By Alicia Blimkie
This might sound a bit strange, but I never thought about the Philippines as a “developing country” until I found out that I would be spending the summer in Manila. Growing up in Vancouver and attending Catholic school all my life, I was surrounded with friends and acquaintances who were Filipino. Because it was a place I heard about often, it didn’t seem foreign to me in the way that other developing countries did as I was growing up. I didn’t think about the Philippines as a nation of malnourished children living in shacks, like the one-sided images of Africa that my young brain saw on TV, but as the place where many of my friends were from. When I heard where I would be spending the summer I didn’t give much thought to any culture shock that I would experience until I arrived and the sun, humidity, traffic and bugs welcomed me to the old “Pearl of the Orient”.
As part of its obligations under the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, the Philippines must submit a state report. The national Commission on Human Rights is in the process of compiling information for an alternative report. In partnership with the Ateneo Human Rights Centre (AHRC) and UNICEF, the Commission held regional inquiries throughout the country to gather input on the implementation of the Convention of the Rights of the Child (CRC) from children themselves. I was able to attend the session in the National Capital Region (NCR), which focused on three topics: the children of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs – sorry, lots of acronyms), children with HIV/AIDS, and discrimination against children born to unwedded parents.
In Canada, we think about OFWs in the context of temporary workers who come into the country. As immigration advocates, we focus on their conditions of employment, access to legal remedies, and potential for permanent residence. These are all important, but we tend not to see temporary migrant workers from the opposite perspective, that of the children across the ocean who lose a mother or a father for years on end. At the NCR inquiry, the children spoke of the pain of not having a parental figure to share their life with. Some are abused by the caregivers they are left with in the Philippines. Those who travel with their parents may not be able to access social services, including education, in their destination country. This discussion reminded me of a recently published article in the Globe and Mail. The article spoke of the difficulties of Filipino children who are able to migrate to Canada only years after their parents arrive. It speaks of how gaps in the Canadian immigration system have caused some of the painful separation that I witnessed the children speak of here in Manila. In some ways, Canada and the Philippines are linked by movement of labourers, who should be seen as mothers, fathers, sisters or brothers, rather than just a boost to the economy.
The second theme discussed was HIV/AIDS. It was shocking for me to discover that the Philippines has the fastest growing rate of HIV infections in Asia. Most of these new infections occur in youth, most of whom are men. A large problem is unwillingness to talk about the issue. It is seen as taboo, linked with sex and drugs. To me, this issue really highlighted the invisible nature of many human rights concerns. Other human rights abuses plaguing the country, such as extrajudicial killings or labour rights, are much more visible and publicized. The danger of taboo subjects that live inside a person is that a child’s life may be irrevocably changed because their parent or teacher was too embarrassed to speak to them about HIV and AIDS.
The final issue was that of children born out of wedlock. For children in this situation, the Family Code declares them “illegitimate”, and they have different rights than “legitimate” children. Many of these children face discrimination socially, as well as legally, despite the fact that a 2016 survey conducted by the Philippine Statistics Authority found that nearly half of all births that year occurred out of wedlock. One activity at the NCR inquiry involved the children preparing skits. One group acted out a child being mocked at school because she had a different surname than her sister, which one child later revealed was based on personal experience.
After zooming in on these issues, it’s useful to take a step back and realize that the NCR inquiry also highlighted something that the Philippines is doing well. Article 12 of the CRC states that children should be able to express their views freely on matters that affect them and should be provided with opportunities to be heard. The Committee on the Rights of the Child praised the Philippines in its 2009 report for its efforts on child participation. The AHRC is committed to fulfilling this Article of the CRC through many of its other initiatives, as well.
While I knew that I would learn about human rights concerns while I was in Manila, I didn’t really anticipate the number of times when I would encounter something that the Philippines was doing better than Canada. Does Canada ask its children – those in poverty or in indigenous communities – whether their rights are being fulfilled? This brings me back to my conceptual difficulty in placing the Philippines in the same box as all other developing countries. Not that it is better or worse than other “third world” nations, but each of these countries is drastically different. I think one thing I have learned here is that development is not a straight line. This is one of those things that’s obvious when you say it, but is very different to actually experience. While the Philippines’ efforts in child participation, achievements in gender equality, and its regionally lauded refugee system place it ahead of many countries, its record is worse on other human rights issues. As much as we need to concentrate on problem areas to develop strategies to fix them, there are also times when we need to take note of human rights successes, or risk getting bogged down in failures. As one child at the NCR inquiry quoted: “Don’t let the world change your smile, let your smile change the world”.