Cities for chil­dren: ex­pec­ta­tions vs re­al­ity

Philippine Daily Inquirer - - OPINION - JOSHUA ROMMEL VARGAS Joshua Rommel Vargas, 17, is a cam­pus jour­nal­ist and de­bater from Zam­boanga City. He is an honor stu­dent en­rolled in the STEM strand of Ate­neo de Zam­boanga Univer­sity. He dreams of be­com­ing a com­puter sci­ence re­searcher.

Inmy ele­men­tary years, I re­mem­ber taking read­ing com­pre­hen­sion tests where we skimmed through sto­ries and an­swered as many mul­ti­ple choice items as pos­si­ble be­fore time ran out. Gen­er­ally, th­ese sto­ries were ei­ther writ­ten by Amer­i­cans in their lo­cales or taken from old English text­books. Th­ese were of­ten nar­ra­tives about chil­dren walk­ing through down­town or run­ning er­rands by them­selves as far as a cou­ple of blocks away.

The “English exam fam­ily stereo­type,” as I called it—mid­dle­class fam­i­lies en­joy­ing a high de­gree of in­de­pen­dence, liv­ing in a good neigh­bor­hood and speak­ing im­pec­ca­ble English—was some­thing I found amus­ing.

As a shel­tered child who grew up in Zam­boanga City in the early 2000s, I couldn’t re­late to this pic­turesque sce­nario. The re­al­ity around me was very dif­fer­ent.

The mil­i­tary was con­stantly on red alert due to in­ces­sant threats of so­ciopo­lit­i­cal in­sta­bil­ity in the re­gion. Sto­ries spread of the dan­gers down­town; fam­ily mem­bers were re­minded that we could be the next vic­tim of a holdup, kid­nap­ping or ha­rass­ment. Traf­fic was not only a hazard; it also made it harder to reach schools, hos­pi­tals or the po­lice. Bar­ring the unique chal­lenges of the re­gion, the same was true for many cities in the Philip­pines.

Be­ing raised mid­dle class ex­plains why I was shel­tered and overly cared for. My mom would in­sist on hold­ing my hand while cross­ing the street or while walk­ing down­town. My dad would drive me even for er­rands or trips of the short­est dis­tance. In the eyes of my 4-year-old self, walk­ing the streets to the mall felt like dodg­ing a bunch of hu­man booby traps. This was true for my friends who also grew up in over­pro­tec­tive fam­i­lies.

And then there were friends who grew up in bro­ken fam­i­lies and who fell into harm­ful vices. Of­ten, they felt that the world around them did not care about what they did, so clubs and bars be­came the go-to places for ac­cep­tance.

That sense of ne­glect af­fects many other vul­ner­a­ble chil­dren. Those liv­ing in the streets, for in­stance, are left with­out pro­tec­tion from the el­e­ments, or are of­ten bereft of love from their fam­ily. And, even un­der th­ese dire cir­cum­stances, they still have to deal with other psy­cho­log­i­cal, so­cial and so­ci­etal chal­lenges.

Of course, things aren’t all bleak for chil­dren in the Philip­pines. Thank­fully, things have been steadily im­prov­ing. As a re­sult of govern­ment pro­grams aligned with the UN-ap­proved Sustainable De­vel­op­ment Goals, lo­cal govern­ment units are in­cen­tivized to im­prove the quality of life for chil­dren in their area.

This is re­flected, among oth­ers, in the im­prove­ment in the way po­lice han­dles child safety; the re­moval of bar­ri­ers be­tween fam­i­lies and ser­vices; youth de­vel­op­ment pro­grams that en­cour­age ado­les­cents to be ac­tive in their com­mu­ni­ties; and pro­grams to change the land­scape of a city to make it more child­friendly, such as in­stalling plants and street­lights.

The Depart­ment of So­cial Wel­fare and De­vel­op­ment also rec­og­nizes cities that cre­ate the best en­vi­ron­ment for chil­dren. My city, Zam­boanga, has been counted among the lo­cal­i­ties that have taken great strides in mak­ing the lives of lo­cal chil­dren bet­ter.

Hope­fully, the next gen­er­a­tion will be able to walk safely through down­town, run er­rands for their par­ents more of­ten, and ex­plore the world and play with their friends—just like the chil­dren idyl­li­cally de­picted in the English ex­ams of my child­hood.

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