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Under pressure: children on the streets

Butch and Mary
© UNICEF Philippines/2009/Andy Brown
Street educator Butch with Mary, 12 (not her real name). He has been counselling her about solvent abuse and hopes to get her back into school soon.

How UNICEF Philippines is helping to provide education for street children in Manila

Mary, 12, lives and works with her family on the streets of Manila. She helps her mother sell cigarettes outside Starbucks in Binondo (Chinatown) and looks after her younger brothers and sisters. She has been out of school for two years and is under pressure from her peers to sniff solvents. “I don’t want to sleep on the streets anymore,” she says.

UNICEF Philippines 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 centres, where children can stay and attend school; and in the community, where local councils indentify and respond to issues affecting children.

“Children end up on the streets for a variety of reasons,” Jesus Far, Child Protection Officer at UNICEF Philippines comments. “Sometimes it’s because they’re being abused at home, either physically or sexually, sometimes it’s because their parents are unable to provide for them and they need to work to survive and sometimes it’s because of peer pressure. Boys in particular are attracted to the street gangs. They get involved in sniffing solvents, drinking alcohol and taking illegal drugs. They are also drawn to crime, violence and sexual abuse. Often, they end up injured, jailed or killed.”

Hope for children

One of the organisations UNICEF is supporting is Childhope Asia Philippines. It employs street educators, who 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 try to motivate them to give up life on the streets.

Butch, 47, is a street educator with Childhope Asia Philippines and a former street child. He never knew his parents and ran away from home after his grandmother died. He ended up on the streets, where he led a gang, sold drugs and acted as a pimp for other boys. He also got into trouble with the law and spent time in detention. By the time he was 17, he realised his life had to change.

“We were a group of eight kids and I was the leader,” Butch says. “I was street smart and didn’t trust anyone. But these people, the social workers, they were persistent and really got to know the group. So I said ‘I’m going to try this. Why not? I have nothing to lose’. By this time, I thought that I really need to change my lifestyle.”

We can work it out

Street children
© UNICEF Philippines/2009/Andy Brown
Street children play an educational game where they have to make words naming parts of the body.

While other street workers educate the children with regular classes, where they learn things like basic maths, literacy and how to take care of themselves, Butch concentrates on counselling, helping individual children work through their problems.

“There is a lot of abuse on the streets,” Butch says. “In my area there are a lot of market vendors who think that street children are the dregs of society. So they don’t think these kids have rights. Every day, the kids get sick from pneumonia, skin disease and tuberculosis. Even day-to-day life is stressful for them. They are hungry and have to look for food all the time. They don’t have good friends and there are lots of vices around them.”

“I’m doing case work with children who are in dire need,” he continues. “I listen to their problems, talk about their feelings and help them with their decision making. It’s a long process but in six months they may have decided to get off the streets. I can then try to reconcile them with their parents or put them in a temporary shelter.”

Butch is strongly motivated to do this kind of work. “It’s more than payback,” he says. “I feel an obligation and responsibility to take care of other people. Certain kids have the inner strength but they need some support from the outside. I was a lost sheep once, now I rescue other sheep.”

Rights and responsibilities

UNICEF’s work, both in the Philippines and internationally, is based on upholding children’s rights, including the right to a childhood.  Twenty years ago, the world made a set of promises to all children when it adopted the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). While great progress has been made since then, children’s rights are still being denied and much remains to be done. As the champion of the CRC, UNICEF is working to help every child realise their rights.

Street children are regularly denied the right to education, health care and protection. They are often exploited and abused. “If a kid is being abused, I go to the barangay (village) and find the person who is doing it,” Butch says. “I send the kid to the child protection unit where they can have a medical examination and I push for a lawsuit against the abuser. I also go to the barangay and the street vendors and tell them about our programme and children’s rights. You have to educate people and advocate for children’s rights.”

After counselling from Butch, Mary is attending the alternative learning sessions, where she is showing academic promise. She’s now decided that she wants to go back to school. “I like learning maths, Filipino and how to take care of my body,” she says. “I want to be a nurse and help people who are sick, like the people who got ill after the last typhoon.”

For street children, 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.

The author
Andy Brown is Senior Web Editor at UNICEF UK

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