Suffer the children

May 12 editorial
The Philippine Daily Inquirer

There is a secret darker than the sexual sins of priests, a crime more heinous than kidnapping for ransom. It is the tragedy of child labor. The practice of this open secret and brazen crime is widespread in all countries, and the Philippines - home to millions of devotees of the Child Jesus, a country immensely loyal to its so-called child stars - is no exception.

Of the 25 million Filipinos between the ages of 5 and 17, some 4 million are "economically active," the National Statistic Office reports. That is bureaucratese for minors working for a living. That also means that one out of every six Filipino children has been forced to join the labor force. The NSO report notes that most of the child laborers are classifiable as unpaid, unskilled workers in family farms and livelihood ventures. We can easily picture the details: children selling banana-cue snacks in open areas, children plying flower garlands on street corners, children hawking sweepstakes tickets at church entrances.

Other occupations are, well, less picturesque. The United Nations Children's Fund office in the Philippines says as many as 2.2 million Filipino children work in hazardous conditions. Worse, anywhere between 60,000 and 100,000 minors are sexually exploited.

None of these children are there by choice, of course. They have been dragged kicking and screaming into the ranks of the economically active by the biggest circumstance of all: poverty. Being poor is like charity; it covers a multitude of sins. It helps explain why, unlike wayward priests -- or for that matter any person doing something illicit -- those who force children to work do so openly, without apologies. Or why, unlike the victims of kidnap-for-ransom gangs, child laborers are effectively hostaged for life, and often by their own kin.

We make a distinction, of course, between chores at home or on the farm, and child labor. Chores such as, say, washing one's clothes are an important part of the raising of children; they strengthen character. But actual work, such as when a 9-year-old washes clothes for a living, weakens character by stealing nothing less than childhood from the child.

The NSO report also claims that many of the country's working children say their schooling is not affected by their work. That may very well be true, but perhaps for reasons other than what might reasonably be expected. Chances are, their schooling is not affected because they no longer go to school at all.

Some 97 percent of Filipino children attend school between ages 6 and 12. But fully 30 percent do not even finish sixth grade. And the downtrend continues through high school and on to college. Those who do juggle schooling and work at such a tender age cannot be expected to excel, to rise above the circumstances, either. It is difficult enough for a grown man to balance the demands of his job with those of his studies. What more a child?

The NSO and Unicef numbers paint a dismal picture. "The Philippines' achievement of the goals (set after the 1990 World Summit for Children) has been inconsistent," Unicef representative Terrel Hill said. Much more remains to be done, she added, citing the need for "much more political will and concrete multi-cultural action."

There is one indicator that the Macapagal administration should pay special attention to: the number of minors conscripted into the sex industry. While they account for only 2 to 3 percent of all child workers in the country, they are the most at risk. They also symbolize all the evil that is done to children. The President should devote herself to dramatically cutting down their number -- to make a statement, yes, but also to help bring as many children as possible out of the sex-industry trap. We suggest, in fact, that she include the statistic as a regular feature of her annual State of the Nation Address. It will demonstrate her commitment and monitor her progress, but it will also push all Filipinos to take a long, hard second look at the pernicious but widespread practice of child labor.