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‘Batang hamog’ and other children in the city

In Talaingod, Davao del Norte, the end of the school day finds the children playing tag or a crude form of soccer on the grassy field in front of the local public school. The breeze blows in from the highway, while trees shield the children from the harshest effects of the waning sun. It is then that a thought strikes me: The children may belong to some of the poorest families in the province, if not the country, but in some ways, they are far luckier than children who go to public schools in Metro Manila.

For one, schoolchildren in the provinces get to stay in school the whole day, and even have the luxury of a little play time during recess or when classes are over. In contrast, public school students in Metro Manila (and perhaps in other big cities in the country) have to be accommodated in three shifts, cramming all the lessons of the day in three hours, and in overcrowded classrooms.

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But being disadvantaged in school is only one of the ways that children are being shortchanged by cities, says Unicef in its recent report, “The State of the World’s Children 2012: Children in an Urban World.”

Increased urbanization is inevitable, observes Unicef. “In a few years, the majority of children will grow up in towns and cities rather than in rural areas … and children born in cities already account for 60 percent of the increase in urban population.” In the Philippines, half of the population, or 45 million people, are living in cities. Of Metro Manila’s 11 million people, 1.7 million children live in informal settlements.

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“When we think of poverty, the image that traditionally comes to mind is that of a child in a rural village,” said Unicef executive director Anthony Lake. “But today, an increasing number of children living in slums and shantytowns are among the most disadvantaged and vulnerable in the world, deprived of the most basic services and denied the right to thrive.”

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When children in cities are neglected, their needs ignored, it is not only them and their families that are disadvantaged, points out Lake. “Excluding these children in slums not only robs them of the chance to reach their full potential; it robs their societies of the economic benefits of having a well-educated, healthy urban population.”

The plight of children in cities is often masked by the more visible symbols of growth: malls, walled villages, wide roads, gleaming skyscrapers. In fact, says Unicef, “the deprivations endured by children in poor urban communities are often obscured by broad statistical averages that lump together all city dwellers –rich and poor alike. When averages such as these are used in making urban policy and allocating resources, the needs of the poorest can be overlooked.”

And if I may add, it is only when the children of the poor in our cities turn to crime or commit offenses against the better off, that they suddenly become visible. Take the so-called “batang hamog” (translated into the rather poetic term “children of the mist”), street kids who roam in gangs and commit petty crimes for which they are seldom held to account. They are everywhere in our cities, but none more so than on Edsa, preying on taxicabs, jeepneys and buses. Because of a string of incidents caught on CCTV, they have suddenly become the “flavor of the month” of TV news shows, a new menace that has been there all along, only now becoming visible.

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Unicef says that children who live in the poorest urban communities here “experience multiple deprivations.” They lack decent housing, are exposed to dangers from disasters, have limited access to clean water and are more prone to neglect, abuse and exploitation. Says Dr. Abdul Alim, Unicef country representative: “Each excluded child represents a missed opportunity at achieving a stable and productive society.”

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How do we make “cities fit for children”? The UN agency has one prescription: a focus on equity – “one in which priority is given to the most disadvantaged children wherever they live.”

Governments – national or local – should put children “at the heart of urban planning,” extending and improving services for all. “To start, more focused, accurate data are needed to help identify disparities among children in urban areas and how to bridge them. The shortage of such data is evidence of the neglect of these issues.”

“State of the World’s Children 2012” also calls for greater recognition of community-based efforts to tackle urban poverty and gives examples of effective partnerships with the urban poor, including children and adolescents.

In the Philippines, for instance, the Child-Friendly Cities Initiative “emerges as a good practice in dealing with urban challenges. Initiated in 1999, it builds on a long history of governmental intervention and has been operationalized through a nationwide partnership of mayors and LGUs, academe, media, NGOs, CSOs, faith-based organizations and young people to fulfill children’s rights and needs.” The program “represents the embodiment of the Convention on the Rights of the Child at the local level, with its provisions being reflected in policies, laws, programmes and budgets, and ensuring that children become active agents of change.”

At the global level, Unicef and UN-Habitat have worked together for 15 years on the Child-Friendly Cities Initiative, “building partnerships to put children at the center of the urban agenda and to provide services and create protected areas so children can have the safer and healthier childhoods they deserve.”

One thing I know for sure, none of the children enjoying the perks of childhood in that schoolyard in Talaingod will grow up to be a “batang hamog,” cross our fingers and pray to the gods.

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TAGS: children, opinion, Poverty, Runa Jimenez-David, Unicef, Urbanization
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