Sunday, 15 November 2009

Philippines diary: On the road

  The author with schoolchildren at Paaralang Elementary School
© UNICEF Philippines/2009
My fourth week in the Philippines was dominated by a three day trip to Camarines Norte, a province south of Manila. It’s one of the poorer parts of the Philippines and where Typhoon Santi made landfall last week. For both reasons, it’s a prime target for UNICEF’s work. My manager, Angela, has been given responsibility for this province, so she was on a fact finding mission, while my role was to report on projects we’ve funded there.

As we left Manila, our flight passed over the flood plain by Laguna de Bay, southeast of the city. We were in a small plane, and flying low, so this time I could clearly see the flooded fields, with hedges, trees and the occasional rooftop rising above the waterline. I watched small speedboats navigate their way across the flooded fields and past the rooftops. I realised that nature had resculpted the landscape, creating a new shoreline. In one place, a village had been cleft in two, with one side now on the coast and the other on a new island in the expanded lake.

After landing at 7am, we had a two-hour drive to our final destination, so I took the opportunity to catch up on my sleep. I woke up just as we arrived at the Provincial Government building, which was decorated with a banner reading ‘Welcome to Camerinas Norte, Ms Angela Travis and Party’, then had the slightly disconcerting experience of meeting and greeting the Vice Governor while still half asleep.

Cam Norte is one of the poorest provinces in the Philippines, unlike Cam Sur which gets tourist income from the surfing crowd. Nonetheless it’s a beautiful place, with cloud wreathed mountains rising out of a wide green land, fringed by long white-sand beaches and deserted tropical islands. The concrete and iron of Manila have given way to traditional buildings made of wood and bamboo and the population is enlivened by the occasional indigenous community of pre-Malay people, related to Australian aborigines.

Our project visits began the next day, with a whistle-stop tour of five schools in the typhoon-affected region. In one village, we arrived to find the TV channel AVS handing out aid in a large basketball arena. It was a somewhat surreal affair and very different to a UNICEF distribution. Speakers had been set up, blasting out pop tunes such as ‘We Will Rock You’, soldiers stood guard with semi-automatic weapons and the survival packs were handed out by celebrities, including ‘Action King’ Robin Padilla, the only person in the indoor arena wearing sunglasses. My colleague Baby is a big fan of Robin’s so I took a quick photo of the two of them, which is destined for pride of place on Baby’s Facebook page.

Several of the schools we visited had storm-damaged buildings, but the image that stood out for me was at Paaralang Elementary School, where hundreds of flood-damaged textbooks had been put out to dry in the sun. They were on every available surface, carpeting the pathways, lining the stone walls and piled high on desks and chairs.

Practice what you teach

Krista Angeli Delica, 16, organised a collection among fellow students
© UNICEF Philippines/2009/Andy Brown
As well as looking at the damage to schools, we also wanted to see what was working. In Jose Panganiban High School, I met members of the ‘student government’, part of the Child Friendly School System established by UNICEF.

In a secret ballot six months ago, Krista Angeli Delica, 16, was elected President of the student government. After the region was hit by the recent Typhoon Santi, she organised a collection among fellow students to help buy food and clothing for those affected. “I got involved with the student government because by serving other students, I find self contentment and fulfilment,” she said.

The government also runs projects with money raised from parents, businesses and local government. They are currently fundraising to repair the school’s hand washing area, which was vandalised, and for additional medicines cabinets. “So far we’ve solicited funds for six medicine cabinets but our target is for 60,” Krista says. “We need first aid materials in the school for when pupils get sick or injured. At the moment they have to go to the nearest clinic.”

All in all, the students were an incredibly bright, eloquent group and had as many questions for me as I had for them. Admittedly some were about Harry Potter but most were about UNICEF and its work. I was even put on the spot by one girl who wanted to know what I thought was UNICEF’s greatest achievement. I came up with the significant reduction in HIV transmission from mother to child in recent years.

After the schools, we visited a counselling group for breastfeeding mothers. Breast milk gives babies all the nutrients they need for the first six months of life and helps protect them from disease. However, in the Philippines, many mothers spend hard-earned cash buying formula milk instead of breastfeeding, putting their babies’ health – and sometimes their lives – at risk. This is largely due to misconceptions and the aggressive marketing of infant formula by milk companies.

“Nine out of ten mothers in this area breastfeed,” Herminia Icatlo, the rural health midwife at the Vinzons breastfeeding group, says. “But working mothers often mix feed, so their babies don’t get the best milk all the time. Sometimes they don’t prepare the bottle properly or use contaminated water, so the baby gets diarrhoea.” In extreme cases, this can be fatal.

There are currently around 200 breastfeeding counselling groups in Camarines Norte and UNICEF is supporting many of them with training and materials. “We teach mothers how to breastfeed and tell them about nutrition and protecting their baby’s health.” Herminia says.

On Wednesday morning, we visited two early learning centres, including one run by a remarkable 66-year-old teacher in a UNICEF t-shirt, who refuses to retire. There was a moment of unintentional comedy at the community-based centre, when a small boy stood up in front of the class and sang a song he’d picked up from the local radio. The lyrics, which are highly unsuitable for nursery school, discuss the relative merits of gay and straight relationships. Somewhat surprisingly, he was allowed to complete his performance, concluding that boyfriends are best.

One of the paradoxes of the Philippines is that it’s devoutly Catholic but very open and accepting of different sexualities, certainly by regional standards. Perhaps this is because Filipinos have adapted religion to their local environment, in much the same way as they have language and the ever-present jeepneys.

Touch me not

Twelve-year old Caridad (not her real name) at a home for abused children
© UNICEF Philippines/2009/Andy Brown
In the afternoon, we visited a halfway house for abused and trafficked children. Emotionally, it was the toughest project visit so far. We met twelve-year old Caridad (not her real name) who was raped by six neighbours in her village four months ago. Her mother reported the incident to social services and Caridad was brought to the halfway house for her own safety, while the men were prosecuted. Caridad wants the men to go to jail. “We have the medical certificate as evidence against them,” her social worker Arlene says.

Despite her traumatic experience, Caridad is obviously happy at the halfway house and is very affectionate with Arlene, one of two social workers there. “I like living in this house,” Caridad says. “There are lots of things to do, like cooking and arts and crafts. Every day we decide our own menu and cook it together with the other children. I also like making decorations from recycled materials like drink bottles and crisp packets.”

The halfway house, which due to limited funds is the only one in its province, has dealt with a number of cases like Caridad’s in recent months. In another case, social workers discovered that several children between the ages of 12 and 16 had been trafficked to work as child prostitutes in bars in a nearby mining village, where there had been a gold rush.

Thankfully, the children were rescued from the bars by social workers and brought to the halfway house. Treatment was arranged for four of the children, who had contracted sexually-transmitted infections. Social services in their home towns were contacted, so that the children could be returned home, and a court case was also brought against the bar owners.

“The children didn’t know they were going to be sex workers,” Arlene says. “Their families were told they were going to be waitresses or dish washers and they were promised a better life. But when they arrived in the town they were told: ‘You have food and shelter, now this is what you have to do to pay for it’.”

The halfway house provides a range of services for children, using supplies and educational materials provided by UNICEF. “When the children arrive, we provide them with clothes, medical assistance and food,” Arlene says. “We then do group and individual therapy and some basic education. Many of these children haven’t been to school and don’t know how to read and write.”

Caridad hopes to return home and go back to school once her court case is over. “When I grow up, I want to be social worker or policewoman,” she says. “I want to help other people, like the social workers here have helped me.”

We need to protect the identity of at-risk children, so I obscured Caridad’s face in most of the photos. Before we left, however, I took some normal photos of the children smiling and fooling around together, which I’ll print and send to them when we get back Manila. It’s a small gesture but I feel that it’s important to give something back to these damaged but remarkably strong children.

All in all, Camarines Norte has opened my eyes to a range of issues in the rural areas of the Philippines. As always, I’m left with an enormous admiration for the people UNICEF works with and the amazing work they do, often on low wages and with little recognition. I hope that some of my articles can help to change the latter.

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