Cities for children: expectations vs reality
In my elementary years, I remember taking reading comprehension tests where we skimmed through stories and answered as many multiple choice items as possible before time ran out.
Generally, these stories were either written by Americans in their locales or taken from old English textbooks. These were
often narratives about children walking through downtown or running errands by themselves as far as a couple of blocks away.
The “English exam family stereotype,” as I called it — middle-class families enjoying a high degree of independence, living in a good neighborhood and speaking impeccable English — was something I found amusing.
As a sheltered child who grew up in Zamboanga City in the early 2000s, I couldn’t relate to this picturesque scenario. The
reality around me was very different.
The military was constantly on red alert due to incessant threats of sociopolitical instability in the region. Stories spread of the dangers downtown; family members were reminded that we could be the next victim of a holdup, kidnapping or harassment.
Traffic was not only a hazard; it also made it harder to reach schools, hospitals or the police. Barring the unique challenges of the region, the same was true for many cities in the Philippines.
Being raised middle class explains why I was sheltered and overly cared for.
My mom would insist on holding my hand while crossing the street or while walking downtown.
My dad would drive me even for errands or trips of the shortest distance.
In the eyes of my 4-year-old self, walking the streets to the mall felt like dodging a bunch of human booby traps. This was true for my friends who also grew up in overprotective families.
And then there were friends who grew up in broken families and who fell into harmful vices. Often, they felt that the world around them did not care about what they did, so clubs and bars became the go-to places for acceptance.
That sense of neglect affects many other vulnerable children. Those living in the streets, for instance, are left without protection from the elements, or are often bereft of love from their family.
And, even under these dire circumstances, they still have to deal with other psychological, social and societal challenges.
Of course, things aren’t all bleak for children in the Philippines. Thankfully, things have been steadily improving. As a result of government programs aligned with the UN-approved Sustainable Development Goals, local government units are incentivized to improve the quality of life for children in their area.
This is reflected, among others, in the improvement in the way police handles child safety; the removal of barriers between families and services; youth development programs that encourage adolescents to be active in their communities; and programs to change the landscape of a city to make it more child-friendly, such as installing plants and streetlights.
The Department of Social Welfare and Development also recognizes cities that create the best environment for children. My city, Zamboanga, has been counted among the localities that have taken great strides in making the lives of local children better.
Hopefully, the next generation will be able to walk safely through downtown, run errands for their parents more often, and explore the world and play with their friends — just like the children idyllically depicted in the English exams of my childhood.
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Joshua Rommel Vargas, 17, is a campus journalist and debater from Zamboanga City. He is an honor student enrolled in the STEM strand of Ateneo de Zamboanga University. He dreams of becoming a computer science researcher.
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