At Large

Saving the children

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They probably had Christmas on their minds.

The children and teachers at the Sandy Hook Elementary School were said to be talking about a Christmas pageant that took place the night before. Some teachers were huddled in an office discussing the fourth-grade program, while doubtless the children—probably some performers and mostly members of the audience—still had the show playing out in their imaginations.

And then the horror, the horror! There is still no explanation for why Adam Lanza, 20, described as a disturbed and ill young man who lived with his mother Nancy after his parents’ divorce, shot his mother in the face and then proceeded to the school where he shot up two classrooms, killing 20 children and six adults before turning a gun on himself.

“Our hearts are broken,” US President Barack Obama said later on TV, valiantly fighting back tears. But it is easy to imagine that the “mourner in chief” had his own two young daughters in mind. Like any parent of school-age children, he must have thought of school as a place of sanctuary, where children learn and are kept safe. And like any parent, he must have been horrified at the thought that a gunman could enter the premises and shatter young lives just like that. It boggles the imagination. And yes, it breaks hearts.

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But just as heartbreaking is the ravaging of young lives by a natural disaster that doesn’t just blow down homes, fell trees and send torrents of water and mud rushing down mountainsides to bury entire communities.

Even more insidious is the continuing threat to the survival and well-being of children who survived the onslaught of nature only to confront the grim aftereffects of survival.

Three global organizations devoted to the welfare of children—Plan International, Save the Children and Unicef—have issued a statement raising alarm at two issues, described as “silent threats,” that continue to put children affected by Typhoon “Pablo” at risk.

Of the total 5.5 million affected, around 2.3 million, or almost half, are children. In the three provinces most affected by the typhoon (Davao Oriental, Compostela Valley and Agusan del Sur), almost 300,000 of the 700,000 people affected are children.

While local governments, national government agencies, private organizations and international agencies do all they can to meet the immediate and urgent needs of survivors, the three child-focused agencies are urging all those involved “to be highly attentive to the particular needs and rights of children in emergencies.” The statement calls attention to two particular issues: protection of children and malnutrition.

There is no doubt as to the extent of the trauma and stress caused by the typhoon on children. Many may have lost their entire families, and the destruction of their homes and villages “would be a profound shock to a child.”

But even more urgent threats shadow their lives. “Mindanao is a known source of trafficking, especially for labor,” the agencies note. “In an environment of chaos and confusion, children are vulnerable to trafficking,” they say, urging “increased awareness of these threats among local government and other community leaders,” as well as the creation of “safe areas,” such as schools for children.

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Another “silent” problem, because it is not immediately visible and its effects appear only years from now, is malnutrition. This is especially so in the affected provinces since the number of children suffering from  undernutrition and malnutrition was already higher than the national average even before Pablo hit.

This means that “it won’t take much for children to become severely malnourished, given the environment of poor water and sanitation, as well as food insecurity.” One can imagine that, in the wake of news reports of people mobbing relief trucks and elbowing each other to get their hands on relief goods, children, especially orphaned children, would be the last to get any food, if at all.

A piece of good news, say the agencies, is that most areas in the typhoon-ravaged provinces have high natural breastfeeding rates. The agencies urge that authorities “set up safe breastfeeding areas or spaces, as well as careful monitoring and, if needed, treatment of malnutrition of young children.”

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But there are threats to young people’s welfare and health other than gunmen or natural disasters.

In another statement, Save the Children criticized the Senate for adopting an amendment, introduced by Sen. Ralph Recto, that denies persons below 18 access to reproductive health services.

The statement says the Senate amendment “discriminates against adolescent boys and girls, and puts the life and well-being especially of adolescent girls at risk.” Says Miel Nora, Save the Children’s health advisor: “Taking away the provision ensuring adolescents’ access to sexual and reproductive services removes a very important element of the RH bill that we believe would help prevent early pregnancy, HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases, and also support young mothers in planning their pregnancies so they can still pursue their education and develop themselves.” The conditions imposed on teenagers’ access to services (such as the written permission of parents), says Nora, are “discriminatory and a violation of children’s right to health.”

We might not like the thought of young people, including our children, having sex and getting pregnant, but not all our moral posturing and bluster can stop them once they put their mind to it. But we can provide them the information and guidance they need to make responsible decisions, and the services that will keep them safe and healthy.

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