Asia's Broken Lives
A Generation Lost to Destitution
By Kevin Sullivan
Ipan is part of an army of ragamuffins who fan out when the light turns red at the intersection between the chic Mandarin Oriental Hotel and the gleaming Deutsche Bank tower. It is a scene repeated all over this city of 8 million people every hour of every day. Even after midnight, children knock on car windows; some of these children are too tiny to see over the car door.
Until two months ago, Ipan spent his days in school, learning to read and write and count more than spare change. But his parents, who have lost their jobs, can no longer afford the school fees, so Ipan has joined the growing throng of child street hustlers. Like children around Indonesia, he has seen his world transformed in a matter of weeks: Once on the cusp of stepping out of the slums, he and millions of others now face desperate lives of extreme poverty and malnutrition.
They are the faces of an Asian generation on the verge of being lost. Misery is a difficult thing to measure, but Asia's economic crisis has been cruelest to children. Visits to dumps and slums, villages and cities, homes and workplaces across the region in the past six months paint a bleak portrait of the impact of Asia's economic crisis on its youth, and therefore, on its future.
In Indonesia, Thailand and South Korea, fast-growing economies had meant that millions of poor people enjoyed better living standards, cleaner and safer places to live and work, more and better education, freedom from disease and longer lives. Now Asia's poor, many of whom were just taking their first steps out of poverty, are tumbling back into conditions they thought they had left behind forever.
The situation is worst in Indonesia, a vast nation that has suffered economic catastrophe, violent political upheaval and its most severe drought in a century all at the same time. But many of the problems being seen in Indonesia hunger and malnutrition, rising dropout rates, increasing child labor, crime and prostitution, family disintegration also are increasing in Thailand, South Korea and other Asian nations.
Malnutrition in Indonesia is rising fast as families can no longer afford rice, sugar, flour, vegetables and cooking oil, which have doubled in price. Stephen J. Woodhouse, head of UNICEF's office in Indonesia, said the first cases of marasmus, the severe emaciation seen in the worst African famines, are beginning to show up among children in remote villages of Java, the main Indonesian island. Some estimate that infant mortality in Indonesia could jump by 30 percent, after being reduced by two-thirds in the last 25 years.
Many pregnant women can no longer afford proper prenatal care and nutrition. Child immunization had been nearly universal in Indonesia, but now common vaccinations for measles, mumps, rubella and other childhood diseases are too costly for poor families. Contraceptives, anti-diarrhea medicines and common antibiotics also have become prohibitively expensive and hard to find in many areas. Hospitals and rural health care clinics are starting to reuse syringes, increasing the risk for spreading AIDS. Tuberculosis is a growing problem.
Millions of Asian children already have dropped out of school this year; millions more are on the verge of leaving the classroom for the workplace in the coming months. Asia had greatly reduced child labor in the past decade, but that progress is unraveling as young children are now working long, hot, dangerous hours in glass factories, garment sweat shops and cement plants. Others are turning to street begging and prostitution. Families are marrying off their daughters at increasingly young ages so they have fewer mouths to feed. And some families who believe they can no longer afford to raise their children are leaving them at orphanages.
"We could easily lose a whole generation of kids who are being pulled out of school and put to work; it's almost impossible to recover from," said Scott Guggenheim, the World Bank's poverty coordinator for Indonesia, who just finished a four-year stay in the country. "A whole generation of expectations has vanished."
South Korean President Kim Dae Jung, in a written comment for this story, said he feels "deep sorrow" that Asian children are suffering even more because of the financial crisis. "Economic progress built with the thin, weak hands of children can never be the future of Asia," Kim said. "Forcing children to discontinue their education and making them enter the dangerous labor market robs us of our future."
'Feeling Sorry Is Not Enough'
In Jakarta, a half-dozen small children sit before a television that flickers in the darkness; chickens peck in the garbage pile behind them. Eight lanes of traffic scream along a Jakarta street on the concrete bridge over their heads. But it is quiet here in the damp crawl space beneath the bridge, where nine families live in a warren of wooden rooms they have built on the banks of the filthy Ciliwung River.
Most of these families pick garbage for a living. With prices rising and people being more cautious about what they throw away, people here are having more and more trouble making enough money to buy food.
But now they are getting help from private social workers who bring packages of rice, sugar, soy sauce and soap. In the markets, they would sell for almost $1.50, but they are offered to these poor people for about 25 cents.
"These children are malnourished, and their brains are suffering irreversible damage," says Christine Burns, a volunteer who helps deliver the food. "I feel sorry for the Indonesian people, but now just feeling sorry is not enough."
Mariah, 40, picks up a package of food from Burns and walks back to her dark little room with four toddlers following her in a line like so many ducklings. "For people like us," she says, bouncing the small plastic bag of food on one knee and a skinny infant on the other, "the most important thing is our stomachs."
Health officials say that growing malnutrition is threatening the mental and physical development of millions of Asian children.
In South Korea, the government has provided $8 million to feed children who can no longer afford to take decent lunches to school. Hunger is spreading through some areas of rural Thailand.
The Indonesian government estimates that by year's end, 100 million people, almost half the nation's population, won't be able to afford adequate food which it defines as at least 2,100 calories a day per person and other basic necessities.
As malnutrition increases and prices soar, programs to provide food to Indonesia's hungry are drawing thousands of people, so many that army troops carrying automatic weapons are used to keep food lines orderly.
Anemia, diarrhea and respiratory ailments are becoming more common in rural Indonesia, especially among very young children, because of bad nutrition. "It's extremely difficult to reverse damage done to brain growth because of malnutrition in the first two years of life," said Woodhouse, of UNICEF.
At the same time, Indonesia's health care system is collapsing. A system of 250,000 local health and welfare centers, or posyandu, are no longer working well because many of the million-plus volunteers have had to go to work to feed their own families. Larger public health clinics have doubled their fees recently. Middle-class people who used to visit private doctors now are coming to the clinics, and poor people are being forced to turn to primitive herbal remedies that are often useless, Woodhouse said. In some cases, one official said, antibiotics for respiratory ailments are being replaced by "a glass of water with a spell cast over it."
Sleeping Eight to a Room
In Seoul, Kim Min Ah, an apple-cheeked 12-year-old with big warm eyes, hugs her little sister close as they sit cross-legged on the shiny linoleum floor of the Sang Lok orphanage. They giggle at their baby brother's scratchy little voice as he sings a song called "Rainbow," bouncing in the lap of the orphanage director they all call "Dad."
The children's father ran off and left them with their mother earlier this year. But when South Korea's economic crisis hit hard, the coffee shop where she worked went bankrupt. Broke and desperate, she took a job at a restaurant far from Seoul, placing her children Min Ah; her sister, Min Ji, 8; and brother Tae Jung, 6 indefinitely at the orphanage.
Now they sleep eight to a room with other children, including almost 20 new faces in the past six months. The girls' room is cheery with stuffed animals and flowers, and bright-colored laundry hanging on a rack. Outside, brothers, age 11 and 8, ride a seesaw. Their mother abandoned them when their father lost his job. The father tried to keep and care for them, but he brought them here when the pressure of single parenthood and driving a taxi at night drove him to thoughts of suicide.
Min Ah takes care of her sweet-faced siblings: "Since I'm the big sister, I tell my sister and brother to dress and get to school on time," she says.
She also tries to help the time pass faster: "My mother said, 'I'm coming back in a few years to take you out of here, so please wait.' "
"Economic orphans" are the most extreme cases, but they illustrate how harsh economics are breaking up families. The family has long been the backbone of Asian society, but it is now cracking under the financial stress. Thousands of kids are being sent away from their parents, brothers and sisters as they ride out the crisis with better-off relatives and friends and in the worst cases, strangers. It hurts, but families are trying to give their children the best chance to thrive.
When there is no family, there are churches, mosques and the government. South Korea has passed a law allowing families who can no longer afford to care for their children to leave them at state-run orphanages, free of charge. There are no firm statistics, but Sang Lok officials alone have received more than 200 calls from parents looking for help. Mosques in largely Muslim Indonesia have been taking in increasing numbers of children.
"This economic crisis has emptied many people's pockets, and also their hearts," said Lim Joon Kyung of the Seoul Counseling Center, which has been swamped with requests for orphanage placements.
The entire region is facing increasing problems with abandoned children. Saini, 15, came last month to the St. Vincentius orphanage in the village of Pringsewu on Sumatra, the Indonesian island just west of Jakarta. She is the daughter of a farmer who could no longer make ends meet for his wife and eight children.
The Catholic nuns who run the home say the krismon short for the krisis ekonomi, as the economic crisis is called in Indonesian which came on top of the severe drought, has pressured families to do what they never thought they could give up their children.
"I like it here," Saini said, smiling. But asked about her family, she burst instantly into big, rolling tears. It has been weeks since she has seen them. It takes a full day to get to her family home, and neither she nor they can afford the bus fare anymore.
Saini apologized, wiping the tears away with the starched white sleeve of her school uniform. "If I remember them, I am sad."
"It's a hard decision for the parents, but if the children stayed at home they would have to drop out of school," said Sister Kristiana, a tiny Catholic nun who helps run the orphanage. "It is more important to have an education and a future, and that is why they are here."
Even with the backing of the Catholic Church, St. Vincentius is having a hard time raising the money it needs to survive, Sister Kristiana said. "It is possible that we will have to close," she said. "If we do, what will happen to the children?"
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