Friday, 29 October 2010

A Day in the Life: Mary's story

Thirteen-year-old Mary (not her real name) lives and works with her family on the streets of Manila, capital of the Philippines. The family occupy a corner of the pavement outside Starbucks in Binondo Square, where they sell cigarettes and newspapers, cook and eat, and sleep outside at night. Mary works with her mother on the family stall and looks after her younger sisters. She’s been out of school for three years.

The family have been forced onto the streets because of poverty. "We have a house in Cavite, south of Manila, but there aren’t enough opportunities there to earn a living," Mary explains. "That’s why we live on the streets in Binondo. We’ve been here for three years now. My mother works as a street vendor, selling cigarettes, snacks and newspapers. My stepfather is a community guard and my older brother drives a pedicab. My younger brother Jun-jun is a jeepney barker – he hails buses and taxis for passengers"

Although they no longer live there, the family still pays 500 peso (£7.30) a month in rent on their house. "Sometimes we don’t have enough money to pay the rent, which is why we don’t have anything to sell," Mary says. "Whatever we earn is just enough to buy my stepfather’s medicine. He needs a lot of medicine because he has diabetes and a heart condition.”

Working life

Mary has a busy daily schedule. “In the mornings I help my mother out,” she says. “After waking we tidy up, then I boil some water. After that I go with Mama to buy her wares. Then I take care of my younger sister. My friends are Love, Cecile and Mariel. They cheer me up when I’m sad. They make me laugh or they say: ‘Forget your problems for a while, let’s go and swim in the river’.”

Children from the Binondo area often swim in the Pasig River, which runs through the centre of Manila. They challenge each other to jump off a road bridge above the river. After a typhoon, they come to the river to catch fish that have escaped from damaged fish pens further upstream.

“When evening comes I hang out with my friends but they sometimes do rugby," [a Filipino term for sniffing glue], Mary continues. "Now I spend more evenings helping Mama and sleeping with her. We have to wait for Starbucks to close so we don’t get to sleep until after midnight.”

Life on the streets presents many challenges for children like Mary. “The main problems for me are not having a place to stay and not being able to go to school,” she says. “I used to go to school even when we lived on the streets, but one day when I was in the third grade, I asked Mama to go with me to school to claim my report card. It's a requirement that the parent be there.

"I had no idea that my little sister would go missing that day. When we returned home, she was gone. She was missing for four days until she was found by a social worker. It turns out that two kids took her while we were away. They even put her in a sack. After that, my stepfather wouldn’t let me go school anymore. He said many hurtful things to me and I ran away because I was so upset.”

Given a chance

Mary attends street education sessions run by Childhope Asia Philippines, with support from UNICEF. “I like all of the sessions, particularly the life skills education and the choir practice,” she says. “Its fun to be in the choir because you learn to sing and you get to express the problems you carry in your heart. Sometimes, I wish they would teach choir every day instead of just Wednesdays. The life skills sessions have taught me how to plan for my future to achieve my ambitions and dreams. Everyone has a dream and street children are no different. Even animals dream of eating good food."

Mary is now a Junior Advocate for children’s rights. “We teach other children about gender sensitivity, life skills and substance abuse," she explains. “I used to sniff glue because I thought it would help me forget my problems. But I was wrong, it added to my problems. It stopped me from studying. If I can go back to school and finish my studies, I’d like to be a reporter. I’ll be able to solve problems and help support my family. And I can tell other people what’s going on. I’ll be able to offer assistance when a child goes missing.”

Despite her problems, Mary is positive about life. “I’m happy here, in a way, because we have enough to eat and I have lots of friends,” she says. “But we’re dependent on my stepfather and he often gets ill. What would happen to us if he’s no longer around? Sometimes I think about going to a shelter because I know that it would be better for me there. But I don’t want to leave Mama. I have a responsibility to her and to my brothers and sisters."

Mary is thankful for the chance she's been given to continue her studies. “I’m grateful to Childhope because they are able to help children finish their education," she says. "They teach us and show concern for us. They treat us like family, not like strangers. I’m also grateful to Butch, our street educator, because he patiently guides us no matter what the time. Even if it means he goes to sleep late and has to wake up early for work the next morning, he still comes and finds us.”

Upholding child rights

UNICEF is helping children like Mary get a basic education, talk about their problems and, ultimately, get off the streets and back into school. The programme works on three levels: on the streets, where outreach workers get to know the children and win their trust; in shelters, where children can stay and attend school; and in the community, where local 'barangay' councils respond to issues affecting children.

We're supporting Childhope Asia Philippines, which employs street educators like Butch. They go out onto the streets of Manila and make contact with the children. They provide counselling and basic education through alternative learning sessions, help the children access information and services, and ultimately motivate them to give up life on the streets. UNICEF provides training and materials for the street educators and food for children who attend the sessions.

For children like Mary, life is an ongoing battle where their rights are denied on a daily basis. However, through the work of UNICEF, Childhope Asia Philippines and street educators like Butch, there is hope that at least some children will escape this vicious circle and start enjoying their right to a full and happy childhood.

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