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About the Author

Iris Cecilia Gonzales
journalist (Quezon City, Philippines)

I work as a reporter for the Philippine Star, a Manila daily. At present, I cover the Department of Finance beat but I also write other stories here and there. I'm also a coffee and scotch drinker, a barefoot traveller and a collector of memories. I live in a parallel universe.


In the Water. Out of School

Published 10th June 2010 - 11 comments - 5165 views -

Sea children risk their lives to earn a peso or two. Photo by the author

(text and photos by the author)


CEBU, Philippines – He stood on the edge of a white wooden plank at the tip of the outrigger canoe docked beside a floating restaurant here in Orango island, in the southern Philippines.

It is high noon and scorching hot.  Like studs of diamonds, the yellow sun glistened on the vastness of the emerald green waters.

Wearing only a tattered navy blue shorts and with his back facing the unknown, Steve Abenido whisked his 10-year old bony frame to a perfect roundabout somersault. Time stopped as he broke through the water like a sword that pierced through a huge glass.

I stood with bated breath, watching him come out from underworld. In a split second, I saw his sun-baked hair and his dark shoulders as he resurfaced. In his hand, shining like gold is a five peso coin (USD11 cents), as shiny as his victorious smile as he caught the coin just before it sank deeper into the water.

He climbed back to the motorized banca, greeted by cheers of four other children who have been taking turns diving into the water.

Steve and his friends are among hundreds of sea children scattered around the different islands in the province, which in recent years, has become a major tourist hub for Europeans and lately, for the growing Korean invasion in the Philippines.

Delighted by the sight of children showing off their driving skills, the foreigners gamely throw the coins into the water.

It is lunchtime and in this floating restaurant, tourists are feasting on a wide array of seafoods – grilled lobsters, smoked fish and prawns.

Most guests stop by the different floating restaurants after a morning of island-hopping. They go back to their posh hotels -- where an overnight stay can cost 17,000 pesos or USD375 -- before the sun fades away into the horizon.

Risking their lives, the sea children get a slice of the tourism industry to earn extra money to help their parents earn a living. They are unmindful of the dangers of diving because they know that their parents need all the help they can get.

“Everything I get, I give to my mama,” Steve says.  Steve is the third child in a family of eight. He says that when classes start on June 15, he would still have to dive on weekends so he can have money for allowance and that he can continue helping his mother who does not have a job. His diving prowess, he says, he learned from his father who works as a boatman.

Steve is luckier compared to his friends because he is able to go to school. His other friends, on the other hand, would have to continue diving because they’re the only extra hands their parents need to earn a living.Their parents cannot afford to send them to school.

Michael Obando, 11 years old, is one such kid.

On June 15 as some of his friends will go back to school, he will go back to the water to dive.

On good days, when there are a lot of "guests" as the locals call the tourists, Michael gets 100 pesos (USD2) but on ordinary days, he gets twenty pesos or USD44 cents for two to three hours of waiting around the many floating restaurants in the island.

These coins almost mean nothing for the tourists. In these floating restaurants, a single order of a dish as exotic as grilled buttered lobster costs 1,500 pesos or USD33.

What the sea children get are just crumbs of the pie but they take it. They have no choice because in the Philippines, poverty remains rampant. And this reality is more prevalent in remote villages and far-away islands.

In this particular province, children whose parents can’t afford to send them to school have no choice but to work in the sea. This, needless to say, is tantamount to child labor although technically, these sea children are not employed by companies.

Sea children risk their lives to earn a peso or two. Photo by the author

According to an article published by online content provider Article Alley in October 2008, poverty is the main reason why children under the age of 18 are compelled to work in dangerous and life threatening conditions.

It said that the between the ages of 5 and 7 years, one in every six children has to work to earn a living and help support his or her family.

“In the Philippines there are about 2.06 million children who are forced to work in rock quarries, farms, industries, mines and on fishing boats. The consequences of Child Labor on an underage child can be numerous and crippling on his or her physical, mental and emotional state. It can seriously hamper the well being of a child who is supposed to get a sound education and nutrition to develop into a healthy adult,” the article noted.

Ultimately, this shows just a glimpse of why the Philippines is unlikely to meet Millennium Development Goal 2: To Achieve Universal Primary Education.

According to the government’s progress report on the MDG, which I cited in a previous post, the country is unlikely to improve the net enrollment in primary education to 100 percent by 2015 because as of end-2008, it stood at only 85.1 percent.

The proportion of pupils starting grade 1 who reach grade six is only at 75.4 percent of the schooling population as of end-2008 as against the goal of bringing this to 100 percent by 2015. The reason behind this stark reality is poverty, the government said. In the Philippines, 32.9 percent of the population is living below poverty line.

The government is racing against time to improve the situation.

As this is happening, Steve and his friends, like many Filipino sea children scattered all over the country, have no choice but to race against one another, down into the deep blue sea, for a coin or two.


Category: Poverty | Tags: education, poverty, children, tourism,


  • Bart Knols on 10th June 2010:

    Very nice writing. Almost poetic, beautiful sentences, and a great story. Excellent TH!NK3 stuff! Thanks, Iris.

  • Iris Cecilia Gonzales on 10th June 2010:

    Thank you for reading Bart. And thanks for the comment. It is an honor to be able to share to THINK3 their story.

  • Clare Herbert on 11th June 2010:

    Loving the pictures too. Looks gorge!

  • Iris Cecilia Gonzales on 11th June 2010:

    Thanks Clare! Well appreciated.

  • Giedre Steikunaite on 11th June 2010:

    Iris, you are, as Bart says, a poet (please take it as a compliment). Powerful story.

    When I saw the title of your post I thought it was about fishing children. But diving for coins! I can understand this is a way for them to add some food on the family table, and it might be worse if they didn’t do it, but this whole thing just seems so full of indignity. I pictured a wealthy family filling their usually full stomachs with all this seafood. While waiting for the food, they entertain themselves by throwing some pity coins to the water for a poor child to pick up, just like dogs do. Then the family pays the bill, 5000% of what they just threw to the water, and forget about it. Life goes on.

  • Aija Vanaga on 11th June 2010:

    Nice post, pictures are beautiful!

  • Iris Cecilia Gonzales on 11th June 2010:

    @Giedre….It’s a sad reality, indeed. We just look around and we see it. I agree with how you put it….“so full of indignity.” Reminds me of my previous post on gangsters. The photographer mentioned something about how the reality of living in a “shanty” takes away so much from an individual. (

    @Aija….Thanks for reading! And for appreciating the photos.

  • Larisa Rankovic on 16th June 2010:

    I can just join others in telling how beautifully written and photographed is this story

  • Iris Cecilia Gonzales on 16th June 2010:


    Thanks for the comment. As an expert in media, may I ask which among the photos do you appreciate most and why?

  • Larisa Rankovic on 17th June 2010:

    I like particularly this group photo with jumping, shows that playful side which comes naturally with the children, even in difficult conditions. (I am flattered…:))

  • Iris Cecilia Gonzales on 17th June 2010:

    Thanks Larisa. Very interesting observation. Yes, I received a lot of positive feedback for that. Thanks again.

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