Altered souls

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Altered souls

Topic |  

mercado-thumbDo you hear the children crying, O my brothers / ‘Ere sorrows come with the years”? The Victorian poet Elizabeth Barret Browning penned that poignant question moved by the exploited children in a then industrializing England.

A century after Browning, the same question resonates in the Philippines, where urban residents became the majority. There are now 138 cities, up from 60 in 1990.

Sixteen were created by Supreme Court flip-flopping decisions that dodged meeting population, land area or income criteria. Emboldened by the high court’s U-turns, congressmen filed bills to create another 26.

In expanded urban settings, however, basic needs of children are not being met, says “The State of the World’s Children 2012”.  United Nations Children’s Fund published the SOWC report last Tuesday.


Children “grow up amid scarcity and deprivation” in slums of Davao, Cebu, as well as Bangkok. Jakarta or Soweoto. In Metro Manila alone, 1.7 million of 11 million residents are children living in informal settlements. “Children who live in the poorest urban communities in the Philippines experience multiple deprivations,” UNICEF Representative Dr. Abdul Alim noted.

Many children are seared by “the urban experience, all too often one of poverty and exclusion”. Clean water, health care, electricity, schools are a block away – but beyond reach due to myopic governance.

A third of urban kids lack basic amenities. Daily, they grapple with the “five deprivations of slums: dry water taps, lack of toilets, cramped makeshift houses, often razed in forced evictions.

“Their urban childhoods reflect the broad disparities that cities contain: rich beside poor, opportunity beside the struggle for survival,” Unicef adds. Children mired in urban penury fare as badly as, or worse, than those living in rural indigence.”

“U5MR” offers a good cross-check indicator. “U5MR” – what?”, this column asked.  “That’s shorthand for the stark “Under-Five Mortality Rate”. Out of every 1,000 births here in 1990, there were 59 kids who never made it to age 5.

We slashed that to 29 in 2010. Today, the country is almost on par with Dominican Republic but lags behind Malaysia’s 6. As result, we’re wedged at Slot 80 in an overall ranking of 193 countries. Is that good enough? Not if “life is the threshold at which other hopes begin.”


“The number of the poor and undernourished wears an increasingly human face,” the Unicef study adds. The ill-fed poor are “increasing faster in urban than in rural areas… Even the well-fed can suffer the “hidden hunger of micronutrient malnutrition.”


Here, 21 out of every 100 infants have low weight at birth. Wasting and stunting (32 percent) result when kids are nursed by wizened chronically malnourished mothers.   Globally, “poor nutrition contributes to more than a third of under-five deaths”.

Overall data shows “urban dwellers worldwide enjoy better access to drinking water and sanitation than people in rural settings. Even so, water and sanitation coverage to keep pace with rapid urban growth.”

The Overseas Foreign Workers’ diaspora results in an estimated nine million Filipino children “losing” one or both parents to migration as they migrate to work abroad.


Today, roughly 3,752 leave daily for those “faraway places with strange sounding names”. That’s 28 times the first clutch of timid migrants who waved pa-alam five decades back. Last year, another 1.42 million left. There were 18,436 international nuptials. For some, “wedding rings became visas of last resort.”

Our fathers never imagined an exodus of 10% of the population. Swept up in a continuing diaspora, many can not recall a different past. There is consensus, too, that migration will not ebb anytime soon.


Earlier surveys show that 4 out of 10 kids, aged 10 to 12, dream of working abroad. And six out of 10 children of OFWs said they, too, would head for the exit, as did their parents, notes Scalabrini Migration Center and Commission on Filipinos Overseas. .

This “hemorrhage” is altering beyond recognition, this nation’s economy and soul as well.    In three out of 10 homes, kids grew up where paychecks substituted for parents. “I hear confessions of children whose parents work aboard,” a Jesuit  told me: “I’m stunned by their confusion and pain.”

Education is a escape hatch from a lifetime of need. But poverty compels 33 out of every 100 children to quit school before reaching Grade 6. In five years, school dropouts here bolted from 1.8 million to 2.2 million.

Of 2.5 million people in forced labor, as a result from trafficking, up to almost half are children. Many end up in brothels. “Every disadvantaged child bears witness to a moral offense: (our) failure to secure his right to survive and thrive,” writes Unicef’s Anthony Lake.

Statistical averaging masks the reality of hungry kids, We must strip away our blinders.  In cooperation with civic groups, government must better plans and deliver effective services for their unique needs—from birth, registration to immunization, and protection from sex trafficking.

Now. Not tomorrow.  “Many of the things we need can wait. The child cannot,“ 1945 Nobel Laureate Gabriela Mistral writes. “To him we cannot answer ‘Tomorrow.’ His name is ‘Today.’ (Email :

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