Gina Llaban, 23, could have become a teacher had she been able to pursue her dreams. But a better life continues to elude this mother of two, and her 23 siblings.
When Gina was only 15, she resolved to become a schoolteacher. Perhaps it was this determination that helped her and some of her cousins daily trek five hours of slopes and rolling hills to reach the public elementary school in the eastern part of Cagayan de Oro, an urbanized city in the Northern Mindanao region of Philippines.
Due to the distance between their extremely impoverished locality and the nearest school, the children used to reach school barely two hours before home time. The physical exhaustion and the jeering by the classmates - for being consistent latecomers - only made things worse.
But then Gina and her 15 siblings were not used to life being kind to them. To add to their woes was the fact that their father maintained a 'duway', a second family with Gina's mother's sister. With eight siblings from that side of the family, Gina's father had to provide for 23 children in all. For the Higaonon community (to which the Llabans belong) it is an accepted norm for a man to maintain two wives.
At 23, Gina has two children. Her partner is a 28-year-old farm help who earns only PHP 1,000 a month (US$1=46PHP). This means that the family has to live within a budget of roughly PHP 33 a day in order to survive. Ask her about her ambitions and she rues, "I just forget about that dream because I know it's not going to happen anymore."
Gina's life offers a peek into the shocking poverty that the Llaban family has endured for years. Llaban matriarch Favia Pimentel Llaban, 82, recalls that she and her husband settled in what is now a Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) protected area since 1972, when the then President, Ferdinand Marcos, declared martial law.
The place has since become the home of the family. All of Favia's five sons and three daughters have also raised their own families here. Without access to family healthcare and basic education, and any government intervention, the Llaban family grew bigger each year - their lives continuing to wallow in abject poverty and illiteracy.
It is no wonder then that there are the children in the family have manifested signs of vitamin A and iodine deficiencies. Ironically, while malnutrition makes children look much younger because of stunted growth, the adults look years older than their actual age. Gina, too, looks far older than her 23 years.
However, since eight years ago - when a composite team of government agencies launched an outreach programme for the people of this area - efforts have been made to alleviate their living conditions. The Department of Education's Alternative Learning System (ALS) has introduced a functional literacy programme. Every Saturday, Mylene Pimentel, a literacy teacher, holds three-hour classes in the village. Little by little, with Mylene's dedication and efforts, the families here have started embracing a new life that will, one hopes, get better as the years go by.
So far, some of these people have exercised their franchise. Some have also learnt the importance of reproductive health and of taking their offspring to the local health centre (which is still a six-hour trek) for immunization and other health services provided.
Aside from ALS, the city government of Cagayan de Oro, through the Community Improvement Division of the City Mayor's Office, regularly conducts seminars. Such events heighten awareness about the need to protect women and children against domestic violence and abuses. Other such events help educate the community about the equal role of men and women in community development, such as livelihood undertakings.
As for Gina, she now hopes that her children and the other generations will lead a better life.