Saturday, February 23, 2013

First embrace

DURING one noontime lull, I watched people on the streets scurry to shelter from the sun.

Summer is here. When I was a teen, summer always meant surfeit: oversleeping, overeating, overreading.

During one school break, though, friends taught my sister and I how to ride a bike. Scared of losing balance and falling, I was encouraged by the observation that once learned, biking can never be unlearned.

My current research at Cebu City health centers seems to indicate that this summer will be teaching another life skill to many Cebu City teens.

I wonder if, like biking, parenting is a talent learned for life.

Many of the mothers I interviewed at the health centers of Basak San Nicolas Brotherhood, Basak-Pardo, Labangon and Tisa are not yet out of their teens, with the youngest giving birth at the age of 15.

Nearly all of the teen mothers interviewed are not married to the fathers of their babies. Many of the teens who were in school continue to live with and are supported by their parents. Out-of-school girls usually cohabit with their partners. If their partners are jobless, teen mothers find work.

In-school teen fathers continue with their studies. Many meet other girls and move on with their life.

Motherhood, though, makes a high school student cross, willingly or not, prepared or not, the threshold dividing girls from women.

Even if her parents can afford to provide for her needs and that of her baby, motherhood alters the rhythm of a young mother’s hours. If she has dutifully gone for pre-natal checks and immunization visits with her baby at the nearby health center, a teen mother will know that she ideally should exclusively breastfeed her baby for the first six months.

That means that for the first half of her baby’s first year, a mother is the sole source of nutrition for her child. No water, no vitamins, just milk from her own breasts that she will nurse with, express, pump, store, hoard and give her child whenever and wherever the baby feels hungry and demands. In the mall, in a crowded jeepney, while hearing mass. This is the first perfect equation: a hungry infant, a mother and a pair of nursing breasts.

This total dependence of another human being on oneself can overwhelm even a woman who is older and more mature. Yet I heard several teen mothers say they will resume their high school studies only after they have exclusively breastfed their babies for six months. One said she will choose night high school with its shorter hours so she can continue to breastfeed her son during the day.

When students of mine got pregnant, I always questioned the school policy to let the student go on leave, to return only after she gave birth. I defended an expectant mother’s right to continued access to education, specially as she will soon be solely responsible for another person who is even more helpless.

Yet, I now see the wisdom of a teen mother’s decision to take a leave from studies to focus on being a mother. It is not only the first six months after birth that is crucial for mother and child.

According to the government’s Essential Newborn Care protocol, initiated in 2009 to improve infant survival by as much as 50 percent, a newborn must be placed prone on the chest or abdomen of her mother within the first three minutes of its life.

This is called “Unang Yakap,” the skin-to-skin contact that is for both their “first embrace”. This continued contact can cue the newborn to latch on and start sucking a nipple. The teen mothers learned during visits to the health center that the “watery” milk initially produced is colostrum, unmatched by formula milk for its richness in antibodies. They also learned that the more they nursed their babies, the more milk they produced. This is the second perfect equation.

This coming summer, the teen mothers I met won’t have endless days to go out on gimmicks with friends or learn a skill like riding a bike. I don’t suppose they are missing much.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Feb. 24, 2013 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday main op-ed column

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The good shepherd

NOTHING becomes age as much as acceptance.

That struck me as I read reports about the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI. When I first read the stark headline last Tuesday from a news feed on Gmail—“Pope resigns”—I thought the writer meant “retires”.

But days later, after I had more time to surf the news, I realized that the verb was fully intended. When Joseph Ratzinger succeeded John Paul II to the papacy in April 2005, he was 78. According to, he was one of the oldest to become pope.

When he resigned early this week, after serving eight years, the 85-year-old seemed too old, too frail, too conservative to take on the challenges that divides and threatens an institution best known for its resistance to change.

But by taking a tract that no pope has done for the past 600 years, Benedict XVI may have done something no predecessor has done for what he calls the “Petrine ministry”.

Part of the problems facing the Catholic church is a tendency to speak in language too mystical for ordinary Catholics to understand. In his resignation statement last Feb. 11, the pontiff said: "After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry."

Fortunately, in the Age of Information, one does not lack tools to make the obscure clear. In the website,, I found this explanation from Benedict XVI’s immediate predecessor.

John Paul II quotes Mathew 16:18: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church.”

The late pontiff wrote that the successors of Peter must take on the “pastoral nature of the Petrine ministry”.

In other words, the pope must be like the Good Shepherd: “I myself will search for my sheep ... and will seek them out" (Ez 34: 11).

In the contemporary stage, the roles the Catholic church takes increasingly remind me less of a shepherd than of a chess player. As an institution of power and not shy about wielding its influence, the church, in taking a stand, regards those whose stance is the opposite of its own as opponents.

It is almost as if the shepherd has made up his mind that anything prowling outside his flock are wolves, not stray sheep to be sought out.

When the church does take a conciliatory approach, it’s reserved for straying members of the clergy, for whom there seems to be a bottomless well of compassion, empathy and forgiveness.

Even though Benedict XVI said in his retirement message that the "path of power is not the road of God," the media report that the Vatican has already started the process of ensuring there is a smooth “transfer of power” from Benedict XVI to his successor.

While speculations are rife about who the next pope will be—will he be Filipino? is whispered loudly around the country—it may be more important that the conclave of 117 cardinals under the age of 80 will choose a good shepherd to lead a universal, disparate flock.

He may not have the strengths of age and experience that Benedict XVI found inadequate for the pastoral mission.

He should be intimate with human failings. As John Paul II wrote, St. Peter’s three-times denial of his Christ converted him into becoming at once the church’s strength and unity.

The next pope will not just be shepherd of the adoring masses assembled on Vatican grounds. Out there is a world clamoring about the failed promises of Vatican II, clergy sex abuses, reproductive health rights and abortion, divorce and same-sex marriage, greater participation of laity and women, and Catholics who don’t believe the pope is, to paraphrase T. H. White, the once and future Catholic.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Feb. 17, 2013 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday main op-ed column

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Raw deal

LAST Feb. 5, 2013, the Philippine Daily Inquirer (PDI) ran a story about an elephant, some ladies and a cause.

It’s been days since then. Yet I still remember the story because of the photos and the lay-out. Beside a picture of a rearing elephant was a landscape plucked out of Eden if that virgin paradise were peopled by ladies with a penchant for flesh-colored undies and a cause.

After minutes of verifying that the limbs peeking behind strategically placed placards just strove for an illusion of nakedness, I felt sufficiently curious about the reason behind the collective disrobing to piece together the placards.

This was the declaration: “Naked truth: Mali the elephant is suffering!”

According to PDI, the People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) leads an online campaign to sway authorities into returning the Manila Zoo’s only elephant inmate to an elephant sanctuary in Thailand.

Mali, 38, female, formerly of Sri Lanka, has been in the country since 1977 after she was given as a gift by the Sri Lankan government to the former first lady, Imelda Marcos.

Peta claims that Mali is lonely and should spend the rest of her days with other elephants.

Others oppose the move, saying Mali is too old, too settled to compete and survive in
the wild, and too sick to make the long trip.

As Peta feels that not enough people care about Mali, nine commercial models and entertainers were tapped to stir up the public through a “provocative and funny way to draw attention to a very serious message,” said a group spokesperson.

I don’t know how to convert elephant years into human terms. I’m 47, female and revel in solitude. I’m not an elephant. (Will elephantine do?)

I can argue with the Peta claim that Mali is better off in a sanctuary, where she can “do whatever she wants”. After being married for 20 years and mothering for 19 and counting two teenagers, I think a solitary life is more conducive for waking up anytime you want, playing with others only when you want, and seeing the doctor only when you want.

Then again, I’m not an elephant.

I would have wanted the two camps to present findings and experts arguing for the strengths of each of their advocacies. It doesn’t help me understand any better animal welfare, particularly Mali’s, that Ornussa, Geneva and sisters are quick to shed and bare skin.

Isn’t there something about mismatching ends and means, even metaphors?

How does a skin show or a publicity gimmick made at the expense (again!) of women justify pushing a message, even if it is to provide a better retirement for a lonely elephant?

The best advocate for Mali would be Mali herself.

There’s that problem about getting from her a sound bite that’s intelligible for TV. However, various reports have detailed her sorry physical condition.

Shouldn’t immediate vet care for Mali be the priority over retirement?

As a policy concern, shouldn’t authorities and other stakeholders look into improving how our zoos are run, from the standpoint of the animals that were placed there without being consulted or solicited for their ideas about zoo rules?

Shouldn’t we, the animal-ogling public, pause to reflect about our attitude towards animals, particularly this habit of collecting and displaying them in the name of eco-tourism?

On a recent trip to Bohol, I saw how droves of tourists descended on a Panglao “sanctuary” to “appreciate” tarsiers. We all skipped the lecture and briefing; zoomed in, clicked cameras nonstop and yakked while the poor creature clung bug-eyed to the branch where its caretaker had “posed” it. After about an average 15 minutes, spent more for speculating how many august regulars of Senate and Congress had an uncanny resemblance to tarsiers, we allowed ourselves to be led to the shops to buy tarsiers we could finally pinch, squeeze and take home to stick as ref magnets.

Could Peta think of a “provocative and funny” way to make Filipinos see past the carnival and freak show mentality we cultivate about the creatures we share this planet with?

Meanwhile, it would be just as welcome if Geneva and her sisters would keep their clothes on for novelty and still provoke more human-like intelligence and compassion in our beastly relations.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebus Feb. 10, 2013 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday main op-ed column

Petting rights

“No pets allowed.”

The terse sign outside a coffee shop I would have ignored had there not been two recent reports illuminating the “beastly” side of relations between animals and humans.

Last Jan. 28, 2013, a nine-year-old girl was ravaged and killed after a Belgian Malinois attacked her and her companions as they went home from school in Zamboanga City. The dog and the handlers were taken into police custody.

Last Jan. 30, 2013, some Marikina residents protested the enforcement by the Animal Protection and Council Office (Apco) of Ordinance No. 156, particularly the animal quarantine regulation that bans pets in settlement and resettlement sites. Aside from confiscating pets and fining their owners, city officials will not allow the confiscated pets to be redeemed and returned to the settlement or resettlement sites.

These reports underscore the clash of issues behind the “No pets allowed” signs posted in some private establishments. Which is of paramount importance: the public’s right to safety and sanitation or a pet owner’s rights?

The answer is to balance these two rights. The means to do so is responsible pet ownership. Putting this into practice, though, is challenging, specially in cities where humans and animals compete for space.

Marikina officials say that the law does not discriminate against the poor who reside in settlement or resettlement sites. A spokesperson said that, given the human overcrowding and low income in these households, pets may not even be given their needs, such as food, shelter and annual anti-rabies vaccinations. Stray animals pose sanitation and health risks.

However, a resident said that the ordinance presumes only the affluent and educated can be responsible pet owners. Another said that in overcrowded places, dogs alert humans to thieves, fire and other threats.

As a human adopted by an Aspin, two toms and sundry partners and litters, I find the Marikina ordinance Draconian and biased against those with limited means. Though I have a job and am educated, I have lapsed in updating our dog’s anti-rabies shots. I have never had my pets spayed.

On the other hand, we keep our dog indoors. Udo is kept on a leash when he ventures beyond our gate. We don’t turn the sidewalks or streets into his toilet. Though our floor space is less than a hundred square meters, Udo has not quibbled about space and solitude. Neither have the humans.

Cats, though, are independent devils. Often, they will choose not their owner’s place but the grandest residence, the showcase porch and even a brand-new car to deliver their litter, bury their stools (the smell cannot be hidden) or mark as their territory with hefty sprays of urine. It is only now, after more than 10 years, that we have a truce with neighbors driven mad by our noisily procreative, polygamous and incontinent felines.

Yet, the death of Mariane Gonzales and the trauma of her family should remind us of our greater responsibilities. Tied outside its owner’s gate, the dog reportedly broke its leash before it attacked to kill the Zamboanga school girl.

Even though more spaces are open to pets, owners must ensure exercising or displaying their pets doesn’t intrude on and threaten others. Outside a mall, I once saw a lady pick up the tiny stool left by her toy dog, put this in a small box and return the box into a tote she was carrying. I wonder how many owners do this uncute but necessary task for their pets and the public.

During an interview with a dog breeder, I noticed how a househelper’s upper arm was shrunken and thickly scarred. She said she had turned her back on a Pit Bull she had let out from the kennels when it turned on her. Her employer paid for all her medical expenses. The dog, a champion breeder, was not put to sleep.

Much as we love our pets, we share space with other people.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Feb. 3, 2013 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday main op-ed column