(Today being Holy Innocents' Day, I thought it fitting to share the key points of a talk I gave at the "Child Without Borders" conference organised by the Child Protection Unit last Dec. 5.)
In traditional society, the status of the child is determined by the social position of the family from which she is sprung. Indeed, parents "own" their children, a fact that proceeds from the family's basic role as an economic unit. The state recognises this, and defers to the primordial authority of parents over their children.
The modern family, in contrast, sheds off its economic function. And with the spread of public education, it also loses a good part of its educational function. The State assumes the formal obligation to protect and ensure the growth of every child, conferring upon them all those rights that are beautifully laid out in the modern document we call the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
The transition to modernity is, however, never smooth. Culture tends to lag behind the laws. The change in social awareness is slow. All too often, the family finds itself reacting to the myriad pressures of poverty by taking out its frustrations on its most vulnerable members-the women and the children.
Almost all the threats that Filipino children confront in our society-corporal punishment, verbal abuse, child labour, child trafficking, sexual abuse, child soldiering, recruitment into criminal syndicates, etc.-are rooted in the poverty and degradation to which at least half of our people have been consigned.
For all our claims to being a loving and nurturing people that assign a great value to children, many of us still find it hard to listen to them, to take their words seriously, to respect their feelings, their pride, their dignity and self-esteem. We demand from our children unconditional obedience and trust, even when the orders we give to them may have been made during our most irrational moments. Because they are "just children," we are usually dismissive of their feelings, making no effort to understand their outbursts and sudden fits of uncontrolled weeping. We treat these as signs of immaturity rather than as desperate calls for help.
If this is a problem of culture, then it must be addressed as a question of how to promote a different kind of awareness. Parents, elders, teachers and adults in authority who deal with children on a regular basis need to be able to pause and reflect on the nature of their actions towards children. This is not easy. Most of these are habits they may have picked up unconsciously in the course of their own socialization. If they grew up in an abusive family, there is a big chance they will not act any differently toward their own children.
Modernity interrupts this cycle by introducing the child early to a world larger than the household-a world where she learns to respect the needs and rights of other children, a world where other roles are possible apart from those conferred by the family. Many traditional families will regard these encounters jealously, seeing in them a threat to parental authority. That is why they may often view the school-the teachers or the peer group-as a source of bad influence.
This culture fades away, albeit slowly, as our society enters the modern period. As government actively takes on the responsibility of protecting the nation's children-often against those who should be looking after them-we should be seeing less and less of the abuses and neglect that now hound children of this generation.
Even so, I would be the last to paint a glowing picture of modernity. Modernity solves many problems but brings in new ones. As they become increasingly self-reliant at an early age, young people will find less and less reason to visit, much less consult their parents. The
issue of child abandonment is easily replaced by elderly abandonment. As the family loses its centrality in modern society, its support functions likewise decline in importance. In the end, the only thing that remains is love, which may not always be sufficiently strong to pull every member together in rough times.
Clearly, we are not yet there. The problems we face are still the familiar ones that reflect the exigencies of an impoverished society undergoing the transition to modernity.
That is why the dimensions of child protection remain astounding. At least 5 million children are engaged in backbreaking work in agriculture, mining and quarrying, construction, manufacturing, domestic work and scavenging. We have lost count of the number of batang hamog who live in the streets or under bridges, but we know they are multiplying. Three to 6 million children are reported to be living apart from their OFW parents. Thousands of children are recruited as child soldiers by insurgent groups, or engaged as spies by the military. Every year, tens of thousands of children fall victim to sexual abuse, trafficking and drug abuse. Every renewal of armed conflict in Mindanao throws children out of their homes and into makeshift shanties in evacuation centers. Every natural calamity victimizes children in numbing proportions.
Older societies in the modern world have graying populations, unable to motivate their young people to get married, settle down and have children. In contrast, wherever we go in these beautiful islands, children at once surround us, their spontaneous smiles masking the burdens they carry on their young shoulders. We can't imagine what a boon that is. Our young population is what keeps our society dynamic and alive, while other nations have long gone into retirement mode.