BATU, Indonesia. Photo by Jes Aznar

Thursday, June 10, 2010

In the Water. Out of School - TH!NK ABOUT IT

In the Water. Out of School - TH!NK ABOUT IT

(text and photos by the author)

CEBU, Philippines – He stood on the edge of a white wooden plank at the tip of the outrigger canoe docked beside a floating restaurant here in Orango island, in the southern Philippines.

It is high noon and scorching hot. Like studs of diamonds, the yellow sun glistened on the vastness of the emerald green waters.

Wearing only a tattered navy blue shorts and with his back facing the unknown, Steve Abenido whisked his 10-year old bony frame to a perfect roundabout somersault. Time stopped as he broke through the water like a sword that pierced through a huge glass.

I stood with bated breath, watching him come out from underworld. In a split second, I saw his sun-baked hair and his dark shoulders as he resurfaced. In his hand, shining like gold is a five peso coin (USD11 cents), as shiny as his victorious smile as he caught the coin just before it sank deeper into the water.

He climbed back to the motorized banca, greeted by cheers of four other children who have been taking turns diving into the water.

Steve and his friends are among hundreds of sea children scattered around the different islands in the province, which in recent years, has become a major tourist hub for Europeans and lately, for the growing Korean invasion in the Philippines.

Delighted by the sight of children showing off their driving skills, the foreigners gamely throw the coins into the water.

It is lunchtime and in this floating restaurant, tourists are feasting on a wide array of seafoods – grilled lobsters, smoked fish and prawns.

Most guests stop by the different floating restaurants after a morning of island-hopping. They go back to their posh hotels -- where an overnight stay can cost 17,000 pesos or USD375 -- before the sun fades away into the horizon.

Risking their lives, the sea children get a slice of the tourism industry to earn extra money to help their parents earn a living. They are unmindful of the dangers of diving because they know that their parents need all the help they can get.

“Everything I get, I give to my mama,” Steve says. Steve is the third child in a family of eight. He says that when classes start on June 15, he would still have to dive on weekends so he can have money for allowance and that he can continue helping his mother who does not have a job. His diving prowess, he says, he learned from his father who works as a boatman.

Steve is luckier compared to his friends because he is able to go to school. His other friends, on the other hand, would have to continue diving because they’re the only extra hands their parents need to earn a living.Their parents cannot afford to send them to school.

Michael Obando, 11 years old, is one such kid.

On June 15 as some of his friends will go back to school, he will go back to the water to dive.

On good days, when there are a lot of "guests" as the locals call the tourists, Michael gets 100 pesos (USD2) but on ordinary days, he gets twenty pesos or USD44 cents for two to three hours of waiting around the many floating restaurants in the island.

These coins almost mean nothing for the tourists. In these floating restaurants, a single order of a dish as exotic as grilled buttered lobster costs 1,500 pesos or USD33.

What the sea children get are just crumbs of the pie but they take it. They have no choice because in the Philippines, poverty remains rampant. And this reality is more prevalent in remote villages and far-away islands.

In this particular province, children whose parents can’t afford to send them to school have no choice but to work in the sea. This, needless to say, is tantamount to child labor although technically, these sea children are not employed by companies.

According to an article published by online content provider Article Alley in October 2008, poverty is the main reason why children under the age of 18 are compelled to work in dangerous and life threatening conditions.

It said that the between the ages of 5 and 7 years, one in every six children has to work to earn a living and help support his or her family.

“In the Philippines there are about 2.06 million children who are forced to work in rock quarries, farms, industries, mines and on fishing boats. The consequences of Child Labor on an underage child can be numerous and crippling on his or her physical, mental and emotional state. It can seriously hamper the well being of a child who is supposed to get a sound education and nutrition to develop into a healthy adult,” the article noted.

Ultimately, this shows just a glimpse of why the Philippines is unlikely to meet Millennium Development Goal 2: To Achieve Universal Primary Education.

According to the government’s progress report on the MDG, which I cited in a previous post, the country is unlikely to improve the net enrollment in primary education to 100 percent by 2015 because as of end-2008, it stood at only 85.1 percent.

The proportion of pupils starting grade 1 who reach grade six is only at 75.4 percent of the schooling population as of end-2008 as against the goal of bringing this to 100 percent by 2015. The reason behind this stark reality is poverty, the government said. In the Philippines, 32.9 percent of the population is living below poverty line.

The government is racing against time to improve the situation.

As this is happening, Steve and his friends, like many Filipino sea children scattered all over the country, have no choice but to race against one another, down into the deep blue sea, for a coin or two.

photo by the author

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

She gave birth. And then she died. - TH!NK ABOUT IT

From the hills of Kanawan. My 11th entry in the blogging competition.

She gave birth. And then she died. - TH!NK ABOUT IT

text and photo by the author

MANILA, Philippines - Nerissa Salonga steels her frail body to get up from a makeshift bed inside a tattered hut in Sitio Kanawan, a farming community of the native Aetas in the province of Bataan, somewhere in the northern part of the Philippines.

The 22-year-old mother had given birth to her sixth child two months ago but still feels very weak as if it had been just yesterday. She needs to make some milk for her two-month old baby crying hungrily beside her but can barely gather enough strength to move. In the dimly-lit shelter, she sits and moves a few inches to reach for the bottle of milk at the far end of their bed, a slab of narrow wood.

She almost could not do it. Nerissa feels like she is breathing her last breath. She has been feeling very weak and has not been able to eat properly. It shows in her thin frame that has lost more than ten pounds. For several weeks already, she has been vomiting and has lost buckets of blood when she gave birth. And her dark skin could not conceal the paleness in her face.

It happened on a moonlit morning, at an hour when the only sound one usually hears is the crowing of roosters. This time, it is Nerissa's shrieks of pain that cut through the wee hours of dawn. The wailing echoed in the remote community that can be reached only after a five-hour drive from the Philippine capital of Manila and a 30-minute uphill trek across a mountainous area and a wobbly hanging bridge that spans over a flowing river.

In another hut, not so far away, lives the woman hailed as the midwife of the community. She shows me her sun-roasted and wrinkled hands. These, she says, may be old and tired but have brought out dozens of babies into the world. She has mastered the craft of childbirth, she says, and knows it like the back of her hand. Yet, she not is not really a midwife, a nurse or a doctor. She says she is just guided by instinct and it has always been that way.

Except in Nerissa’s case, she says. Nerissa’s screams of pain were not the usual sounds of agony of a woman giving birth. It was too much, she says.

However, the community “midwife” had no choice but to deliver Nerissa’s baby. Moving her to a hospital in the faraway city outside the village was just impossible. Sitio Kanawan, after all, is a remote place that is connected to the world only by a narrow, dilapidated and unstable hanging bridge.

Carrying a sick person would mean gathering at least ten men. And so Nerissa endured the pain and gave birth.

I met her in July last year, two months after she gave birth.

Two weeks after I met her, Nerissa died of complications related to childbirth. I was shocked. I thought she would recover and regain her strength in time.

Nerissa’s case is among the many stories of maternal deaths in the Philippines.

Indeed, maternal deaths remain rampant in a country of 92 million people sharing a budget of at least P1 trillion or USD20.8 billion a year.

Given this situation, the Philippine government, particularly the Department of Health has conceded that meeting Millennium Development Goal 5 by 2015 would be very difficult. It has noted this problem in its progress report on the MDGs which I have cited in a previous entry.

The goal is to reduce the maternal mortality ratio by 75 percent between 1990 and 2015. In the Philippines, the target is to bring the ratio down to 52 per 100,000 live births by 2015 from the current 162 per 100,000 live births.

The Health department has said that it is stepping up efforts to reduce the ratio.

In an article by online news source IRIN published last May 26, 2010 in the Thomson Reuters website, an official of the Health department said providing further training to midwives would significantly help improve the maternal mortality ratio in the country.

The article quoted Rosalie Paje, division chief of the Family Health Office under the Department of Health, as stressing the importance of maternal healthcare. "Midwives play a crucial role in providing maternal healthcare, especially in geographically isolated and disadvantaged areas and those affected by armed conflict where doctors and nurses are scarce," Paje said in the article.

Furthermore, there are an estimated 17,500 midwives registered under the Professional Regulation Commission (PRC) working in the public health sector, the article said.

“But that is barely enough to service the 41,841 barangays (the smallest government unit) throughout the archipelago nation,” it also said.

And this harsh reality couldn't have been more felt by Nerissa that early morning last year in the hills of Kanawan.