Gimme shelter: a home for street children
How UNICEF is helping to protect the rights of former street children and gang members in the Philippines
Carl, 13, is staying at Pangarap Shelter for Street Children in Manila, capital of the Philippines. Before he was on the streets, he used to live with his mother and sister at a brothel. His sister ran the bar while his mother did the cleaning and housework. His father, who has since left home, used to physically abuse him. He would put Carl in a sack and hang him upside down from a tree. Then he would beat him with a stick.
Carl told his psychiatrist that his father put holes in the sack so he could hear him scream but he tried to keep silent because he didn’t want to give him the satisfaction. “I ran away from home because I felt imprisoned there,” Carl says. “It was always chaotic and my parents would fight about money. After I ran away, I sold used plastic bottles for a living.”
Every child has the right to a safe childhood, protected from violence, abuse and exploitation. Every child has the right to grow up in a family environment, free from adult responsibilities and with the opportunity to play. However, this right is being denied for millions of children living on the streets around the world.
UNICEF works to put this right by supporting families, communities and governments to create a protective environment for children. In Manila, for instance, we are supporting Pangarap to reintegrate former street children into their families and communities. UNICEF is providing the shelter with education materials, clothes and bedding for the children and training for the social workers, house parents, teachers and psychologists who staff the centre.
Pangarap Shelter offers a homelike atmosphere for former street boys aged between 8 and 17 who are unable to return to their family homes. While at the shelter, the boys have the opportunity to attend formal school. There is also a workshop where they can make candles and beads for sale in the shelter’s shop, earning a share of the proceeds.
“Our programme is holistic and based on children’s rights,” Leah Lanzuela, Programme Manager at the Pangarap Foundation, which runs the shelter, says. “It’s about caring for, healing and teaching children. Most of these children are way behind their peers. We want to give them the skills for eventual independent living.”
Boys are bought to the shelter by street educators, who do outreach work with street children. Unlike government-run ’rescue’ programmes, children go to these shelters voluntarily and are free to leave at any time.
“Once a suitable boy has been identified, the street educator will talk to him, explain what the shelter is all about and accompany him for an onsite visit,” Jess Far, Child Protection Officer at UNICEF Philippines, comments. “This allows the boy to see the activities and programmes in the centre. The street educator will give him time to think about it and can answer any questions he has.”
Ultimately, the aim is to return children to their families wherever possible. Pangarap offers educational assistance to former street children who have returned to their families or to a foster home. The family receives livelihood assistance, counselling services and parenting skills training.
“Social workers will work with the parents to make sure they’re prepared to assume parental responsibility,” Jess explains. “That’s the biggest challenge if the child has had negative experiences from the family in the past. Both sides need to be ready for reconciliation.”
For the moment, Carl is happy to be at the shelter. “I’m able to study here and can stand on my own two feet,” he says. “My favourite subject is Maths. I want to be a ship engineer and visit different countries.” Carl also enjoys the group therapy sessions with other boys. “We’re given advice so we can finish our studies,” he adds. “We’re taught not to steal and to play together.”
Gangs of Manila
© UNICEF UK/Philippines 2009/Sharron Lovell
With UNICEF support, the Parangap Foundation also works with current and former gang members to help them escape a life of crime. Ron, 15, is a former street child who now lives at Pangarap Shelter.
“I used to snatch earrings and jewellery from passengers on jeepneys,” Ron says, demonstrating the technique using his own neck chain. “There was a group of us. Sometimes I would work as the snatcher and sometimes as the lookout for policemen. I learnt how to spot real jewellery from fake.”
As well as the shelter, Pangarap runs a Peace Camp, where members of opposing gangs come together to discuss their problems and learn life skills as a single youth group. It takes place at a beach outside Manila and the children have to leave their weapons and gang allegiance behind for the duration of the camp.
“When they’re on the streets, the children wear different coloured handkerchiefs to show which gang they belong to,” Jess comments. “They copy US gangs and call themselves the Bloods and the Crips. Once, I asked a girl at the camp what made her happy and she said: ‘I feel happy when I see my enemy’s blood.’ Can you imagine that? She was just a child.”
For children who are unhappy with how they're treated at home, gangs can provide the illusion of an alternative family and support system. “This gives them recognition and raises their self esteem,” Jess says. However, the gangs are far from benevolent. “There are two ways to join a gang,” Jess continues. “They call it the ‘hard way’ and the ‘easy way’ – for the hard way the child is beaten, for the easy way they’re sexually abused.”
At Peace Camp, children are encouraged to look at their situation and identify ways of improving it. They work through their issues using theatre, music, dance and structured games. “It takes time,” Jess says. “You need to help them understand the risks of their situation, like getting injured, going to jail, being killed or killing someone else. The social worker will help them think about what they want from life and what decisions they can make to improve their situation.”
Some street children do decide to change their lives. Ron was brought to Pangarap Shelter by one of the street educators after he decided to give up crime. “I’m happy here at the shelter because my character and behaviour are better.” Ron says. “I stopped stealing because I realised it was wrong. Now I like cooking, basketball and drawing. I’m also in a dance group. We learn moves by watching videos of the American rap group JabbaWockeeZ.”
UNICEF’s work, both in the Philippines and internationally, is based on upholding child rights, including the right to a childhood. For street children in Manila, life is an ongoing battle in which their rights are denied on a daily basis. However, through the work of UNICEF and the Pangarap Foundation, children like Carl and Ron have been able to escape this environment and start enjoying their right to a full and happy childhood.
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