"Every child needs to be able to decide what to think and feel and believe, " says 21-year-old Girly Bagus. "Street children in the Philippines have to work for a living. Many of them want to speak out about their problems but they are afraid to. Authorities who should protect children are often the ones causing the problems. Children don't know who they can trust."
Only a few years ago, Girly was one of more than 300,000 street children living in Manila, capital of the Philippines. Today she works with Bahay Tuluyan, a child advocacy organisation that provides alternative education and support to these children.
Throughout the world young people like Girly are changing their communities in small yet profound ways. Through Australian Volunteers International, Australian youth are also becoming involved in development activities overseas and within their local communities.
Girly and her 14-year-old colleague, Mary Joy Señeres, visited Melbourne with other Bahay Tuluyan staff in May to speak to schools and community groups. They also helped to set up opportunities for young Australians to work with Bahay Tuluyan through Australian Volunteers International's youth program.
Bahay Tuluyan (which means 'Welcome House') was established in 1988 as a safe house where street children could wash, eat and take a break from life on the streets. It has expanded to include five centres that offer alternative education, scholarship programs, health, legal and recreation services to street children in Manila and other provinces.
Mary Joy adds, "Street children sell flowers, wash cars, beg, shine shoes and sell cigarettes in the street to earn money for their families." In addition to child labour, many of these children are sexually exploited and suffer from substance abuse.
Bahay Tuluyan believes that street children have the inherent capacity to improve the quality of their lives. It relies on junior educators - former street children who have been helped by the organisation - to carry out its education programs. The junior educators work directly with children and their families.
"I became a junior educator when I was eight years old," Mary Joy says proudly. "I teach in the streets, in communities and at our training centre. Many children don't go to school, so we teach them how to read, dance and keep fit."
Bahay Tuluyan faces many challenges. Parents or guardians of street children often resent the organisation's presence, claiming that it distracts children from earning a living for their families. Children who have been abused are sometimes reluctant to trust adults, which is why the junior educators approach is successful.
"Our primary work is in children's rights, so we go where the children are," says Girly. "Some children are already in formal schooling, but after school they have to work. Parents can be very difficult, but slowly they understand. They see me as an example.
"The children who visit Bahay Tuluyan are very lucky. They have a lot of knowledge about the world. Rich children may have school education, but they don't know what is happening around them."
The work that Girly and Mary Joy do is an attempt to stem a tide of poverty, starvation and abuse in the Philippines. Yet they both believe that Bahay Tuluyan's advocacy work will eventually bring a change, not only in the lives of abused children. But in the attitudes of people who exploit them.
"We will make a difference when someone who abuses children begins to realise: This child knows what his rights are, these children will not allow anyone to hurt them. Then little by little, step by step, the abuser will learn too."
From December 2003, teams of young Australian volunteers will work alongside the junior educators, visiting and teaching street children, learning from their Filipino partners and sharing ideas and resources.
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