VALUE formation, reorientation, holistic approach.

Now it’s called providing “continuing education.”

Cebu City officials are banking that educating the poor on responsible parenthood will break malnutrition’s stranglehold on their children.

Last Aug. 15, 2010, Sun.Star Cebu ran a two-page special feature by Linette C. Ramos, “Hunger stalks Barangay Ermita’s children.”

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In probing the reasons Cebu City ranks fifth in the list of cities with the highest malnutrition rate in Central Visayas, Ramos found that there’s no dearth of government and non-government initiatives to address and monitor malnutrition among the children of the poorest of the poor.

Yet, the major challenge confronting the aid providers is not extreme poverty but the parents’ apathy, neglect and vices, which endanger children’s lives, reported Ramos.

Rather than limit their fight against malnutrition to palliatives like supplemental feeding or piecemeal approaches like contraception, Cebu City officials led by Mayor Michael Rama and Ermita Barangay Captain Felicisimo Rupinta target the children’s parents, who determine the fate of the minors from the moment of conception.

Monkey see, monkey do

A retired government doctor asserts that the first step in communal progress will be taken when the number of women whom he subjects to prenatal check-ups will be equal to the women who give birth.

He was figuratively expressing 35 years of frustration that many of the pregnant poor hardly seek the free check-ups in government hospitals and health clinics. Regular prenatal check-ups reduce child mortality and improve maternal and child health.

The doctor was harshest with the men who accompanied their partners to the delivery room, but who claimed they had no money even for alcohol and cotton. “They have nine months’ notice so why didn’t they prepare? For many of them, this is not their first child.”

In her Aug. 15 special feature, Ramos quoted Barangay Ermita officials who traced malnutrition to causes other than poverty: “poor parenting, illnesses, vices, including the use of illegal drugs, laziness to prepare meals, big family size, teenage pregnancies, lack of knowledge.”

If these factors don’t surprise, it may be because these renew the cycle of deprivation in inner cities. Just as an abused child can become an abusive adult, the irresponsibility of many parents can be traced to their experiences as children.

When workers lament that an Ermita mother cannot serve nutritious and cheap meals given their proximity to Carbon market, she may not really be blind to the leftover produce that is sold cheap or given away free by vendors. Nutrition will not be her concern if her own parents preferred to gamble rather than plan their meals.

For the long haul

In wielding continuing adult education to promote children’s welfare, Cebu City officials take on a mission that will challenge several administrations beyond the present one.

For while government and civil society can provide responsible parenthood seminars, livelihood opportunities, micro-credit and other aid, they are also working against a system compared by the late Lino Brocka to a mother who gave birth so she could devour her children.

For every man who volunteers for non-scalpel vasectomy to spare his wife from unplanned pregnancies and send his children to the education that was denied him, there are tens, even hundreds, of other men who will not turn their backs on the illegal drug trade to sell candles, organic soap or green bags.

Laws must be enforced: closure of gambling dens, arrest of illegal drug financiers, rehabilitation of minors abused as couriers due to the shield provided by a skewered Juvenile Justice Law. In places like Ermita, dismantling a system more entrenched than the government will be a tall order indeed.

So should the so-called palliatives, like barangay monitoring and supplementary feeding bring to light the plight of children like Lindsay Bacera, aged 2, who has to share a P15 meal with six other siblings, this may be more than enough.

Will Lindsay gain weight, play like a normal child, go to school, postpone pregnancy to finish college and find work, be a more nurturing mother, a true parent?

For now, it is enough that Lindsay loses her bad cough and cold. It is more than enough for other severely malnourished children to be pried away from the pangs of hunger.

Each life is precious. As for the work that must still be done, there is tomorrow.