Michelle Baranda, 17, carries, like some luminous amulet in the deep pockets of her thoughts, the words of the renowned educator and rights activist Helen Keller: while it is true that the world is full of adversity; it is also true that the world is full of the overcoming of adversity.
But it is the lesser-known Johanna Sullivan, Keller’s lifelong teacher, whose perseverance coaxed the best out of Keller, that Baranda holds up as a model. Unlike Keller and Sullivan, who both became blind at an early age, Baranda grew up enjoying the full powers of sight, hearing and speech.
But still, in a way, she explained, she considers herself to have lived a life of adversity but also of overcoming adversity like Keller and Sullivan.‘’I know what suffering means, what it means to lose what’s important to me. The very day I was born, my father disappeared from our lives. My mother lost a husband and together with my elder sister, I lost a father,” she said. According to her mother, her father was arrested for robbery and carnapping that midnight in 1999 while she endured labor pains to deliver her, the second daughter.That and other circumstances had made Baranda endure a childhood in the margins of society. ‘’I grew up feeling vulnerable to discrimination and bullying in school. Being the daughter of an imprisoned man who I had seen but once and raised by a solo parent. Add to these, that we are practicing Muslims in a largely Christian community. But still I grew up assertive.’’
She made use of her gift of gab to find a sense of belonging. ‘’I wanted to be among the respected student leaders in school. So I made sure I won’t be far behind. Academically, I rank among the top ten. I gave up my hijab and joined a dance troupe.
“Last year, I ran for the student government presidency and won. But I also made sure that despite being articulate, I remain humble, my feet firmly on the ground,’’ she told me.
But she recalled another darkness during her childhood: ‘’But because my mother did not know any better, and influenced by the culture she grew up in, I experienced violence at home. My family observed old ways of discipline that hurt me and my elder sister,’’ she said.
Baranda’s childhood is not unique though. According to a Pulse Asia 2011 study, 67 per cent of Filipino parents use corporal punishment as a form of discipline.
The same study also noted that the practice has been passed on from the previous generation as 83 per cent of these parents involved in the study recalled having experienced physical punishment when they were growing up themselves. And Baranda’s generation was beginning to continue the generational relay of the violent habit.
‘’The painful thing was we siblings also learned to hurt each other. We became good at hurting each other physically, even with words. Until I learned it was a wrong practice.’’
Fortunately for her, understanding the consequences of these experiences have turned into inner gifts --- enriching her sensitivity and awareness of the rights and responsibilities of children and adolescents like her undergoing difficulties in school and at home.
Thus, this 17-year-old Grade 11 student became an ideal representative of her peers to the Child Protection Committee (CPC) of the Alegria National High School in Alabel, Saranggani, about 15 kilometers from General Santos City in Mindanao.
At the high school’s CPC, Baranda and another student leader, Evanne Keir Pallalio, meet regularly with school administrators, the guidance coordinator and the prefect of discipline, to implement the year-long program on the protection of the studentry from all forms of violence.
Baranda and Palallio are further tasked to supervise over peer support groups discussing and resolving specific cases of student-to-student bullying and to support students filing complaints over experiences of corporal punishment inflected by teachers against students.
Alegria National High School’s CPC is part of a national endeavor called the Positive Discipline Project, also known as the Collective Action to Promote Non-Violent and Protective Society for Children.
Zolcarnin Palao, Mindanao project officer, said that the Alegria CPC is among the growing number of model mechanisms put up in schools and local government units such as the barangay, municipality or province, where children’s rights are a priority concern and positive discipline is fostered. The project is implemented in at least six regions of the country.
Basic student-to-student conflict resolution is an important component of the CPC as the Republic Act 10627 known as the Anti-Bullying Law was implemented nationwide in 2013. The law requires all elementary and secondary schools in the country to adopt an anti-bullying policy. It also concretizes the country’s commitment to the United Nations’ 1991 Convention on the Rights of the Child of which the Philippines is a signatory.
An initiative of the Child Rights Network, the Collective Action project is spearheaded by the non-government organization Plan International together with the Philippine Legislator’s Committee on Population and Development (PLCPD) and Lihok-Pilipina Foundation.
Susana Sumagka, the school principal at Alegria National High School, attests to Baranda’s effective leadership among the present crop of around 550 students. ‘’Michelle is able to advocate for the assertion of children’s rights. She also mentors Evanne and other younger students following her footsteps in the student government.’’
Sumagka also noted that Michelle resolved several cases of anti-bullying among students, without having to pass on these complaints to the school’s CPC. ‘’You can see that the students are already capable of handling these complaints among themselves, and in convincing other students to assert and respect every student’s right to study in a violence-free school environment,’’ she stressed.
Students who are Blaan, a disadvantaged indigenous people in Southern Mindanao, are most vulnerable targets of bullying, specifically the girls, noted Baranda. She often focused her attention to their concerns as they are often timid.
Baranda said that Sumagca and most of the teachers have been supportive of the cause of promoting children’s rights. ‘’The school administrators readily address the issues. The guidance counselor advised and informed us students of our rights. For example, how I can assert for positive discipline so that I can protect myself and also advocate against bullying."
Holding her rights to an inclusive world that honors non-violence like a lantern in the dark, Baranda is determined to journey on as a student till she’d become an educator herself, like Sullivan, her idol. Her horizons has even expanded much further. ‘’I even go beyond the school, and meet other student advocates from other schools here in Alabel when I attend conferences and trainings conducted by Plan International. I know I am not alone in this journey.’’ with reports from Rhoda Grace Saron, JP Jubelag and Jazzstein Jubelag