children fighting relentlessly for every last morsel. In the end, the older boys were victorious as they walked away with arms full of vegetables, unwilling to share, and giant grins stretched across their faces. The younger children hadn't gotten anything. Packages of noodles had burst in the frenzy, and many younger kids stayed behind with their cheeks pressed against the pavement. They were scooping the broken, uncooked ramen directly from the ground and into their mouths.
One sullen girl about seven years of age, with dark skin and sunken cheeks, came to me and asked me if I had any more food to give away. Her arms were tightly wrapped around a sickly infant, dressed in torn rags and covered in dirt and grime. The girl looked at me with sad yet hopeful eyes. I apologized and regretfully informed her that all of the food was gone.
Several well-dressed Filipina women, obviously headed into Bohol Quality, stopped in their tracks just to shame me. They reacted with entitlement and disgust. The women scolded me for causing such a scene and for encouraging the street children to go on living their horrid, useless lives by giving them something to eat.
"This situation has given rise to many uncomfortable encounters between the rich and poor…[and] seems to have incubated a lot of distrust, frustration, and hostility among the general public towards street children. Street children are often called 'yagit' by the general public – which translates as 'rubbish on the street'" (Sugden: 2008).
I realized that being charitable wasn't about appeasing one's own ego, or about taking personal pleasure in doing good deeds. It was about these children not having a choice between good and bad because all they knew was hunger, pain, and abandonment. One person with a couple bags of groceries wasn't going to change their lives for the better. It would take an entire infrastructural overhaul, as well as a cultural shift in the attitudes towards poverty versus privilege, for the lives of these children to finally improve. It would take a group effort, or a community of good-doers, to really make a difference. Charity and good will cannot be hoarded by one. It is something that must be shared among like-minded individuals for there to be any kind of meaningful progress.
Immediately following my incident with the street children, I felt a rush of emotions They mostly consisted of guilt and sorrow, as well as a great deal of bewildered frustration. My previously held vision of childhood joy and blithe had been shattered into a million pieces, scattered across the sidewalk like the bits of dried ramen.
In fact, there is a genocidal war on street children happening in the Philippines, as well as many other countries around the world. The government encourages the violent eradication of these poor underprivileged children in the same manner that they do stray dogs – rounded up and put to death. In the Philippines, it is permitted for these citizen groups of vigilante "death squads" to take the lives of street children. According to The Associated Press and Human Rights Watch,
"Police and government officials abetted the killings and provided training and weapons to squads responsible for more than 800 deaths in the southern Philippines, including those of suspected criminals and street children as young as fourteen…Police officers or ex-police officers provided the death squads with training, weapons and ammunition, motorcycles, and information on the targets" (The Associated Press: 2009).
These mass murders are looked upon as a benefit to the general public because the street children are assumed to be criminals. Meanwhile, it should be noted that abortion is strictly illegal in the Philippines due to the heavy presence of Catholic moral standards. It is difficult to find any logic behind the murder of unborn children being restricted, while the killing of full grown children goes unregulated. Furthermore, birth control in The Philippines is not only expensive; it is difficult for those in need to procure. This is why such a poverty-stricken population is multiplying out of control, resulting in an explosion of starvation and the unending suffering for the thousands of children born into extreme destitution.
Not all street children in The Philippines are destined for assassination. There are currently thousands of powerless children rotting, mistreated and neglected, in Filipino jails. Many are tortured and abused by police.
"In Davao, children as young as five or six were being rounded up by the police. From the time of arrest, these children were already exposed to violent treatment and intimidation. In Cebu City, most of the ninety-three children in conflict with the law who were interviewed said they received rough treatment from the police upon arrest (being knocked on the head or collared)…sixty-one percent said they experienced violence at the police station. The most common forms of violence were mauling and punching, followed by whipping, slapping, and dunking their heads in water" (UNICEF: 2012).
What's worse is that some of the children had never been convicted of crime. Like the victims of Laos' "War on Drugs", many homeless children are thrown into jail simply because the Filipino authorities don't know what else to do with them. Father Shay Cullen, an activist for unjustly imprisoned street children, described,
"The street children imprisoned around the world are the most compelling evidence of the impact of poverty in the lives of the most vulnerable and the failure of governments to protect and help them. There are an estimate twenty thousand children in prison in the Philippines throughout a single year. They are usually falsely accused because they are homeless, vulnerable and cannot defend themselves. Some steal food form the market, are using forbidden solvents to ease the pains of hunger and loneliness. They are the victims of an unjust and cruel system of imprisonment…These children in prison are frequently mixed with adult prisoners and sexually abused in the over packed cells. Here eighty to a hundred prisoners squat for twenty-four hours taking turns at lying down…The heat and stench is overpowering, the food is only a few cents a day and disease, malnutrition and tuberculosis are the daily hazard suffered by the children. Most are innocent of any crime. The youngest we found were six-year-old children, and eight to fourteen [year olds] are common…The children behind bars in filthy over-crowded; mosquito ridden cells are filled with bewilderment, pain and hunger. They are the throwaway children, lost lives, wasted human beings. They will be corrupted in the colleges of crime with other hardened criminals. Besides they will be exposed to malnutrition, abandonment, abuse, torture and exploitation. The evidence of this is seen in the drawings and testimonies of the children rescued and released from jails and detention centers. It is damming evidence of abuse and torture and the daily violation of their human rights" (Cullen: 2005 & 2008).
Violence towards children in The Philippines is not just reserved for authorities and vigilantes. Many kids experience violence in their homes as a result of not generating enough income for their families. So they run away, only to join street begging gangs, drug gangs, or prostitution rings. The children then face violent assaults from their gang leaders and pimps upon failing to earn enough money. The pressure to appease is insurmountable.
"Children living and working on the streets are vulnerable to abuse.A study with adolescents living and working on the streets in the Philippines found that of those who shared their experiences of abuse on the streets (36/77), 39% said they had been subjected to physical abuse; More than a third (36%) said they had been sexually abused, and a fourth said they were arbitrarily arrested by authorities and publicly humiliated" (UNICEF: 2012).
Do these children really deserve to die at the hands of death squads, or to suffer abuse at the hands of gang leaders, pimps, and the authorities that are supposed to serve and protect? It is hard to blame such young individuals that have been placed in harmful environments with little or no parental guidance for resorting to criminal lifestyles. The children don't understand, they aren't being educated, so how are they to make intelligible choices?
Despite the world of dangerous drugs and sexual exploitation encountered on a daily basis, forty-four percent of street children agreed that being arrested by abusive law enforcers was the biggest risk associated with living on the streets (UNICEF: 2012). Many street children regularly participate in high risk behaviors including theft, as well as sex and drug trafficking. These criminal behaviors are the dire repercussions of widespread child abuse and neglect.
"Neglect can be defined as 'the failure to provide for the development of the child in all spheres: health, education, emotional development, nutrition, shelter, and safe living conditions, in the context of resources reasonably available to the family or caretakers and causes or has a high probability of causing harm to the child's health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development. This includes the failure to properly supervise and protect children from harm as much as is feasible'…A study in the Philippines examined adverse childhood experiences among a population-based sample of adults and found that 22.5% reported experiencing physical neglect, including not having enough to eat and being dressed in dirty clothes.A much higher percentage of 43.6% reported experiencing psychological neglect, which included feeling unloved, feeling their parents wished they hadn't been born and being hated by family members…The concept of verbal abuse is translated to them as 'masakit na salita' and seen as an ordinary event" (UNICEF: 2012).
Perhaps the reason that these children are so vulnerable to abuse and neglect is because there are just so goddam many of them. It appeared to me that the children greatly outnumbered the adults in The Philippines. Then, people wonder why these kids go all Lord of the Flies in the form of gang warfare upon the islands' city streets. According to the Guttmacher Institute, one fifth of married women in The Philippines do not want to have another child, but do not use birth control, either. Thanks to the pro-life agenda of recent Philippine lawmakers, the Philippines made cutbacks to their publicly funded contraceptive program in 2004, and the US Agency for International Development phased out their program for providing contraceptives to people in the Philippines by 2008. This has since driven prices on contraception through the roof, and in the face of starvation, many bereft individuals are going to choose the instant satisfaction of feeding themselves over buying condoms. According to a 2010 study, only forty-one percent of impoverish women in The Philippines reported ever using contraceptives.
The result of this is that there are more children than the parents can handle, and this leads to neglect. UNICEF explains that the outcomes of neglect include the onset of mental disorders, alcoholism, sexual deviance, and aggression. They also describe the outcomes of street exploitation that include dropping out of school, debt bondage, unpaid wages, long hours, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, low self-esteem, substance abuse, violence, the spread of sexual transmitted diseases, and unwanted pregnancies. This lifestyle may sound undesirable; however, for many children living in the Philippines, their birth parents are not prepared to support them, so working the streets is the only alternative they have to starvation.
"The street offers skimpy income for the family's short rations…It's the only alternative to a desolate crowded home, abuse or violence. They 'leave home' to escape from their families and ply sidewalks, hang around malls, begging, selling cigarettes, 'sometimes even their little bodies'" (Mercado: 2007).
My experience with trying to help the street children tore at my emotions like a lion upon its prey. It really put my own childhood into perspective…I had had everything I needed: two parents who loved me, a father who provided for me, and a mother who prepared my meals, helped me with my homework, and washed my clothes so that I could go out and play. I had a roof over my head, lived in a safe neighborhood, and every year I awoke on Christmas day to find dozens of presents delivered by Santa Claus. However, I was very much convinced that I had the worst parents in the world. I hated my life, my home, and being forced to go to school. As an adolescent, I would get angry if I didn't get exactly what I wanted for Christmas, and take obsession with the little things in life that didn't go exactly my way.
How could I possibly have taken my childhood for granted? I was fortunate enough to be born into a culture where I had so much, yet it still wasn't enough. On the other hand, the street children in the Philippines have absolutely nothing but their unwavering spirits and their will to survive. There is no time for imagination and games when their stomachs are rumbling with hunger - no parents to love or take care of them when they need it the most. There is no one to force them into homework and education when life takes place on the streets, and there definitely isn't any Santa Clause. Instead, these children are devoid of childhoods, denied the carefree nature of youth and their innocence.
This was perhaps one of the most life-changing moments in my trip around the world. I have since developed a more minimalist attitude when it comes to materialism. My family doesn't understand it at all. They continued to give me extravagant gifts every year for Christmas, and they couldn't quite grasp why it upset me. Last year, when my mother asked what I wanted for Christmas, I told her that I didn't need anything.
"I didn't ask you what you needed," she said, "I asked what you wanted." On Christmas Day, I gazed upon the pile of expensive gifts that had been given to me and once again became flooded with emotion.
"This is too much," I proclaimed, "I don't deserve all of this."
"Of course you deserve it!" insisted my father, but I believe he misunderstood my perspective. To him, it sounded like I had a self-esteem issue. In reality, I felt a tremendous amount of guilt for receiving all of these new, nice possessions when I already had everything I needed and more.
I felt further guilt around the holidays as I observed the way my family regarded their food. My mother had taken to shopping at Costco®, even as we grew older and fewer people lived in the house. No matter the occasion, there was always too much food at my parent's house. Endless amounts of fresh fruits, vegetables, meats, and cheeses were wasted, uneaten, and left in the fridge to rot, mold, and spoil .It was not unusual to find something that expired five or ten years prior in my parents' refrigerator – my mother would buy things and then completely forget about them. These foods were eventually thrown away without a drop of remorse, utterly unappreciated for the sustenance and nutrition they had the potential to provide. I thought of the street children who would have jumped at the chance to devour the vast quantities of food to which my family had barely paid heed.
In the United States, I frequently observe the attitude of excess, and I find it exasperating. Every time I hear someone brag about their material gains or complain about something frivolous and shallow minded, I want to pick them up and drop them off in Tagbiliaran, or else one of the thousands of other places around the world where poverty is a way of life. Maybe the only way to truly appreciate the advantages of "first world problems" is to have first-hand experiences with third world reality. Everyone should know what it feels like to look into the sunken eyes of a starving child and say, 'sorry, I cannot help you; I have a comfortable life and expensive belongings waiting for me in America'. Perhaps it is an individual's reaction to this kind of stimulus that serves as their true test of character.***
The moral of this tale, among others, is that Americans are quick to take America for granted. Our families, our wealth, our freedom…the United States is truly the land of opportunity. Even the poorest of the poor in America have it good compared to so many others in the world. The United States has social welfare, food subsidies, and public education so that individuals in need can get a step up from poverty and the opportunity to make something of their lives - whether they chose to do so or not is an entirely different story. However, they do have opportunity in America, and the freedom of choice. Freedom is a privilege that we must hold tight to and cherish every day of our lives. It is a value we must share with our students and children. As Teresa Au, the head of HSBC corporate responsibility and sustainability, once commented,
"The future of any country depends on its children and how well we can protect the most marginalized ones and allow them to achieve their full potential" (Lee: 2007).
...The next day, I boarded a bus that would take me across the island of Negros. For the most part, the ride was absolutely breathtaking. The road stretched through shimmering rice patties where water buffalo basked in mud and bathed in sunshine. Negros' National Highway set the scene for a gorgeous sunset over rolling hills, lush with flowers and palms. Geographically speaking, the Philippines is perhaps one of the most naturally beautiful countries in the world.
As we drove inland, noxious pollution took over as the air grew thick with smog. My eyes began to sting and I coughed uncontrollably. I tied my sarong around my mouth and nose in an attempt to filter the putrid air and sulfuric stench. Giant smokestacks rose before us, suffocating the natural oasis into a malodorous, decaying landscape of defiled contamination. Giant chunks of industrial waste floated through the air and pelted the bus without mercy. I imagined that just passing through this horrible place would be enough to give me five kinds of cancer. To my horror, the bus stopped right in front of the plant's barbed wire fence. A group of children climbed off of the bus and made their way towards the factory entrance. Several more kids climbed on, clothing soiled and shredded, looking tired and forlorn from a long day's work.
According to a study conducted by the United States Department of Labor, eleven percent of children living in the Philippines between the ages of five and fourteen were working in 2001, while the rate jumped to 36.9% among those between the ages of fifteen and seventeen. Of the child workers in the Philippines, 2.4 million work under hazardous conditions (Philippines: Incidence and Nature of Child Labor: 2004). In a different study conducted in 2001 by the ILO-IPEC, it was found that sixteen percent of all Filipino children have been subjugated to child labor (UNICEF: 2012).
"The term 'child labor' can be defined as work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity, and that is harmful to their physical and mental development… child labor refers to work that is mentally, physically, socially or morally dangerous and harmful to children and interferes with their schooling"(UNICEF: 2012).
This UNICEF article referenced a 2003 study conducted by Edralin in the Filipino city of Cebu where 237 child workers were interviewed. Of these children, 22.4% were prostitutes, while another forty-six percent of children worked as adult entertainers. Many reported that they worked on the streets, and usually labored eight to sixteen hours per day. Seventeen percent of these children will never make it to high school. In 2007, there was an estimated 15,200 street children working in the city of Cebu (Mercado: 2007).
"Children living on the streets engage in informal labor activities such as scavenging or begging. Children are also engaged in domestic service and are involved in the commercial sex industry, including the use of children in the production of pornography and the exploitation of children by sex tourists" (Philippines: Incidence and Nature of Child Labor: 2004).
Many Filipino children find themselves working because they were unfortunate enough to be born to impoverished parents who were likely raised in poverty themselves. Street work is cross generational, and it is the only life that some Filipino families know. There is a severe lack of education among those who live and work on the streets, along with a general lack of distrust for authority. These factors make it difficult for NGOs to get through to the community and enact effective programs aimed at creating better lives for youth street workers.
"The reluctance of parents to cooperate with agencies concerned in promoting children's welfare is one of the reasons why the problem on street children could not fully be addressed, a social welfare official said…some families refuse to work with them, claiming they do not need the agency's intervention in protecting the welfare of their children. He added that some parents believed that their children stay on the streets to earn a living" (Patt: 2012).
The lack of access to education experienced by thousands of children across the Philippines is a major hindrance for both sociological and economic development. If you are reading this, you are probably educated and take your literacy for granted. Take a moment to think about how lucky you are to know how to read. Think about what kind of possibilities this creates for your life and mind. Now, imagine how different your world would be had your parents and culture had not insisted that you become literate. This is what life is like for thousands of people around the world.
Whether it is blamed on the absence of family planning and education, or on the prominence of cultural discrimination based on poverty versus privilege, it is essential that the subject of disadvantaged children be brought to the forefront of our attention. Only then can humanitarians join hands in the name of progress and improve the quality of life for the thousands of youths who've been robbed of their childhoods. Only then can infrastructure be rebuilt and progress made for the countless children around the world who live day in and day out just struggling to survive.
Kat Vallera - NomadiKat Travel Media
(This story is an excerpt from the book, Around the World in 80 J's)
***Afterthought #1: If you call this path to awareness a form of "tourism", then there may be no hope. Visiting foreign countries without leaving the safe zones of tourist enclaves and resorts is like going to North Korea and only seeing the tour that the government want you to see. Which would probably still be interesting, mind you.
Afterthought #2: I found it sad that it took a disastrous typhoon for the rest of the world to notice The Philippines. This is a country that is in dire need of progress, infrastructure, opportunity, and education. I'm not even sure where all the money that was donated to the typhoon relief could have gone – it reminded me of giving the street children food to be devoured in an instant.
Just because the typhoon has passed doesn't mean that it's time to stop caring about The Philippines. It will take much more than monetary donations to develop this country – we must encourage politicians to favor education and public infrastructure over misinformation and gruesome death squads. Let's support a change for the better.
HELP THE CHILDREN OF THE PHILIPPINES TODAY!
Note: NomadiKat Travel Media is not affiliated with and cannot vouch for the legitimacy of any of the above mentioned programs.
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