Walking near Rizal Park in central Manila I passed three street children sitting on the sidewalk. Separated from a beautiful, manicured golf course by a chain link fence, they were sniffing glue.
These three boys looked to be around 12-years-old. They were dirty, barefoot and dressed in worn-out, tattered ragamuffin clothing. My presence nearby was of no interest. They cupped their hands over their noses, squeezed tubes of glue and inhaled. A young adult woman, child in tow, stood nearby also sniffing from her cupped palm. The child toddled around playing in trash on the sidewalk.
Scenes such as this are not unusual. They exist in virtually every city in the developing world. Poverty knows no bounds and it erodes human dignity wherever it exists. But, as with most people I know, I never get used to it. It haunts me.
According to the Philippine Resource Network there are 1.5 million street children in the Philippines. The shadow of a modern shopping mall falls on the intersection where these children and the homeless mother and child sleep. In the corner of a pedestrian underpass, hundreds, perhaps thousands, walk by them daily. This isn’t unusual either. We accommodate to it because we don’t know how to change it, so it continues.
A more haunting image sticks in my mind from two days later as my colleagues and I walked to our hotel along United Nations Avenue. The World Health Organization is on this street and so too are a modern hotel with a glitzy casino, the main office of a large bank, a metro police station and an upscale hospital. It’s a high rent district.
Darkness was approaching. Trucks, motorbikes and cars jostled for position. Manila traffic is like no other. It is the ultimate in cacophonous, congestion.
In a gutter inches from this nightmarish, horn-honking turmoil a little girl in a tattered dress walked barefoot oblivious to the danger. She was no more than four-years-old. I started to move toward her but a young woman saw her and reached her first.
There was no adult nearby. It’s a reasonable guess she has been abandoned or she’s walked away from a mother high on glue, or asleep and unaware. But clearly, she’s alone like a lost kitten in this dangerously heavy traffic.
I hope the young woman takes her to the police station which calls child protective services which takes her to a safe place. But this is more than likely a fiction I’ve imagined to ease my own feelings of guilt than a practical solution.
It’s more likely she will be walked to the sidewalk and left once again. Someone will find her, perhaps an adult street person, and put her to work begging, taking her earnings and keeping her fed just enough to remain productive for them. Eventually, if she survives, she will be another child getting high or prostituting herself. Sixty thousand children are prostituted in the Philippines according to the resource network.
And I wonder how she will perceive of herself if she lives to adulthood. Having known only the streets and the harsh exploitation and abuse they serve up, will she even question whether she deserves this treatment, or will she have become so shaped by it that she accepts her lot and adjusts to less than human interaction?
There are those dedicated to reaching out and caring for street children, of course, but the widening gap between the poor and those who shop at the mall and gamble at the casino makes their task ever more challenging. And worse, child trafficking and child soldiering heaps abuse upon abuse.
While I was in Manila, UNICEF reported 200,000 children were victimized by human rights abuses in the Philippines. To escape grinding poverty children are joining rebel movements and taking up arms.
As usual, the Armed Forces of the Philippines denounced the report saying UNICEF had listened only to leftists and the numbers were skewed. This has become a template reaction and it reveals just how distanced from reality the established powers are. When I was in the Philippines a year ago with a human rights delegation my writing was criticized by a military officer in the same way. The Army of the Philippines’ response to human rights abuses is predictable.
Even setting aside the charges of abuse, the state of child well-being is abysmal. The Philippine Resource Network says only 19% of children aged 4 to 6 years old are able to go to public or private pre-schools. More than one-third of the smallest municipalities cannot offer education up to the sixth grade and 60% of children drop of out school by the second grade.
So, what can be done? More than we sometimes recognize at first glance. In the short term we can support any number of organizations working with street kids and for the welfare of all children including UNICEF and Save the Children among the many. A Google search turns up page after page of organizations addressing the needs of street kids in every part of the world. All need financial support and many encourage volunteers.
Taking the long view, we can support the Millenium Development Goals, particularly Goal 2–Ensure that all boys and girls complete a full course of primary schooling–and Goal 5–Reduce by two thirds the mortality rate among children under five.
But the most important is to advocate for Goal 1–Reduce by half the proportion of people living on less than a dollar per day; and Reduce by half the proportion of people who suffer from hunger. To do this we must become involved in writing letters to policy-makers for more effective humanitarian assistance and legal protections, volunteering and giving financially to non-governmental organizations, or all of the above.
I walked back to my hotel room and quickly fell asleep. But I awakened in the middle of the night. The image of the toddler in traffic wouldn’t let go of me. I looked out the window. Even in the darkness, children were moving about on the street below. I didn’t sleep the rest of the night.