I am literally a cry baby. Sad movies and songs make me cry. In the face of poverty, tears well into my eyes.
What is it in poverty that gnaws at our heart? It is a half-empty classroom in Barira, Maguindanao . Children are forced to be absent because they have to help thresh rice stalks in the farm. Or young boys have to climb tall trees to harvest the coconuts. Poverty thrives in Mindanao where 4 out of 5 poor Filipinos live. Over 50 percent of the population in ARMM are poor (World Bank, A Poverty Assessment of the Philippines). The chances that these children will finish schooling are small.
The chances that their future will be bleak are great.
Poverty is in the face of a porter in the domestic airport. He asks every passenger if he can be of help. But, he is virtually ignored, and his presence, is not even acknowledged. Sadness is etched on his face as he goes home penniless. Tomorrow, his family will have no food. His shoulders are bent from years of carrying heavy boxes and luggage. Without a decent education, portering is the only job that he can find. Forty percent of poor households in the country are headed by those like him who was unable to complete even a primary education. Many wonder how come that they could not finish schooling when elementary and secondary public education is free? The reasons are plentiful and varied. The roads that children trek to go to their schools in rural barangays are slippery and arduous. At times, children and teachers have to literally swim and overcome strong currents. Children go to school hungry. They have no uniforms. I cried my hearts out in seeing that the pencils of children from an upland barangay from Saranggani were only as big as my thumb. The crisis in their schooling is made worse by the crisis in their learning. Another World Bank study noted that “teachers in the Philippines do not have the knowledge, support, and materials that they need to teach effectively.”
We have seen the results of the crisis in learning. While government has been pre-occupied in fine-tuning the K to 12 program, we have been shocked to find out that nearly one-half of the students are frustrated readers. Some cannot even say the sounds of the English alphabet correctly. Many can say the words but they do not understand their meaning. So, when I am advised to focus on developing 21st learning skills among children, I look bewildered. Do they really understand that our children are still wanting in basic skills such as reading?
Another face of Poverty is a young mother who has to leave her 7 children in the province to take care of those who are not her own. Yaya Flor needs to augment the income of her husband, a sugarcane plantation worker . When I asked her why she has quite a number of children, she sheepishly answered that she does not have the power to refuse her husband. The World Bank study says that nearly 40% of households with three or more young children are poor. Mothers in the poorest 20% have 5 children or more compared with women in the richest 20% who have only 2 children or less. But what is interesting is that over 80% of married women want to either space their births or limit childbearing. Why they are not able to achieve what they want is a question of women empowerment, inequity, traditional religious beliefs, and access to resources.
But there is hope. In the last few years, the country successfully reduced the number of poor people from 26.6 million to about 22 million in 2015. The expenditures of government on the poor particularly the conditional cash transfer, pulled millions of people from poverty. More children are now able to go to school and receive health care. The Filipino tradition of caring for one’s families was a big help. Remittances from workers who are working abroad and in the country reduced poverty significantly.
But there are still 22 million poor Filipinos who earn less than P102.00 a day. Often, they cannot look straight into our eyes because poverty deprived them of confidence and self-esteem. I hope their faces haunt us to share our time, our expertise, our resources, and our love.