Finding their voice

Animated discussion with Thalea, Carmelita and NGO workers championing children's issues

published April 12 2013, MST page A5

Sixteen-year-old Thalea Manacho is looking forward to her freshman year as an AB English student at the University of Caloocan City. She is hoping it will help her become more articulate and confident in her work in the children and youth organization in her area—Barangay Bagong Silang in the same city, the biggest barangay in the country in terms of population.  When one talks about the urban poor, Bagong Silang is the community that easily comes to mind.
Her friend Carmelita Castanares, 15, is an incoming third year high school student who is as active in the group as Thalea is. Carmelita has been volunteering since she was 11, taking after an older sister.
The girls are just two of the more articulate campaigners of Bata Muna, a program launched by a consortium of non-government organizations challenging candidates, national and local, for the May 13 polls to commit to championing children’s issues beyond the rhetoric and “photo ops”.
According to Thalea and Carmelita, the top issues affecting children and the youth in their community are corporal punishment, child labor, unsafe surroundings and lack of access to reproductive health services.
As they elaborate, it becomes apparent part of the problem is the mindset of the adults that shape their world.
There is an anti-corporal punishment law that has been passed by the House of Representatives but not by the Senate.  The bill seeks to prohibit corporal punishment in its many forms—beating, spanking, cursing, and many others.
It is teachers and parents that often commit acts of corporal punishment.  For teachers, the Department of Education has issued its Deped Child Protection policy on May 12 last year where it articulated its zero-tolerance policy for any kind of child abuse, exploitation, violence, discrimination, bullying and other forms of abuse. Different teachers have reacted in different ways to this policy—some have felt that their authority to discipline children as they see fit has been diminished while some say they agree.
The home is a different story.  Parents will always feel that they have the sole discretion on how to enforce discipline on their children. It is also the thinking that sparing the child from the rod will turn them into spoiled brats. This has governed Filipino families for the longest time.
What is not often acknowledged is that corporal punishment brings physical and psychological harm to the child and breeds resentment towards the authority. The punishment is sometimes disproportionate to the wrong deed committed, degenerates to a brazen display of power. Unfortunately, the child is not made to understand exactly why he or she is being punished in the first place.
According to Thalea and Carmelita, there are many children in their community who are working as scavengers and traders of scrap.  These kids have stopped schooling altogether—with the blessing, sometimes the encouragement, of their parents. The idea is that it is much more beneficial to the family to have even its younger members earn.
Laws prohibiting child labor protect kids from harsh conditions in the formal sector—factories, farms, mining sites and the like. The informal sector is much harder to track, and all the more so because the kids work with their families where each has a role —one scavenges, the other sorts, the other sells.   Some parents see no incentive at all in keeping their children in school when they can be tapped to increase income for the household.  The conditional cash transfer program only says that children under 14 must be kept in schools—“what about those who are over 14 but want to keep on studying?” Thalea asks.
The apparent solution is the provision of jobs for the parents, specific to their skill level.  They should be enabled to provide for their families without having to ask their children to quit school and help out.
Thalea and Carmelita also complain that there are no safe places for children to play in the community. “We don’t feel safe in our barangay. Crimes thrive in places without street lamps, there are gang wars, and children cannot play on the roads because they will get run over by vehicles.”
Unfortunately, open spaces helped established by local politicians normally serve as basketball courts for adults or older kids who drive away the younger children when they want to play.  Worse, law enforcers treat children as offenders that must be punished instead of vulnerable citizens that must be protected.
Finally, the children say they need information, not about sex per se but about the many changes that they have to face and decisions they have to make while growing up.  Thalea talks about her friends getting pregnant because of their ignorance “they did not think they would get pregnant.”  Parents, enraged upon discovering the pregnancy, would simply drive the children away from the house, or force them into marriage that would most likely be disastrous.  And while pregnant adolescents can use the services of health centers, they don’t—health workers embarrass them in public about being pregnant at such a young age.
Children cannot vote yet and may not seem able to demand answers from their leaders. Thalea, Carmelita and all the others however remind us that even young people must be heard, because despite their tender ages, they do know what they are talking about.