Half of our 1.5-M population of street children inhale glue

Published by rudy Date posted on February 8, 2009

THERE are about 1.5 million children in Philippine streets. Half of them have, at one time or another, inhaled and may actually be inhaling household glue (more commonly known by the popular brand name rugby).

Why are they in streets and why do they take to drugs?

These two questions were what we sought to answer when we undertook to document the lives of 20 street children, aged 7 to 17 (three girls and 17 boys) in the areas of Araneta Avenue in Quezon City and Malate in Manila.

Each street child had something unique to tell. Yet the similarities in their accounts are so striking that the story of one could just as well have been the story of the others.

They have similar life circumstances, face the same daily challenges, and are exposed to the same risks and dangers of street living.

Their family life is marked by the absence of a nurturing condition. Discrimination, favoritism, negligence and abuse are common.

In some rare cases when they live with their parents and siblings, parents have irregular jobs if not totally unemployed. Most frequently, only one is the original parent, the other a step-father or -mother. In other cases, they live with relatives or with surrogate families to whom they are not related.

Their “families” tend to be large (from three to seven children) and the problem of too many mouths to feed is a constant challenge.

‘Cariño brutal’

Physical abuses by surrogate parents are common. Strangely, the children do not regard these abuses as violations of their dignity but “cariño brutal.”

The children are egged on, if not forced, to work in order to add to the family income.

Most children have attended some schooling but none has gone beyond first-year high school. School could not be sustained for lack of money and motivation.

Their deprived condition is mirrored in shanties where they live. Their houses are no more than scraps of wood, plywood and carton put together. There is no privacy and the family sleeps together in a cramped room that also serves as living and dining room.

The street kids look shabby, dirty and always holding a bottle half-filled with household glue. They smell bad and seldom take a bath.

Health and nutrition are not primary concerns. Meals are irregular. Despite this, they rarely get sick presumably because of the natural immunities their bodies have developed.

Theirs is a hand-to-mouth existence.

Street life

Most of the kids are unable to tell when their life in the street began. It is as if they had been born into it and that for as long as they could remember the street had always been part of their lives.

The street gives to them what they would have got at a proper home—freedom, play, independence and self-reliance.

The life of a street child revolves around five consuming preoccupations: earn money, eat, play, inhale household glue and sleep. The cycle repeats day in and day out.

The day starts late for most. And the place of their rising up may differ from morning to morning.

Earning a living is a daily preoccupation and it is in the street where they find the opportunity to do so.

Having earned some money, food comes naturally as the next important preoccupation. Their typical meal is a kind of porridge that they call “kabaw”—or “kanin at sabaw.”

When there is no money, they resort to begging for food scraps.

One meal a day is perhaps what a street child can most realistically expect. Having more is a bonus.

It is not rare for a street child to resort to extreme measures, as Marlon, 16, relates: “I once ate dirty food and water and my stomach ached so much. It was just near the house where we gather garbage. I was brought to the hospital.”

The other consuming preoccupation is household glue. It has become part of the daily routine and sniffing it comes almost as naturally as eating and sleeping. It has become, in a sense, part of their survival mechanism in the city jungle.

Sleep marks the end of the day. As with waking up, there is no regular place for sleeping. For many, sleep takes place where nightfall overtakes them or wherever their drugged body finds it convenient to rest.

The next day the cycle begins again.


As the children struggle with life in the street, they have to be content with some inherent hazards. Some of the perils include violence, prostitution, arrest and jail. Gang brawls are usual.

Still, they are able to find creative ways to give expression to what is normal to children. The streets where they engage in the serious enterprise of making a living are also where the children pursue satisfaction of their natural predisposition for play.

To live in the street is to live by the day. Preoccupation with how to survive for the day leaves little time for children to plan out their future.

Nonetheless, the children are not without life aspirations.

They talk about going back to school, about working and helping their families, to work in a fast-food center, to be a jeepney driver, policeman, fireman, carpenter, gasoline station attendant, store assistant or househelp.

One of them wants to be a physician. Another has hopes of becoming an acrobat and going abroad.

There are a few, however, who neither signify any interest in anything nor aspire to be someone in better circumstances. They are so deep in desperation that they cannot think of any plan for their future.

(Dr. Armando F. de Jesus is the dean of the College of Arts and Letters, University of Sto. Tomas.) –Armando F. de Jesus, Ph. D., Special To The Manila Times

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