Dear Pope Francis,
We, the Filipino youth welcomes with joy, justice, peace, and love His Holiness Pope Francis to the Philippines. Your writings and teachings inspire us to offer and commit ourselves to selfless and meaningful service to our fellow people, most especially the oppressed and the marginalized.
The Pope’s pronouncements for the poor are like manna that replenish our soul to continue our struggle for the poor and the oppressed. Thus, we were all passionate and jubilant when the news came that you will come visit our country this January. However, as much as we want to meet you in person and share to you our country’s realities and struggles, we won’t be able to do that, for it is the Philippine government that decides who will participate in the activities during your visit. It is in this context that we are writing to you, dear Holy Father, to share our struggles and the social realities that confront us each day.
No words can fully describe the magnitude of poverty in our country. While nearly every administration since the founding of the Philippine Republic has been quick to praise itself for stalwart economic management, growth has mostly been confined to the upper classes and their businesses, and has rarely, if ever, resulted in the creation of real, long-lasting, decent-paying jobs on the ground. The national economy, geared as it is toward foreign markets and dependent on foreign investments and overseas Filipino remittances, has failed to develop thriving local industries. Nor has growth been inclusive. Profits of major corporations and CEO bonuses have soared while workers’ real wages have stagnated or declined over the decades.
In a recent interview with Italian paper La Stampa, His Holiness has correctly pointed out the existence of youths all over the world who are “neither working nor studying.” This is a prevalent situation in the Philippines.
Education has become a privilege rather than a right in our nation. Soaring tuition rates, coupled with the high cost of living, has made it close to impossible for many Filipino students to finish schooling. This situation has even been further aggravated by several government policies including the deregulated nature of tuition and other fees, dwindling state funding to public education, and anti-student policies such as the “no late payment” and “no permit, no examination” policy. These policies have hindered the youth from finishing school, and forced our families to work long hours just to get by.
Repressive labor policies from deregulation to contractualization have also left workers in vulnerable straits, unable to find decent employment should their contracts expire. Official government figures show that the combined ranks of the jobless and underemployed – some 10 -12 million Filipinos of working age – today make up 11 percent of the country’s total population. The youth comprises half of this figure.
While prices of basic commodities, including food, health services, and transportation continue to rise, our wages as young workers and employees remain miniscule and below living standards. The minimum wage in our country – 456 Philippine pesos – is less than half of the actual amount needed to have a decent life. Wages and salaries remain unchanged for years despite the roaring inflation, with the government content on knowing that our nation remains to be one of the major sources of cheap labor for the global economy.
Meanwhile, the youth in the countryside and the provinces continually suffer from landlessness and backward agricultural processes, a situation perpetuated by landlords who have remained vastly powerful both politically and economically. While a third – or about 9.7 million hectares of land – in the Philippines is agricultural, 70 percent of farmers still do not own the land they work on. The poorest sectors of Philippine society include small farmers and fisherfolk. Philippine agriculture is also the least mechanized in Southeast Asia, with the lowest subsidies for small farmers.
Inequality in the countryside is further aggravated by the sustained militarization campaigns of the government. Communities and schools in the farthest reaches of the Philippines are being used as garrisons, with many of our school children taking their classes under the shadow of imminent gunfire.
In cities, urban poor communities creep in the shadows of high-rise buildings, a testament to the huge gap between the poor and the rich. Urban poor communities, where many young workers and students reside, face threats of demolition on a daily basis.
Any mention of national development is incomplete without mentioning the full spectrum of civil, political, social and economic rights that should be guaranteed to all citizens regardless of class, status, religion, ethnicity or political inclination. Yet human rights in the government’s development plans are noted only in passing, and while the administration pays lip service to ‘’inclusive growth,” the facts on the ground speak of a different reality. Human rights defenders, trade unionists and activists of all stripes have long been assaulted on all fronts for their work. Over a thousand cases of human rights violations have been recorded by human rights groups under Benigno Aquino III’s presidency. Over 400 political prisoners remain behind bars, with over 150 arrested under the current administration, many of them youth organizers and leaders.
Despite being a nation frequented by natural calamities, our nation has also remained vastly unprepared for such disasters. Our government has consistently shown its incompetence and utter neglect of the youth and people that suffered from recent typhoons, including Typhoon Haiyan. While state officials may show His Holiness a picturesque view of improvement and rehabilitation, they will most probably block you from seeing schools that remain without roofs, families still living in tents, and the depressing upshot of prostitution for food in some of the remotest areas of the Visayas and Mindanao regions.
This is the real story of the Filipino youth. This is the situation that the government will surely fail to show you, our dearest Pope. For while government officials regale you with stories of the nation’s supposed recovery, they will surely fail to tell you how the government itself is steeped in corruption. Our leaders themselves may paint a rosy picture of development, but they will fail to say that in recent years, the youth has actually resisted and fought against their corrupt practices that further undermined the Filipino people.
We are narrating to you our plight in the hope that you will help us and stand with us. When you spoke to the youth in Brazil, urging us “to be revolutionaries, to swim against the tide, to rebel against this culture that sees everything as temporary,” we took your words and engraved it in our hearts. When you told us “to learn to be on the side of the poor, and not just indulge in rhetoric about the poor,” we made it our marching call. Many of us that are writing to you are community organizers, youth leaders, and activists who have dedicated our lives in service of the Filipino people, in the hope that the youth can truly make a change.
Thus we humbly turn to you, Pope Francis, for help and guidance. May you stand with us as we continue the fight against this system of waste, this system that has left the youth to the clutches of poverty and hunger. As you visit our country, may His Holiness not only encourage the Filipino youth to continue the struggle for a better future, but also share to the world the plight of the Filipino people.
Help us, dear Pope, as we battle against inequality, as we fight for education, better social services, and for peace and unity in our nation fraught with war. May your blessed presence guide our leaders into ironing issues rocking the ongoing peace negotiations between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, and also spur the resumption of formal peace negotiations with the National Democratic Front of the Philippines. Help us achieve just and lasting peace by compelling the Aquino administration to honor its agreements with rebel forces, and addressing the roots of the ongoing Philippine insurgencies – which is societal inequality brought about by the current system that puts profit above people.
Journey with us, Pope Francis, just as Christ our Lord journeyed with the first Christians, and together, let us change the course of history. Together, let us live up to the words of Christ: “Faith without work is dead (James 2:14-26).” Stand with us, dear Pope, and together, let us spread the true meaning of mercy and compassion, and let us fill our nation and the world with the light of the Living Faith.
Yours in Christ,
Spokesperson, Student Christian Movement of the Philippines
Spokesperson, League of Filipino Students
Sarah Jane Elago
President, National Union of Students of the Philippines
Marc Lino Abila
President, College Editors Guild of the Philippines
Chairman, Anakbayan (Sons and Daughters of the Nation)
President, Kabataan Partylist (Youth Party)
President, Kabataang Artista Para sa Tunay na Kalayaan (Youth Artists for Genuine Democracy)
National Convenor, Youth Act Now Against Corruption