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Children Victims - And Result - of Poverty in Philippines

June 30, 1993

MANILA, Philippines (AP) _ Francis Sy, 13, sells cigarettes by day and rummages through garbage for recyclables at night before settling down to sleep in the tiny wooden cart he calls home.

Social workers and representatives of international organizations will convene in Manila on Thursday for a three-day conference to discuss what can be done for Sy and millions of child laborers like him around the world.

The conference is sponsored by the Pontifical Council for the Family as part of the Year of the Family proclaimed by Pope John Paul II. It is the third of a series of Vatican-sponsored meetings on children’s rights.

″Child labor is a reality,″ said Nick Arcilla, spokesman for the London- based Save the Children Foundation. ″It exists because of poverty, environmental degradation, migration, armed conflict, overpopulation and other problems.″

The Vatican said about 40 experts from around the world will take part in the conference, drawing up recommendations to pass on to Asian bishops and institutions which work with children.

The United Nations Children’s Fund estimates that 5.7 million of the Philippines’ 26 million children work. For generations, it was common for children here and in other agricultural societies to share chores on the farm.

But over the years, child labor has gone beyond the farm to factories and the streets, where children as young as 6 hustle a living selling cigarettes, flowers, and sometimes sex.

There are about 20,000 child prostitutes in the Philippine capital, according to UNICEF.

As he peddled cigarettes and candy near a train station in Manila’s Arroceros district, Sy, who quit school in the third grade, said he would prefer to be in school.

″I want to study again but my mother will not eat anything if I stop working,″ Sy said. ″I want to help my mother.″

Sy and his parents scrounge through garbage for plastic containers, cardboard boxes and old newspapers that they sell to recycling plants.

His average earnings of $3.70 can buy three meals but nothing else. At least once a week, the Sy family must fork over their earnings for the whole day to corrupt policemen who harass street vendors.

The family is so poor that two sons - 11 and 15 years old - have been parceled out to relatives and friends to rear.

″What shall we do?″ asked his mother, Emilia Sy. ″We try to do decent work, and we get arrested. Maybe it’s better if we just steal.″

On nearby Kalaw Street, Jerry Valenzuela, 16, sells mangoes to help his mother feed her 11 other children. His father is jobless and spends his days gambling and drinking.

Like Sy, Valenzuela also quit school, condemning him to lifelong poverty.

″If Jerry stops working, I don’t know how we will survive,″ explained his mother, Linda Valenzuela. ″Such is our fate.″

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