Muffled Sobs

by Juan L. Mercado

“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats children,’” 1993 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Nelson  Mandela  stressed. The frail 93 year statesman’s yardstick resonates here where over 1.7 million children huddle in Metro Manila slums. 

“State of the World’s  Children 2010”  meets this issue head on. Released by United Nations Children’s Fund  Tuesday, SOWC’s  theme is children in a world of  “imploding cities”.

Impoverished  rural migrants and children cascade into urban centers like Olongapo, Batangas, Naga,  Cebu, Iloilo, Bacolod, Cagayan de Oro and Davao.  That  torrent  hasn’t ebbed.

By  2010, urban residents already crested at  49 percent.   Demographers clocked that surge in city populations at  2.3 percent annually.  Today  half of  2012 population is urban — and rising.

This pattern holds worldwide.  “Children born into today’s already crowded cities “account for 60% of urban growth. ne out of three kids huddle in shacks atop  rubbish dumps or  even cemetery shacks.”  In eight years, 1.4 billion will cluster in informal settlements, SOWC forecasts.

Many children are  seared  by “the urban experience,  all too often one of poverty and exclusion”.  Often  clean water, health care, electricity, schools are a block away — but beyond reach due to myopic governance..A  full third of  urban kids lack these 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…..Children mired in urban penury  fare as badly as,or worse,  than children living in  rural indigence”.

“U5MR” offers a good cross-check indicator. “U5MR” — what?    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  notes.  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.”

There is no substitute for water.  You can’t drink oil.  Every man, woman and child needs  almost  four liters of water daily.   Our “water abundance”is a shattered myth.  Each Filipino has 4,476 liters of “internal renewable resources.” Malaysians have 21,259 liters.

Water disparities are starkest, within the same city. Squatters who huddle in shacks along foul esteros or rubbish dumps   pay 15 times more for murky water from peddlers than those who shower, with hot water in high walled subdivisions. “We pay more for our gastroenteritis” says a nun who works in Cebu ’s waterfront slums.

Don’t let those glowing  overall enrollment figures fool  you either.  Poverty compells 33, out of every 100, to quit school before reaching Grade 6. “From grades 5 through the end of high school, boys drop out 2 to 2.5 times more than girls. 

In five years, school dropouts here bolted from 1.8 million to 2.2 million. Slum kids are least likely to enrol or first to  quit  school. Yet, that is their only escape hatch  from a lifetime of need. “Worldwide, urban areas show pronounced disparities in the amount of schooling children receive”.

Of 2.5 milliion people in forced labor, as a result from trafficking,  up to almost half are children. Many end up in brothels.

We’re fixated by by the Monday-to-Thursday impeachment trial in the Senate.  Will we get a Supreme Court chief justice who won’t fudge  his statement of assets and liabilities or shove dollar accounts under the rug?, many ask.

SOWC 2012 poses equally pressing concerns.  How do we strip away blinders on the plight of children in our cities?  The dominant image is still that of a shriveled sub-Saharan child. Statistical averaging masks the reality of hungry kids beyond our blinders.

Can we cobble better plans and deliver effective services for their unique needs from birth registration to immunization and  protection from sex trafficking?

That calls for going beyond lip service.  Government, specially at local levels, must forge effective partnerships with citizens and international agencies to shatter marginalization’s shackles on our kids.

”Ever disadvantaged child bears witness to a moral offense: (our) failure to secure his right to  survive and thrive”, writes Unicef’s Anthony Lake”.   SOWC 2012 is about muffled sobs of kids who drew the short straw.


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