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Opinion

If only children could vote, they’d plead...

GOTCHA - Jarius Bondoc - The Philippine Star

“...Ayoko maging bansot, ayoko maging payatot, ayoko maging kulelat.”

Which child indeed would wish to be stunted and wasting? Who’d want to lose out on life from the start?

One in three Filipino children aged 0 to 5 are underheight and underweight. They numbered 3.4 million in 2019, although the malady has afflicted the land for three decades. A stunted, wasting child loses up to 40 percent of brain mass, reducing the capacity for language skills, memory and comprehension. That largely explains why Filipino 3rd, 5th and 8th graders in public schools rank lowest in international tests in Reading, Math and Sciences.

The impact is devastating. Stunted children have ten times less chances than others to survive common childhood illnesses. Most lose five years of schooling. Result, 40 percent lower wages as workers. Also, less healthy families when they begin a new generation.

Malnutrition is the main culprit. Filipinos are the second shortest in ASEAN. Yet this is dismissed as hereditary rather than due to poor maternal health, deprivation and child undernourishment. Malnutrition kills 95 under-5 children daily. The country loses $4.3 billion yearly, 1.5 percent of 2015 GDP, Unicef noted.

But there’s a solution. And only presidential candidate Leni Robredo espouses it, according to scientists. Being the only mother among ten contenders, she understands the family’s critical needs: right food, health care, proper schooling. Those have been her focus as development worker, congresswoman and Vice President. Dozens of nutrition and child care advocates, health professionals and educators have endorsed her.

Most basic is the First 1000 Days program. From conception to 23rd month, mother and child must be afforded necessary nutrients. The first thousand days are vital for a child’s optimal growth and brain development. Also for the mother to prepare for possible next pregnancy.

Leni’s platform banners the F1K program. She links food security and production to nutrition. VP running mate Kiko Pangilinan brings agricultural expertise. Agriculture’s objective should be public health.

Success stories are many. Peru reduced child stunting from 28 percent in 2008 to 13 percent in 2016; Brazil, from 37.1 percent in 1974 to 7.1 percent in 2006. The latter put up a social development ministry to quell hunger as socio-economic goal. The former set stunting reduction as an outcome of food abundance. By child nutrition, China boosted the average height of 19-year-old males by 3.5 inches (9 cm) and females by 2.5 inches (6.35 cm) in the 35 years to 2019, according to Lancet. India’s 16-year-old males and females grew taller by 2.5 and 2 inches from 1975 to 2015, Economist reported. Filipino females became shorter in the past 40 years, health department records show.

F1K has been replicated in Quezon and Cebu by, among others, retired Unicef officer Cecilio Adorna, economics professor Luzeta Adorna, World Bank consultant Cecilia Acuin and Nutrition Center Philippines senior researcher Ellen Villate. Signed by 170, their endorsement of Leni is in signatories (alphabetically) – Google Sheets.

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Education Nation also endorsed Leni this week. The coalition of 35 organizations and 21 educators gave her platform and track record a perfect score. A job interview of Leni by the Coordinating Council of Private Educational Associations of the Philippines drew her stand: “One of the first things I’ll do if elected is to declare an emergency crisis. Kailangan natin ito gawin para all hands on deck tayo.” Meaning government, schools, teachers, parents, students and other stakeholders.

EducNation has been warning of a three-decades-long learning crisis. Indicators: 85 percent of 10-year-olds cannot read simple text (Unicef 2022). Grade 3 students have difficulty in reading: 56.8 percent in English, 60.9 percent in Filipino. Few Grade 5 students meet the proficiencies of their level: Reading, ten of 100; Writing, two of 100; Math, 17 of 100. To make room for next batches, Junior high schoolers are promoted despite low proficiencies: only one percent adept in Math, three percent in English, one percent in Science, 13 percent in Filipino, ten percent in Araling Panlipunan. In 12 years of schooling, Filipinos learn only six-and-a-half years’ equivalent, compared to foreign counterparts. Only half of Education graduates pass the annual teacher licensure exams; three in four are repeat examinees.

The education department has removed History from high school and relegated it to elementary. “The topic of martial law 1972-1986 is taught only for one week in Grade 6,” laments Antonio Calipjo Go, PhD, head of Marian School-Quezon City. “Critical thinking is not fully formed at that school age, so children become susceptible to fake news and historical revisionism.”

“MaJoHa,” a teen contestant in reality show Pinoy Big Brother answered when asked for the acronym of the three priests Gomez, Burgos, Zamora garroted by Spanish rulers in 1872, stoking Filipino nationalism. “Ajajozep” replied another. The admin standard-bearer is criticized for falsifying the past; the running mate’s dynasty has not set up a city high school or college in 30 years.

Pandemic lockdowns, fears and hasty shift to online classes worsened things: 1.1 million students did not enrol in 2020-2021. One in four kindergartners was not in school. Three out of four public schools had no WiFi. One in four parents said their children learned nothing. Usually better in instruction, 1,179 private schools closed shop.

Figures from NGO Philippine Business for Education: Rating the six survey-leading presidential bets, PBEd found “Leni the only one with a detailed strategy to take us out of this mess,” said policy-advocacy manager Marco delos Reyes. PBEd president Chito Salazar added: “Let’s choose a leader who understands the problem of education and listens to all sectors. We need someone with competence, experience and character to be an Education President.” See https://www.facebook.com/100305568984268/posts/281263100888513/?d=n

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Catch Sapol radio show, Saturdays, 8 to 10 a.m., dwIZ (882-AM).

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