Ten years ago, our correspondent in The Philippines, Madonna Virola produced her first story for Asia Calling.
Over the past decade, Madonna has followed the stories of disadvantaged kids as they learn to become their own advocates, fighting for the basic rights they deserve.
From Calapan City, Mindoro Island, Madonna Virola looks back over that journey.
It’s Christmas in The Philippines – a time that is supposed to be filled with joy, especially for children.
But since reporting on kids who are forced to live on the streets, out of poverty or neglect, I know that this can be a very difficult time for some.
At this time of year, I often find myself thinking about Pinky, whose incredible story I heard when I met her at local government organization Tambayan Center for Children’s Rights in Davao, back in 2007.
She was 19-year-old then, and smart-looking, breastfeeding her one-year-old son. I was moved by how much she’d been through.
She left home at 12 years of age, to get away from abusive parents. Quitting school, Pinky started begging on the streets, then got into drugs.
When I met her, Pinky had found hope and a second family at Tambayan Centre for Children’s Rights – a place that gives street kids somewhere safe to hang out, and the opportunity to participate in making decisions and policies that affect them. She told me she was selling fried banana to support her son.
In 2011, four years after that first meeting with Pinky, I again met with the director of Tambayan Centre, Edith Casiple. She told me about how the centre had gone on to new projects – they were working with kids to write, act in, and produce their own film, Latus.
Annie and Elsie were lead actors in the film, which depicted the harsh realities of physical abuse they’ve experienced.
When I met them, the girls were beaming with pride... they were heading out of the country to receive an award for best short film at New York International Independent Film and Video Festival.
“Of course we are happy,” they told me. “But more than the award, we are happy to bring the voices of the street girls. On the road shows and in every chance, we would do our best to advocate for our dream—a stop on corporal punishment and a start on positive discipline”
Annie, Elsie and other street girls have been on the road with the film, promoting awareness on the rights of children in villages and schools across the country.
It’s part of a long running campaign to legislate on ending the corporal punishment of children. But their work isn’t over yet. Congress passed a bill on The Positive and Non Violent Treatment of Children in January this year. The Senate is yet to pass the bill.
Five years after that first film, late last year, Tambayan came up with another award-winning film on juvenile justice.
Panon is inspired by true events from 2002, following a bloody clash between all-girl gangs, it highlights the root causes of juvenile crime.
Former street kid, Laura Parapina played the main character, Kakay.
Growing up around gangs, Laura says that the film is powerful as it gave people the chance to start to understand young people who are involved in crime.
“They have no idea why we became this way,” Laura said. “I hope they won't judge us because it hurts. For youth like us, we take these negative perceptions as a challenge. Show them that they are wrong. That they have a bright future ahead.”
These films have opened up a new future for talented girls like Annie, Elsie and Laura.
After all, social worker Carla from Tambayan points outs that youth acting out is usually a sign of deeper social problems.
“As we often say in Tambayan, the way children are only mirrors the bigger problems in society. They are not the reason.” She continued, “they are just victims of our shortcomings as duty bearers and the government.”
Those short comings are clearer than ever now, as Philippines President Duterte pushes ahead in his so-called ‘war on drugs,’ which has killed up to 60 minors in the last eighteen months.
Reporting on that issue, I spoke to the family of 17 year Kian Loyd delos Santos, who was murdered in August this year. Darkness and poverty hung heavy in their grieving home. I was left with the feeling that justice is now further away than ever.
It’s heartening to watch kids learn to advocate for their rights, and to see civil society groups like Tambayan work hard to support them.
But that just makes it hurt more to report that in the last year and a half, Filipino kids are being killed in a war against drugs that has been waged by their own government.
Over ten years of reporting with Asia Calling, I’ve been inspired by how children can become powerful messengers and advocates. I’ll never forget what Pinky said to me back in 2007.
“We don’t need your money, food, or pity. We need you to listen to us, to trust us.”
Asia Calling is signing off, but I hope you’ll find other ways to listen to children who are pushing for a future as bright as they deserve.