The mass media recently performed their most outstanding function in society by showing the disturbing picture of a severely emaciated child lying naked on the cement floor of what was supposed to be the reception facility for Manila’s street children. That function has to do with the provision of information that “irritates” society by contradicting its stable expectations and beliefs about itself, thus compelling it to take a hard look at its way of life.
That solitary skin-and-bones portrait of “Frederico,” real name unknown, is worth all the surveys that have been conducted on the state of poverty and hunger in the country. It depicts the consequences of parental abandonment and poverty, and the criminal neglect by state agencies of children placed under their care. It shows how we treat children with special needs, whose parents are too poor to look after them. It makes us wonder if, as one of the first countries to sign the international convention on the rights of the child, we have understood what we were committing ourselves to.
In truth, I don’t expect the media to go beyond the reporting of information. And so they could be forgiven if they did not notice the irony of showing the grim face of hunger in all its starkness, and then, in the commercial breaks that follow, of bombarding viewers with incessant images of complacent consumerism. But, I am sure a deliberate point was being made in the sharp juxtaposition between the portrait of child hunger and neglect that Frederico personifies, and the report on unbridled corruption and inexplicable wealth drawn from the ongoing investigation of overpriced buildings and fraudulent bidding procedures in the City of Makati.
Whatever meanings were being communicated, no one is spared the burden of facing one’s conscience. It wasn’t easy for me to take dinner after seeing that child in that horrible state. The discomfort and feeling of helplessness stayed with me for a long time. I wondered how government officials, if they were watching the same news program, could remain unruffled, enjoy a meal, or sleep well at night after that.
Mercifully, a follow-up report on the boy showed him to be alive and thriving in the care of a nongovernment organization that had rescued him from the overcrowded, inadequately funded, and understaffed Manila Reception and Action Center. Video footage taken just a couple of months after the skin-and-bones photo shows Frederico seated and eating by himself. His tender limbs appear to have filled up considerably. The report included a brief interview with a woman, a street-dweller, who had found the boy in the streets and nurtured him as if he was of her own blood. She said she had to let a police officer take him away only because the boy needed special care and she felt she could no longer look after him. She was shocked to see a picture of him in that state. She had thought he would be in better hands if the government took care of him.
Religious organizations and NGOs everywhere typically take the needs of the poor and the marginalized as among their principal concerns. This proceeds from a self-understanding of their faith or their mission rather than from any legal assignment of duty. In the modern world, that responsibility is principally addressed to governments. This is the thrust of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on Nov. 20, 1989—exactly 25 years ago today.
This vital document contains 54 articles, starting with Article 1, which defines the child as any person below the age of 18. Reviewing the scope of these various articles, I took note of a couple of provisions that directly concern the case of Frederico. It is important to revisit them if only to remind us of our society’s unmet obligations to our children.
Art. 6: “Children have the right to a full life. Governments should ensure that children survive and develop healthily.” Note that while our Local Government Code has devolved many social welfare functions to the local governments, this provision does not distinguish between national and local governments. Art. 9: “Children should not be separated from their parents unless it is for their own good.” Art. 18: “Governments should help parents by providing services to support them, especially if both parents work.” So far, nothing is known of Frederico’s parents.
Art. 19: “Governments should ensure that children are properly cared for and protect them from violence, abuse, and neglect by their parents, or anyone else who looks after them.” We have made big strides in protecting our children from violence and abuse but not from neglect, which is usually a function of absolute poverty. Art. 23: “Children who have any kind of disability should receive special care and support so that they can live a full and independent life.” Art. 25: “Children who are looked after by their local authority rather than their parents should have their situation reviewed regularly.”
Art. 26: “The Government should provide extra money for the children of families in need.” Art. 27: “Children have the right to a standard of living that is good enough to meet their physical and mental needs. The government should help families who cannot afford to provide this.” These two provisions supply the rationale for the expanded Conditional Cash Transfer Program. But we can do more.
I look forward to the day when government performance is measured chiefly by the standards set in the Convention of the Rights of the Child, rather than by the rate of growth of the economy.
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