Our neglected children
We like to say that children are our future, and some might say we are especially blessed because we have the greatest preponderance of them in our population, relative to our comparable neighbors. As of our last census in 2015, 38 percent (38.4 million) of our population were children under 18 years old. Compare that with Thailand with 17 million (25 percent of population), Vietnam with 26.2 million (28 percent), Malaysia with 9.4 million (29.4 percent) and Indonesia with 85 million (32 percent).
Children may be a blessing, but the fact is, we are not taking care of these blessings enough, based on key indicators on child welfare gathered by the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef). Let’s examine a few.
In its latest Situation Analysis on the Children of the Philippines, Unicef reveals some disturbing facts that ought to jolt all of us, especially our authorities and policymakers. First, poverty incidence among children is much higher than it is for the population as a whole. While overall poverty incidence was 21.6 percent (about one in five) of all Filipinos in 2015, nearly one out of three (31.4 percent) Filipino children lived below the basic needs poverty line.
This is because larger families are more likely to be poor. Poverty incidence is especially high for families with more than seven family members and whose head has no grade completed. It’s far worse in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao
(ARMM), where child poverty incidence is 63.1 percent (against an overall poverty incidence of 53.7 percent).
Important trends with a bearing on child welfare have been worsening. Childbirths by teenaged mothers have significantly risen, from 49 births per 1,000 women aged 15-19 years old in 1997, to 59.2 births in 2015. The problem with teenage births is how it closely correlates to stunting from severe child malnutrition. I have written much on the problem of child stunting and how it compromises our next generation of workers and our economic future in general, and will not repeat them here. Very young mothers tend to be ill-informed and ill-equipped to properly care for their babies, while access to reproductive health services has been low.
Incidence of child stunting has itself increased from 30 percent in 2013 to 33.4 percent in 2015, and this could well be related to the rise in teen births. A similar rise in prevalence of underweight children was also observed, from 20 percent in 2013 to 21.5 percent in 2015. We need to feed our children adequately, starting especially in their first 1,000 days from conception; school feeding simply is not good and timely enough. I cannot emphasize enough that our country’s very future hangs on it.
Childhood vaccination coverage has also worsened substantially, having dropped from 89 percent in 2013 to only 62 percent in 2015. The Dengvaxia scare has since made it even worse, and this has been blamed for the outbreak and increased incidence of measles among our children since early this year.
Immunization rates vary widely across the country. Only 18 percent of children in ARMM received all their basic vaccinations in 2017, compared to up to 87 percent in some other parts of the country. Meanwhile, we have among the fastest-growing HIV epidemics in the world, with HIV infections having risen by 230 percent between 2011 and 2015.
Our infant mortality rate is also among the highest among our peers, with 21 infant deaths per 1,000 live births. The corresponding figure is 16.7 for Vietnam, 8.2 for Thailand, 6.7 for Malaysia, and two for Singapore, with only Indonesia’s being comparable to ours (also 21). Again in ARMM, it is far worse, with 55 infant deaths per 1,000 live births.
Furthermore, an estimated 2.85 million of our children aged 5-15 are out of school. An estimated two in three experience physical violence, two in five experience psychological violence, one in four experience sexual violence, and two in three experience peer violence.
Perhaps we should not be drumbeating our so-called “demographic sweet spot” marked by a projected dominance of working-age people, unless and until we can make sure that this successor generation will truly be happy, healthy and productive Filipinos.
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