Street children: valued partners in the Philippines

تم النشر: 24 أكتوبر 2003 0:00 CET

Teresita Usapdin in Baguio City

Ricky Canidas is 12 years of age, but he talks with authority even to children older than him. He exudes confidence as he explains to his peers about good health, clean living, the importance of education and the need to save money.

“We must learn to value the good things in life while we are young,” says Ricky with conviction. We must respect our parents and the elders at all times. We must keep clean and healthy. Life is hard so we must learn to save money."

Ricky used to be one of the 1,300 street children in Baguio City, the summer capital of the Philippines. He was a truant student who loved the street more than he loved home. He would skip classes to play with the street boys or go to market places to earn US$1 a day selling plastic bags or serving as a porter. He spent this on anything he liked, sometimes gambling.

Since the Baguio City chapter of the Philippines Red Cross found him three years ago and trained him as junior health worker for street children, Ricky has changed.

Now at grade six, Ricky still sells plastic bags or serves as a porter in market places but only after classes or at weekends after completing his household chores and doing his volunteer work as junior health worker.

Ricky gives his earnings to his mother but gets 50 cents to buy lunch at school or save, the reason why he now has a big wrist watch which he proudly says he bought for US$3.

Julio Carrion Jr., 17, is another former street kid trained by the Red Cross as junior health worker. JR, as he is fondly called by friends, is a high school graduate who was unable to continue college due to poverty. Left with no choice, JR spent his time on the street with other young people.

Like Ricky, JR was a plastic bag vendor and porter, spending his meagre earnings on gambling and drinking. At present, apart from being a junior health worker, JR mans the water refilling station, which the Baguio City Red Cross chapter put up last year as an income generating project to bolster the street children programme.

For his work, JR gets a daily allowance of US$ 1, plus free meals from Monday to Friday. On weekends, JR joins Ricky and the rest of the 50 junior health workers in educating other street children in market places, parks, bus terminals and sometimes at the Red Cross office.

"I love my work at the Red Cross water station. It is decent and less tedious than being a porter. I like my white uniform, too. As junior health worker, I learn more about life and I am able to help others. I feel more useful now," JR says with pride as he fixes his white gown.

The street children are trained by the Philippine National Red Cross (PNRC) as junior health workers as part of its Health Action Programme for Street Children (HAPSC), the aim of which is to improve the health and life of the street kids.

Launched in 1991 and funded by the Danish Red Cross in partnership with the government’s departments of health and social welfare, the programme has trained more than 1,000 street children, 150 of whom are working actively in project areas in Manila and Baguio City.

With fresh funding coming from the Danish Red Cross, the programme is expanding to other key cities with street children for the next five years.

There are more than 1.5 million street children all over the Philippines, many of them living on the streets of major cities like Manila, Angeles City, Olongapo, Iloilo and Baguio. The PNRC defines street children as those below the age of 18 who spend a significant amount of time on the streets making a living, or who make the streets their home.

Edgar Mejia, programme coordinator, says most of the street children are suffering from poor health, with a large number stunted or malnourished. The children’s most common occupations are vending, cleaning, guarding automobiles, domestic work and, to a lesser extent, prostitution and drug trafficking.

“Street children are restless, impatient and elusive. The best way to reach them is through their peers who speak their language, understand their attitude and behaviour and whom they can trust,” says Edgar. “That is why we have the street children themselves as junior health workers. They use puppets and comics as training tools so they can hold the attention of the children even for hours.”

These training tools illustrate basic personal hygiene such as brushing teeth or washing hands, as well as the importance of a clean environment, respect for elders and education.

The PNRC says the growing number of children on the streets is caused basically by poverty and internal migration. Depending on the city, between one half and two thirds of street children are migrants from rural areas, the Red Cross says.

Most of the migration is related to families searching for better opportunities or violence in the countryside.
“There used to be no street children in Baguio City,” says Annie Tamayo, head of the local Red Cross chapter. "However, because of the country’s poor economy, the lack of basic services and the unstable peace and order situation, people from the upper mountain provinces and even from as far as Southern Mindanao come to Baguio.”

Eight-year-old Marina Abantas is one such migrant. Her family left Mindanao in 1991 to find peace and greener pastures in Baguio City. But like other migrants who have no fixed job or place to live in, Marina’s family ended up squatting in one of the city’s abandoned buildings and she, too, has to sell plastic bags to help her family earn a living.

“There are other NGOs helping the street children. What is special about HAPSC though is that our children clients become Red Cross partners,” Edgar says. “And maybe when they grow older, they can join the Red Cross youth, become a blood donor or, who knows, maybe even a member of the board of governors.”

Hearing what Edgar says, Ricky, who is putting his puppets back in their boxes, looks up, smiles widely and says, "I think I can be all of that"