A rag child’s flickering dream

The real disaster in our country is neither the flood-inducing typhoons that sink our cities under murky waters nor the earthquakes that crumble our homes. In the end, the real disaster here is the poverty that ruins lives.

By LUIS ADRIAN A. HIDALGO
Bulatlat.com

MANILA — Twelve-year-old Jona Marie Placer would wake up as early as 5:30 in the morning to prepare for the long day ahead of her. After dressing up and having coffee for breakfast by 6:00 a.m., she would head to school together with her mother, hoping that they would arrive just in time before the school’s gate closes at 7:00 a.m.

Not anymore.

It has been almost two months now since Jona last attended her classes. She has decided to drop out of school to help her mother earn a living. But still, she has continued to wake up early in the morning every day—not to go to school, but to go to their neighbor’s home just a few steps away from theirs to start her work early.

Poverty has pushed her to work at an early age. It has deprived her of many opportunities, but most of all, it has deprived her of her childhood. Jona dreams of becoming a teacher someday but poverty has replaced the book in her hands with a sewing machine. Education is a crucial step for Jona in realizing her dream, but before she can make that step, she has to earn enough money first by making cheap rags with their neighbor’s sewing machine.

While children her age are in school with a pencil in their hand, writing their answers for the class exercise on their notebook, Jona is in front of a sewing machine, carefully setting a spool of thread to where it should belong. For every page of a book a student finishes reading, Jona would have produced twice as much rags, or even more, as she continues to diligently sew together small, round pieces of cloth of different colors until she finally gets tired. By then, her mother will take her place and continue where she left off.

But despite her situation, Jona’s resolve has not changed. In fact, she looks forward to finally going back to school next year. “Gusto ko pa ring pumasok kahit na wala pa rin kaming pang-aral (I still want to study even if we don’t have enough money to send me to school),” Jona said. “Gusto ko po mag-teacher para makapag-turo sa mga hindi nakapag-aral (I want to become a teacher so that I can teach those who weren’t able to go to school).”

Jona’s family is just one of the countless more who fell victim to our country’s most conspicuous problem—poverty. According to the latest data released by the National Statistical Coordination Board (NSCB), published on August 23 this year, the percentage of Filipinos living below the poverty line has remained almost unchanged in the past six years, with an estimate of 27.9 percent of poverty incidence among the population during the first semester of 2012 despite the 6.6 percent economic growth rate that the country was able to achieve on the same year. But then again, the results are problematic because the NSCB’s poverty threshold is very low, hence, the low poverty incidence reported. Definitely, many more Filipinos are living below the poverty line.

Jona dreams of becoming a teacher. (Photo by Luis Adrian Hidalgo / Bulatlat.com)
Jona dreams of becoming a teacher. (Photo by Luis Adrian Hidalgo / Bulatlat.com)

Consequently, people as young as five years old are forced into labor, according to the preliminary results of the 2011 Survey on Children (SOC) by the National Statistics Office published July 2012. The number of working children from ages five to seventeen was estimated at 5.5 million, which means one in every ten children is already working in the National Capital Region alone, with the ratio varying in the different parts of the country, according to the survey’s results.

From a broader view, child labor is merely one of the many other consequences of poverty. One other repercussion is the inability of many people below the poverty line to avail of proper housing—a repercussion which Jona’s family, along with the other 5,000 families living Sitio San Roque along Agham Road, are victims as well. Things are bound to go worse as the impending Central Business District, a joint project by the Quezon City government and Ayala Land, leaves the residents with no other choice but to relocate. In an effort to persuade the residents to leave the area, the local government has been offering relocation to Barangay San Jose del Monte, Bulacan and in Kasiglahan Village in Montalban, Rizal, along with ?5,000 cash assistance for each family, as provided by Ayala.

Many residents have already relocated but others refused to leave. According to Carlito Badion of the urban poor group Kalipunan ng Damayang Mahihirap (KADAMAY), many refuse to relocate because the relocation sites are far worse than the present location of many informal settlers, prompting some relocatees to return to their previous homes, like what Teodora Malazarde, a returning resident of Sitio San Roque, did. According to her, life in Montalban was much harder without any livelihood to get by with, not to mention the occasional flooding brought about by torrential rains. About a year after relocating, she and her family decided to return to San Roque, even though they had to live within a cramped space outside a friend’s house. It is better that way, she explains, because at least in San Roque, they have access to work to earn a living.

Jona’s family is faced with the same predicament that many of the residents of Sitio San Roque are dealing with. But things were different several years ago, according to Jona’s mother, Melinda Placer, 47.

In 1990, the area of Sitio San Roque barely had any houses. Aling Melinda recalls how there were more tall grasses than the people and houses, occasionally making their area an ideal spot for the disposing of salvage victims. Yet, the community was in peace. But within the span of two decades, many had changed. Their population increased. Many were jobless. Crimes became rampant. Things grew even worse after their area became a target for demolition over the past years. Since then, the residents have lived with a sword hanging over their heads, knowing that someday, they might have no other choice but to leave and start anew somewhere else.

Constant threats of demolition have pushed the residents to band together to protect what little they have and to protect their basic right to housing. The Urban Development Housing Act of 1992 (UDHA) should have upheld this basic right of the urban poor, but time and again, UDHA has failed to provide for the underprivileged, despite it being its primary objective—“to uplift the conditions of the underprivileged and homeless citizens in urban areas and in resettlement areas by making available to them decent housing at affordable cost, basic services and employment opportunities (Section 2a).” And contrary to the notion propagated by the mainstream media, underprivileged citizens like the residents of Sitio San Roque are neither choosy nor hard headed. They are such because they stand up to protect and assert their rights. They resist because they have everything to lose.

Such are the complications that impede Jona from fully realizing her dream of becoming a teacher. Jona’s got a long way to go before she finally gets to fulfill her dream. In order to get back on track, she has to be able to return to school; but that won’t be so easy.

For almost eight years now, Aling Melinda has been the only one earning for the family after her husband’s untimely death. Sending Jona to school would mean providing at least ?100 daily; even that is barely enough for her daughter to get by through the day as nearly half of the amount would have been spent on transportation alone, not to mention her meal allowance and other expenses at school. Just thinking of how she would come up with such an amount every day is enough for her to fall into silence. But during such times, Jona, being the perceptive child that she is, would always have the right words to say to cheer up her mother.

There was one time, however, when Aling Melinda was puzzled by Jona’s words. Once, Jona told her: “Ma, sa susunod na pasukan mag-aaral talaga akong mabuti para hindi na tayo kawawa (Ma, next school year I’ll study hard so that we’ll no longer be poor).” Surprised, Aling Melinda asked Jona for an explanation, to which Jona responded innocently: “Ganito pala ang maging mahirap (So this is how it is to be poor).” In the end, poverty still is their biggest enemy.

To hear someone so young and innocent say that she understands what to be poor is like, one must wonder where things have gone wrong in our country. Has life become too rough here that even people as young as Jona are able to arrive at such a realization? But more importantly, what can we do to address their problem?

In the context of disasters, there is an abundance of studies and laws that address problems brought about by calamities that affect our country. However, we are yet to see a concrete solution that will address the plight of our underprivileged fellow Filipinos. Perhaps we have become too fixated on the things with which we have no control over that we have failed to realize that what really needs our attention have always been in plain sight.

We cannot do anything to avoid disasters such as typhoons and earthquakes as both are naturally occurring—something that we have no control over. But poverty can be addressed. It can be resolved. We have the capability to end it, no matter how difficult the task. We only need to channel our attention and best efforts toward the things that need it the most.

The real disaster in our country is neither the flood-inducing typhoons that sink our cities under murky waters nor the earthquakes that crumble our homes. In the end, the real disaster here is the poverty that ruins lives. ()

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  1. poverty is the greatest crime against the people of the Philippines. Primarily it deprives the poor of the right to make choies regarding their life and liberty..the work that Jona is forced to do is depriving her of her basic human rights ..her right to a decent education, her right to make choices without fear or favour and her right to say no to child slave labour! Her situation contravenes all the rights of children as laid down in the conventions of the United Nations charter on human rights…

    There is an Indian (north american indians) saying:…’the fish rots from the head down..not..from the tail up”

    Those who control and those who facilitate the control of the wealth of the Philippines are the head of the fish!!

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