Sunday, 22 November 2009

Philippines diary: Iron man

A detail from the promotional flyer for the Timex 'Iron Man' race
© Timex/RunRio
Sunday 15 November began early, as I met Gina at 4:45am to get a taxi to Fort Bonifacio, the starting point of Manila’s Timex ‘Iron Man’ race. Part of the proceeds of the race were donated to a UNICEF school project.We started at 5:30am, just as the sky was starting to lighten. The first half of the race was easy enough, despite climbing a flyover with sweeping views across the slums and skyscrapers of the city. Things got trickier on the way back though, as the sun brought with it a noticeable increase in heat and humidity, but I finally sprinted across the finish line in 58 minutes.

After a quick change of clothes, the sporting theme continued with the world welterweight title boxing match between Filipino Manny Pacquiao and Miguel Cotto, the reigning champion. I’m not normally a huge boxing fan but it was impossible not to get caught up in the enthusiasm for the event.

The importance of this match for Filipinos cannot be underestimated: Pacquiao is a national hero with an amazing life story. He started off as a street child, similar to those I met in Binondo, skipping school to help his single mother sell vegetables on the roadside in General Santos City, Mindanao. Even with his help, his mother still wasn’t earning enough to feed six children, so Manny left home at 14 to go to Manila, where he worked as a laborer and became an amateur boxer.


Fast forward 14 years and Pacquiao’s face glowers out of the cover of Time Magazine, as he aims to become the first boxer in history to win world titles in seven different weight categories.

For the first two rounds, the fight seemed equal but it all changed in the third round, when Pacquiao knocked Cotto down with a flurry of blows. The venue erupted as everyone cheered wildly, threw confetti in the air and hugged their nearest neighbor. The fight continued into the twelfth round, but it was increasingly obvious that Pacquiao had won the belt and world record he sought.

Chain of command
Twelve-day-old Danica receives her BCG vaccination
© UNICEF Philippines/2009/Andy Brown
Back in the office, I spent my time getting the website ready for the 20th anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), an event with huge significance for UNICEF.

I also visited two projects: one on immunization and another on children living and working on a rubbish dump in Payatas. For the immunization project, I visited a health centre in Manila where mothers, and in some cases grandmothers, brought their babies to receive vaccinations against diseases like measles, diphtheria and tuberculosis.

I also saw Manila’s main cold room, where the city’s vaccines are stored, and met Rolando, the cold chain manager for Manila. An engineer by trade, he is now the Philippines’ leading expert on storing and transporting vaccines. He’s spent the last twenty years ensuring that they’re kept at exactly the right temperature to preserve the delicate biological material inside each tiny vial.

Rolando told me about the challenge of delivering vaccines in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Ondoy. “We had to use military trucks and boats to get the vaccines to the evacuation centres,” he said.

Below the poverty line

My second project visit of the week was to Payatas, Quezon City, where a community of 200,000 people live alongside, and in many cases work on top of, the city’s main rubbish dump. Driving into the slum settlement, you cannot escape the spectre of the dump, which looms above the ramshackle houses like a sacred mountain to some twisted deity.

The town is a stark illustration of the economics of poverty. The main road is lined with ‘junk shops’ that buy plastic, metal, paper and glass by the kilo, for sale to massive recycling plants in southern China. The junk shops take all the profit and none of the risk, typically turning over millions of pesos a year while paying a pittance to the desperate dump workers.

Children risk their lives every day scavenging the dump site for the quantities of recyclable materials needed to make a living. They are at risk of diseases such as respiratory infections, pneumonia, diarrhoea and tuberculosis. The dump itself is unstable and parts of it can collapse in heavy rain, burying workers and their homes beneath the rubbish.

There are also dangers from the vehicles and machinery. “The sister of one of our students died recently after being run over by a garbage truck,” Helen from UNICEF’s partner organisation Kokkyo Naki Kodomotachi says. “The driver didn’t see her because she was so small. She was only nine years old.”

In the last year, things have got even worse for these children and their families. The global economic crisis has caused many of the Chinese recycling plants to close, reducing demand for the scrap materials. The junk shops have responded by slashing their prices by up to half. This means the children have to spend twice as long on the dump site and carry twice as much rubbish up the hill to the junk shops, just to earn the same meagre amount.

“Tin cans have gone down from 25 peso to 15 peso per kilo, plastic cups from 12 peso to 5 peso and clear plastic from 2 peso to 1 peso,” Helen says. By way of comparison, a single can of Coke costs 25 peso in a 7-Eleven store in Makati city.

The living conditions are scarcely better than the working environment. Slum houses, often made of materials scavenged from the dump, are crammed together right up to its edge. The border between the dump and the town is porous and the rubbish finds its way into the town, where it lines the streets and clogs the waterways. The town does have electricity but no running water or proper drainage. The smell of the dump lingers over everything, getting into clothes and hair, so that even those children who are lucky enough to go to school face discrimination from their peers.

“Hard up families live in Payatas as an option to survive,” UNICEF’s Jess Far says. “These are the poorest of the poor.”

Alternative learning
Michelle, 16, attends a UNICEF-supported education session in Payatas
© UNICEF Philippines/2009/Andy Brown
UNICEF is supporting Kokkyo Naki Kodomotachi (KnK), a local NGO that provides alternative learning sessions for children in Payatas whose parents can’t afford to send them to school. They have two classrooms: one by the old dump and one by the new, larger dump. This is partly to make it easier for the kids to come to class from work but also for a more sinister reason. There are gang wars between rival factions working the two dumps and children get caught in the middle. One family we visited has a daughter with brain damage caused by a stray bullet from a gang-related shooting.

We visited both centres. The first centre was holding an elementary class, although you wouldn’t know it from the age of the children there, many of whom were already teenagers. In the afternoon, we saw a high school class at the second centre, where Michelle, 16, delivered a presentation about Ghandi. Encouragingly, children who attend regularly can sit an exam and get a qualification which is now recognised by the department of Education as equivalent to a high school diploma. Less encouragingly, the pass rate is around 25 per cent.

“I’ve been coming to the learning sessions for ten months,” Michelle says. “I liked reading the story of Gandhi because it made me realise that you have to strive to be able to reach your dreams. I’m very thankful to KnK for giving me the opportunity to complete my studies and to integrate with other students.”

The visit made a deep impression on me. In the UK, we’re used to thinking of recycling as a good thing and of course in many ways it is. But now every time I put my rubbish down the garbage chute in my apartment block, I think of a child picking up my empty water bottle and putting it towards their next kilo of plastic, for their next two pesos.

Happily, the week ended on a high point as Philippines President Gloria Arroyo signed a bill making child pornography illegal, in a major victory for UNICEF and other child rights advocates. UNICEF Philippines has been campaigning on the issue for several years and had specifically called for the law to be passed before next year’s national elections.

I was able to write this up as the lead news story for the website, as we marked the anniversary of the CRC on Friday. Much work remains to be done on child rights but it was a timely reminder of what has been achieved by UNICEF and its partners in their ongoing struggle to achieve a world fit for children.

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