Estremera: Requiem for Edith

HERS was a welcoming smile as I would climb up the wooden stairs of what was the Tambayan Center for Children's Rights Inc. along Artiaga Street. That's before she would give me suggestions on what activities they have that they can share with me. She never imposed, she trusted me with the stories of the girls and knew I wouldn't do anything that would degrade her beloved street girls even if they confide to me the worst. That was how we were from 2006.

It was just like that.

Taking over the role of Bimbim, Pilgrim Bliss Gayo, as executive director of Tambayan, she was a steady presence who never seemed to know how to raise her voice beyond conversation level.

She was the quiet presence whom the girls looked up to, a dedicated worker for children's rights who not only attended to the girls needs but moreso the pedagogy that reaches out to these girls who chose to be on the streets than stay in school to ensure a better tomorrow.

Work took me away from active coverage and Tambayan moved farther from downtown making it less accessible, unlike before when I would just pop in and out when I'm in the vicinity and sit down with Edith or with the girls, to talk and listen.

I lost touch though, I just heard Tambayan had a new executive director. I assumed she just moved on to other child's rights groups as these ladies tend to do. I did hear somewhere that she had breast cancer, but I didn't give that much attention to that piece of news, not that I didn't care, but more because I assumed she'd survive. She was, after all, a constant presence; the person who always makes sure I have already eaten or have something to eat while waiting for the girls.

Editha Ante Ong Casiple was working with children long before my present-day reporters were born. She helped found Tambayan in 1996, when girls in gangs were the norm, free sex were offered among gang members as initiation and as yet another norm, and these girls were called by several disparaging names: 'buntog' and 'shine girls' among them.

Tambayan was caught up in the heat of things as it pushed for reproductive health rights for these girls and advocated for condom use. The hypocrites in the society were shocked and refused to entertain the idea of girls having access to condom, preferring to remain blind to the growing number of sexually-transmitted diseases among the teens, and a growing number of teenage pregnancies.

It has weathered the worst and have proven that by addressing issues children get entangled with without any other qualms except for what is for the best interest of the child, a number of girls in urban settlements now may still belong to gangs, but their access to proper information on reproductive health, and the support activities of Tambayan, like encouraging them to stay in school and being able to call on an "ate" to help them pick themselves up from the fate they have fallen into has become the norm.

Problems remain, multiplying in fact as the landscape of Davao City changes fast. But through the grim determination of child groups, with Tambayan at the fore, awareness of children's rights and access to counseling, and assistance became not just the concern of non-government organizations but the barangays themselves.

Tambayan has come a long way in taking care of the girls and their families.

Thus, it came as a shock when I saw a post mourning her death just last week, and it had to be on the day before her cremation when the evening was no longer available for the last vigil.

It's deaths like this that hit you in the gut and leave you unable to grapple with your emotions and your thoughts, and all you want to be is a child once again who is allowed to just blurt out, "That's not fair!", without having to justify why you believe so.

But then, she did dedicate her whole life for the children, and so I bring out the child in me and declare, "That's not fair!" And no, I don't need to explain why. I'm just gonna stomp my feet and glare at the world.

*****

saestremera@gmail.com
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