UNICEF: Cities failing children

URBANIZATION has two faces: brimming with opportunities for employment and development, and the other, posing threats to the health, education, and well-being of children. This is the latest finding of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in its State of the World’s Children report released last week.

According to the report, “Children in an Urban World,” children living in slums are among the most disadvantaged and vulnerable in the world because they are deprived of the most basic services. While children in cities generally enjoy greater access to schools, health centers, and recreational facilities, the study found that many are denied of necessities like clean water, electricity, and health care.

A streetchild in Dasmariñas City. Photo by Florenz Sison, PCIJ intern

Citing the Philippines as an example, UNICEF deputy representative Dr. Abdul Alim said that children who live in poor urban communities experience deprivations such as lack of decent housing and limited access to clean water. These children, Alim said, are more exposed to disaster risks and are also more prone to neglect, abuse, and exploitation.

Estimates from the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA) reveal that almost one in every two Filipinos or 49 percent of the entire population live in urban areas as of 2011. At present, there are 32 highly urbanized cities in the country. These are areas that have a minimum population of 200,000 and an annual income of P50 million.

Metro Manila is the most populated urban area with 11.5 million people, where an estimated 1.7 million children live in informal settlements. In the Philippines, a person below 18 years of age is considered a child. United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT) data indicate that children living in Metro Manila, Cebu, Davao, and other large- and medium-sized cities experience severe deprivation of shelter (1.45 percent of total), of potable water (8.33 percent), and of toilet facilities (6.15 percent), among others.

In Metro Manila alone, less than half or only 46 percent of the urban poor has access to improved drinking water. This figure, according to UNICEF, is far below the national average of 91 percent and the average for the total urban population of 93 percent. And while four of five people residing in urban areas use improved sanitation facilities, nearly half of the urban population in Metro Manila do not. The national average, meanwhile, is at 76 percent or three in four people. (See related story: “Urbanization by the numbers.”)

UNICEF also reports that the vast majority of HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) transmission takes place in urban areas. In fact, records show that more than 50 percent of all 2011 HIV infections were registered in Metro Manila, and one out of three of these newly reported cases involve persons between 15 and 24 years old.

A streetchild in Dasmariñas City. Photo by Florenz Sison, PCIJ intern

As for education, health, and other indicators, Alim pointed out that aggregate data obscure the situation of urban-poor children because statistical averages lump together all city dwellers, including both the rich and poor. According to the report, the needs of the poorest can be overlooked when these averages are used in drafting policies and allocating resources.

UNICEF also reports that children who live and work on the streets in the major cities of the country are particularly vulnerable to human traffic, sexual exploitation, violence, and drug abuse. Estimates of these children now reach about quarter of a million in major cities.

At the report’s launch at the Sulô Riviera Hotel in Quezon City, Interior and Local Government Secretary Jesse Robredo specifically raised issues concerning children in conflict with the law (CICL), referring to the batang-hamog and the bukas-taxi gang, or the groups of children who steal from cars stuck in traffic jams, among others.

According to Robredo, around 52,500 children were in detention or under custodial settings from 1995 to 2000. Thus, an average of 10,500 children was being arrested every year, or about 28 children per day, or more than one child per hour. From January to October 2004, 2,121 children were arrested and placed under custody, based on Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) records. Yet, Robredo said, there is a lack of halfway houses for children among local government units. Just like adult prisoners, children in detention centers are likely to suffer sexual, physical, and psychological abuse, he noted. “If jail is harsh for adults,” added Robredo, “you can imagine how it is harsh for them (children).”

A streetchild in Dasmariñas City. Photo by Florenz Sison, PCIJ intern

For UNICEF’s Alim, addressing these problems should begin with the availability of intra-urban data, or a set of more focused and accurate information necessary to help identify inequalities among children in urban areas. He also suggested removing barriers to inclusion so that marginalized children and their families would be able to enjoy services and the core elements of citizenship such as legal protection and security of housing tenure.

Robredo meanwhile said that local governments have the “unique opportunity to rewrite the rules for a world fit for children.” The former Naga City mayor suggested going beyond the provision of affordable shelter and building “communities where the young are nourished and not scared of constant demolition.” He said that the Aquino administration has allotted P10 billion every year in the next five years to house 120,000 informal settlers living in major areas.

As well, the DILG chief said that local governments must ensure that the structure created by law to protect the rights of children is funded and functional. He noted that the proposed memorandum circular to monitor LGU compliance to Republic Act No. 9344 or the “Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act of 2006” has already been uploaded on the DILG website for comments.

The memorandum covers the four major mandates of local governments, which include: the allotment at least one percent of an LGU’s internal revenue allotment for the Local Councils for the Protection of Children; appointment of a Local Social Welfare and Development Officer to assist children in conflict with the law; development of a local, comprehensive juvenile intervention program; and, the establishment youth homes for CICLs.” – With additional reporting by Darlene Basingan, PCIJ intern