The Face of Poverty

November 15, 2007

The Face of Poverty
By Antonio C. Abaya
Written on Nov. 12, 2007
For the Standard Today,
November 13 issue

Like many concerned Filipinos, I was emotionally overwhelmed and
driven to tears by the suicide of Mariannet Amper. I could not fathom
how and why a 12-year old girl, whose life as a conscious and thinking
human being was just beginning, could think of suddenly ending it, by
hanging herself.

There must be hundreds, even thousands, of 12-year old boys and girls
all over the country who are similarly trapped in hopeless situations
of poverty and hunger but who have not killed themselves.

That Mariannet did so suggests that she was particularly vulnerable to
self-destruction, either because of her unique family situation, or
because of an unusual sensitivity in her personality or psychological
make-up, or both. In other words, if she had sought or received the
help that all children in her predicament deserved, she might have
grown up into a talented and creative person. All the more reason to
mourn her loss.

That she kept a diary shows that she was carrying on an internal
dialogue with herself, perhaps because there was no one else in her
family or in her school that she could communicate with. But even in
the internal dialogue in her diary, the excerpts that have been
published do not show any bitterness at anyone, and do not hint at any
feeling of despair and hopelessness.

It is as if she accepted her condition in life as being normal and
immutable, and just as matter-of-factly decided to end it.

In her diary entry dated Oct. 5, Marianet wrote: Parang isang buwan na
kaming absent. Hindi na kasi naming binibilang ang absent ko. Hindi ko
namalayan na malapit napala ang Pasko. (“It seemed like we were
already absent for one month. We don’t count my absences any more. I
could not even feel that Christmas was near.”

In her entry of Oct. 14, Mariannet wrote: Hindi kami nakapagsimba
dahil wala kaming pamasahe at nilagnat pa ang aking tatay,  kaya
naglaba na lang kami ng aking nanay. (“We could not go to church
because we had no transportation money and my father had a fever, so
my mother and I just washed clothes.)

There was also an undated letter meant for a TV program Wish Ko Lang –
which encourages viewers to make a wish and promises rewards for those
whose wishes are aired. She wrote: Gusto ko na makatapos aks so
pag-aaral at gustong gusto ko na makabili ng bagong bike. (I want to
finish my schooling and I really want to buy a new bicycle.”) She also
expressed her wish to buy a new pair of shoes and a bag and for jobs
for her mother and father. “because my father is often jobless and my
mother does extra work doing laundry.” The letter to the TV show was
never sent.

On the evening of Nov. 1, Mariannet, a Grade 6 pupil at the Ma-a
Central Elementary School asked her father for P100 for a school
project that was due on Nov. 5. But her father, Isbaelo,  49, an
occasional construction worker, did not have the P100. The next day,
he says, he was able to borrow P1,000 as advance wages from a promised
construction work at a chapel under construction.

But when he got home that afternoon with the money, Mariannet had
already hanged herself.

It is a commonplace to blame Mariannet’s suicide on the local barangay
officials for failing to notice the sad drama unfolding in Mariannet’s
household, on the national government for failing to provide jobs for
tens of millions of Filipinos, on the Catholic Church for stubbornly
rejecting artificial methods of birth control. (Mariannet was one of
seven children.) But I will not play the blame game here.

What Mariannet’s suicide has done has been to put a human face to the
statistics of poverty and hunger.

According to a Social Weather Stations survey in March 2007, an
estimated 3.4 million households experienced involuntary hunger at
least once in the past three months, and that overall hunger remained
at the record high 19 percent reached last November 2006.

Moderate hunger – defined as involuntary hunger experienced only
“once” or “a few times” in the previous three months – went up to 15.7
percent in  Metro Manila, to 18 percent in Mindanao, and declined to
12.7 percent in the Visayas.

Severe hunger – defined as involuntary hunger “often” or “always” –
afflicted 3.9 percent of households nationwide, 5.0 percent in Metro
Manila, 4.0 percent in Luzon, 2.7 percent in Mindanao, and 4.7 percent
in the Visayas. (Inquirer, March 20, 2007)

According to the World Bank, 14.8 million Filipinos live on less than
US$1.a day, 43 million Filipinos live on less than US$2 a day. And
that includes Mariannet’s family in Ma-a, Davao City. (Inquirer, April
17, 2007) According to the International Food Policy Research
Institute, the correct figure is 11 million Filipinos living on US$1 a
day.. (Inquirer, Nov. 08, 2007)

Whichever is the more accurate statistic, it is an indictment of the
Filipinos’ national leaders in the past 30 years for having
spectacularly failed their own people in the most fundamental measures
of governance: giving them a secure present and a better future.

President Arroyo has supposedly released P1 billion to make a dent on
hunger “within the next six months.” (Inquirer, March 25, 2007). Who
does she think she is fooling?

The billions of pesos in kickbacks and over-pricing that accompanied
the broadband and the North Rail projects alone, plus the hundreds of
millions of pesos distributed to lucky politicians who were invited to
that breakfast meeting in Malacanang last Oct 11, would certainly have
gone a long way towards alleviating the hunger and poverty of millions
of Filipinos.

But the money did not go to them. They went instead to her favorite
Filipinos: the already over-fed and over-paid trapos and bureaucrats
whose mercenary support she courts and needs in order to stay in power
forever. *****

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