Public day care service: its relevance in a rapidly growing economy

This country has the laws and structures but the problem is implementation. Either citizens are unaware of the laws hence don’t know what their role and responsibilities are relative to the laws or implementation is half-baked. Add to this the absence of a system of evaluation of public policies and programs. And you have public officials, who are at their worst, haven’t learned anything and are not accountable to anyone.

Republic Act 8980 (The ECCD Act of 2000) is one such law and the day care center one such structure (Republic Act 6972) that are not fully understood. One of the objective of the law is for every barangay or village to have at least one day care center and a day care worker. 1999 data shows there are a total of 32,787 day care centers in the country’s 42,027 barangays. This is 78% coverage.

Percentage of Barangays with & without Day Care Centres, 1999. UNESCO
Percentage of Barangays with & without Day Care Centres, 1999. UNESCO

With its high presence on the ground, you’d think, wow, all Filipino children are assured a head start. The reality, sad to say, is the opposite. There are plenty of issues hounding the day care service implementation and for this article let me focus on just one – its emerging role in the face of demographic changes specifically among parents with young (i.e. preschool-aged) children.

These days, for the average worker, providing quality of life for the family means both parents need to work, normally outside the home which means having to deal with the issue of child care. Child care is also especially difficult for solo parents. ‘Working outside the home’ encompasses short hours, a full day, weeks, months, and years (the latter pertaining to overseas contract workers). Well and good when there is an extended family around or nearby – grandparents usually – who could take over child care. Otherwise, especially for Filipinos, a nanny is hired. But what do you do when you don’t have relatives nearby or for some reason getting a nanny is out of the question? Where will you leave your three year-old? Who can you trust him or her with?

I had a couple of colleagues who were widowed, one, a woman whose soldier-husband was killed when she was young leaving her with two babies, and the other, a man whose wife died of cancer and was left to care for three kids including a grade-schooler. My colleague – the woman – said she brought her babies to work every day and was thankful that her boss understood her needs. It also helped that her workplace allowed her to go home at the end of the working day. The other colleague – the man – had to entrust his children who live in the province to his mother and in-laws as he had to be in the Metro five days a week every year for work. When I was still employed full time and based in the Metro, that was my case too.

Foreigners, especially from Singapore and South Korea, who I got acquainted with tell me that care for young children in their society is institutionalized, that is, parents turn to private day care centers. Singapore, as I’ve written about in a previous article, has one or not the best day care center / preschool system in East Asia. Grade schoolers in South Korea tell me that after school, instead of going home, they attend various skills-based classes (e.g. piano, painting, etc.) until such time that their parents finish their day’s work to fetch them. (Which is why, compared to most Filipino children their age, these children are more mature in their ways and thoughts – they’re not coddled.)

But what about parents without options or a support system? We witness or read in the news of babies or children from poor families being sold by their own parents. I can imagine why they do it.

Ms. Dinky Soliman, alarmed at the sale of babies, proposed that mothers turn over their children to the DSWD for adoption instead. I’ve much respect for Ms. Soliman but permanently giving up one’s child should be the last recourse by a desperate mother or all mothers for that matter. Child care should never be a burden on mothers, parents, and society. The drive and intelligence that we expend on economic growth should be the same level of devotion we allot for child care. Our future is after all hinged on the children.

Various models of institutional child care are available from around the world – the nearest to us in the region is Singapore’s. But the Singaporean model, one where parents pay the market price of child care (though there is a range from which parents can choose from depending on their ability to pay), is something that still lies somewhere in this country’s future because right now and until such time that all parents are able to pay for institutional child care, the appropriate model, at least for the masses, is the day care center found in every barangay.

Let’s do a bit of recall. Public day care service in the country was launched in 1964 – yes, that long – under the UNICEF-assisted Social Services Project in the Philippines’ Urban Community Welfare Program of the Social Welfare Administration (now the DSWD). National policy toward child care, as stated in Republic Act 6972 (Barangay-Level Total Development and Protection of Children Act), is that the country will defend the children and provide assistance for their needs including proper care and nutrition, special protection from all forms of neglect, abuse, and exploitation. The law further intends to uplift through the day care service the quality of life of children whose mothers are working, who belong to large families, with emotionally immature parents, and from poor environment. The policy was further enhanced in 8980 through RA 8980 (The ECCD Act) which states the country’s full recognition of the nature of childhood and its special needs, promotes the rights of all children to survival, development and special protection, and supports parents in their roles as primary caregivers and their children’s first teachers. Toward these, the law mandates the institutionalization of a national ECCD system that is comprehensive, integrative, and sustainable premised on a multisectoral and interagency collaboration.

Thing is, the center is utilized way below what the law says it should be used. It is readily evident how a barangay cares for its children by its investment in and operation of the day care center. You know without doing a major study that children in a barangay are not given importance when its day care center continues to be used despite its rotting structure, is bereft of color, light, and story books, the worker asking young children what “1,000,000 plus 1,000,000” amounts to and getting miffed when they can’t give her the right answer, three-year olds being asked to “sit straight and still and follow teacher” in their chairs, and the like. This sort of early childhood care and development perpetuates the misunderstanding of young children and the old system of rote learning. Such operationalization of the day care center perpetuates the popular thinking among the people that public day care centers are only for the poor because the poor don’t deserve the best, that it’s alright for poor children to be cared for in dark, dilapidated, and sad centers. On the contrary, the laws – RA 6972 and 8980 – aim to break this sort of mindset by legalizing equality among all children particularly quality child care. And because quality child care for all children is a law in this country there is no option not to provide it.

Presently, there are around 2M Filipinos working abroad, let’s say, two-thirds are parents. National government and media have popularized overseas workers’ collective image as the country’s “modern heroes” but how are these heroes’ children being cared for? Shouldn’t their children, along with the rest, given care that is appropriate to heroes too? But media by angling the issue of errant children as the fault of overseas workers fails to educate the public about the core of the issue which is, as what I’ve been trying to work out here, the investment in and implementation of national laws pertaining to child care. From media’s angle of the issue, the solution being implied is for overseas workers to come home and take care of their children. But is the current state of affairs in the country’s development and growth able to provide these workers the jobs and renumeration they can get and are paid overseas? Are nannies here, for example, able to command their true market price of, say, PHP20,000-30,000? No. But they can, abroad. If you ask them to come home now the move will only jeopardize the workers’ future including the country’s.

Now more than ever – when the country is experiencing demographic changes as a result of development and growth – it really takes a village to raise a child. Quality child care should not only be for children of parents who are able to pay but for all children. And contrary to old school belief, preschool-aged children should not be cooped up with their caregivers 24/7 – it is unhealthy. They need to interact with other children their age, learn from adult models outside their family circle, be exposed to and stimulated by play and stories that caregivers in their family can’t all provide, in other words, they need to develop holistically. The public day care service is set up by law to provide and support parents and families in this, and with the ECCD Act, the centers become the converging point in the provision of young children’s health needs, early education (not the 1M + 1M kind though), and psychosocial development. It also has – supposedly – parental education (i.e. Parent Education Service, Empowerment and Reaffirmation of Paternal Abilities or ERPAT targeting fathers) Toward this, public officials in the barangays should – it is not an option – study the two laws and start talking with residents. Their agenda can begin with child care needs of the families.

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