A week before the official opening of the 14th Congress, politicians are squabbling over the leadership positions in both chambers. This is unfortunate since there are more important national concerns that need to be addressed by Congress. It is better if politicians are debating on appropriate legislative solutions to key social problems. Party caucuses should not only tackle official nominations for Congress leadership; they should also forge consensus in identifying the priority bills required to improve lives of millions of Filipinos.
The output of the past two Congresses was dismal in terms of number and quality of laws enacted. They made little impact in uplifting social conditions of the poor. It is hoped that the 14th Congress will veer away from the embarrassing record of its predecessors by focusing on human development legislation. Advocates (or lobbyists) base their expectations to the entry of 106 first termers who are more open to progressive proposals than their elder counterparts.
What should be the priority of the 14th Congress? Eradicating poverty is a sweeping goal. I have a proposal: focus on children.
There are 34.6 million children in the country or those living below 18 years old. Almost ten million are under 5 years old. Children belong to the 4.3 million families who are at-risk or live below the poverty threshold. If there is a sector which remains vulnerable to economic difficulties and in dire need of effective poverty-alleviation programs, I would immediately cite the children.
Promoting children’s welfare should begin by protecting women’s health. The cycle of malnutrition begins with the mother. About 300,000 Filipino babies are born each year with intellectual impairment due to iodine deficiency. Leading causes of infant deaths are preventable diseases like poor respiratory conditions, malnutrition and diarrhea. It is distressing to note that 3 of 10 children, especially in rural villages and urban slums, are underweight. A child’s health and development from infancy to early childhood determine the success of an individual in his/her adult years.
Children’s access to schooling is not improving. Only 21 percent of 6.5 million 3-5 year olds go to day care centers. More children drop-out during first three years of schooling. Studies show 4 of 10 elementary graduates do not move on to high school. Of those who enroll in high school, 5 of 10 eventually drop out. Those who finish high school acquire skills and competencies that are below international and even national standards.
Children who need special protection are those engaged in hazardous and exploitative labor, street children, victims of sexual abuse and commercial exploitation, victims of family violence and neglect, those separated from or have lost their parents, children displaced by disasters, armed conflict and aggressive urban development, children in conflict with the law, children with various forms of disability, those living in ethnic/cultural communities and children living with HIV/AIDS.
There are 4 million child laborers working in hazardous and exploitative conditions (like deep-sea fishing, pyrotechnic industry, mining and quarrying, sugar cane plantation). These children are deprived of education opportunities.
Street children are categorized as the highly visible children who remain for more than 4 hours in the streets. The national estimate is 45,000, although I think this is a conservative figure. Natural and man-made disasters affected 12,857 barangays in 2004 according to the Department of Social Welfare and Development. More than 5 million children were displaced by these calamities.
We should all commit ourselves to build a child-friendly and child-sensitive society. The Philippines is signatory to Convention on the Rights of the Child. According to the Council for the Welfare of Children (CWC), there are many laws on children but they are not implemented and funded by government. Policy initiatives are also done more at the national level.
The CWC is proposing the following legislative measures for the 14th Congress: Instituting Foster Care, law against child pornography, legitimation of Children Born to Underage Parents and amendments RA 7610 (Child Special Protection Act). The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child is also proposing the prohibition of torture and corporal punishment
Children are not voters but they deserve special attention from politicians. The 2010 presidential election is just three years away and it is feared that socially-relevant bills will be sidestepped by too much politicking.