MANILA, OCTOBER 9, 2003  (STAR) By Ann Bernadette Corvera  - They battled great odds for the sake of the greater good. And their commitment continues to propel them forward in the hope of making this world a better place.

Indian educator fights child labor By Ann Corvera

This woman has played a key role in the emancipation of 240,000 children from child labor and putting them where they belong: school.

For such feat, India's Shantha Sinha was accorded the Ramon Magsaysay Award, Asia's equivalent of the Nobel Prize, for community leadership as she guided the people of the state of Andra Pradesh "to end the scourge of child labor and send all of their children to school."

Sinha, secretary of the Mamidipudi Venkatarangaiya (MV) Foundation in India, stressed the importance of "changing the mindset" of the people in dealing with problem of child labor.

"Everybody must believe that children have the right to education. When you bring a child to school, you have resolved a conflict," Sinha said in her lecture yesterday at the Ramon Magsaysay Center entitled "Promoting the Child’s Rights to a Real Childhood."

Sinha said, "it is only a question of social norm."

"In the absence of an uncompromising stand on the abolition of child labor, the focus is on' can this be done?' rather than’ how this should be done?' As long as the question of 'can this be done' is the only one that is being addressed, no real solution will emerge (to the problem of child labor)," Sinha said.

And she has this message for the people: "Poor families who withdraw their children from work and send them to school do not become poorer. Family productivity rises when children go to school; job opportunities for adults improve when children no longer work."

"There must be social and cultural environment that is intolerant to child labor and thereby give respect to children as individuals in their own right," she added.

In the poverty-stricken villages of Ranga Reddy District, Sinha and her foundation team encouraged local people to identify out-of-school and bonded children and urged their parents and employers to release them.

As efforts by the foundation continue, they found allies among the youth and among teachers and local officials and even among one-time employers of child workers.

"Employers have taken up the cause of ~h bringing children and keeping them in school," she said in her lecture.

The MV Foundation expanded with assistance from local and international donors and by 1999, it was active in five hundred villages. By this time, Sinha's original transition camps had grown into full-fledged residential "bridge schools."

In "bridge schools," children accustomed only to the factory or farm work "were introduced to a joyous but disciplined haven of learning," her citation said.

The bridge school, Sinha said, will prepare these former child workers to enter mainstream schooling.

Sinha's formal organization is relatively small but has nearly 30,000 volunteers. Together with its partner organizations and the government, the MV Foundation is "carrying its spirit and work ever farther a field."

Through this ripple effect, the foundation is creating a social climate hostile not only to child labor but also to child marriage and other practices that deny children the right to a normal childhood. Today the MV Foundation's bridge schools and programs extend to 4,300 villages.

Elderly RM awardee greens deserts By Ann Corvera

This 97-year-old Ramon Magsaysay 2003 awardee is happiest wearing his high-knee boots and sun helmet.

Seiei Toyama, one of the two Ramon Magsaysay awardees for Peace and International Understanding this year, is a grandfather who gives a different kind of elderly guidance to the young ones: prevent "desertification."

"I have to leave my mission to younger people though I still wish to visit deserts a few times a year, as long as my health allows," Toyama said yesterday through a representative. He gave a lecture entitled "Greening the Desert with the Spirit of Volunteerism" delivered by his representative Shingo Nomura at the Ramon Magsaysay Center in Manila.

One-third of the earth’s soil is covered by desert, according to Toyoma, even as he warned that the unproductive consequence of desertification may lead people to fight each other due to food shortage.

Known as the "desert agriculturist," Toyama said mankind has to "transcend diversities arising from nationalities, religion and physical boundaries to achieve a common mission of co-existence and co-prosperity."

His noble aim of greening the deserts is not only to beautify more the earth but to avert food shortage in the future that is a cause for fights, if not war, he said.

Toyama’s physique may already be fragile but his heart and spirit endure.

"My aim in life is to prevent desertification because it is an obstacle to the survival of mankind and of earth. I want to transform the desert to green soil," Toyama told an audience largely composed of young students.

"I want to leave something, a meaningful legacy to society and the earth," he said.

Toyama said the 21st century will be the "age of the desert" with the desert area of earth "getting wider and wider every year."

Toyama cited a research conducted by the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) saying that about six million hectares turn into new desert areas every year.

The rate of expansion is increasing more rapidly, he said.

Toyama was born in Yamanashi, Japan but took a great interest in China’s deserts upon embarking on an extended research tour there after graduating from college with a degree on agriculture.

His trip to China was the first time he saw a desert. He had observed that in northwestern China, gourds and grapes and other fruits grow perfectly well in desert island.

He returned to Japan and then subsequently went back to China to apply his knowledge on the country’s deserts.

In 1990, Toyama started working with the Engebei Desert Development Model Zone in Inner Mongolia where scientists were battling severe desertification due to floods.

Toyama worked on development projects in the Yellow River area in China and later organized a program in 1991 called the Concerned Japanese for the Development of Deserts in China. He also dispatched the First Japanese Cooperative for the Development of Deserts in China.

It was during this time that the "volunteer spirit" for greening the desert was stimulated, he said.

"I believe that mere existence is meaningless and that human beings must serve society in order for their lives to have meaning," Toyama said, recounting how he devoted his golden years to desert greening after his retirement in 1979.

"I therefore believe that I must work for society even if I have to take personal sacrifices. Otherwise, mine will be a meaningless life," he said.

Toyama’s "green army volunteers" come from all walks of life. They have used their own money and tools in helping the "Great Old Man" green the deserts of China.

Since the Japan volunteer group was formed in 1991, more than three million trees have been planted in China’s deserts.

Toyama said he is now working to green the Kubuqi desert in Japan, which he said is nearly half the area of Taiwan.

"A dream must not end only as a dream. My personal belief is expressed this way: We can achieve something only if we start doing; nothing is done until we start moving," he said.

76-year-old RM awardee battles AIDS ignorance in China By Ann Corvera

Over a million people in China are believed to be infected with the AIDS virus and a vast number of them are ignorant of this deadly disease.

Moreover, in some parts of the world’s most populated country, most of the persons infected with HIV — the virus that causes AIDS – were not victims of unprotected sex or needle sharing but of a profitable yet careless trade of human blood.

In spite of the seeming enormous crisis, a 76-year-old retired Chinese doctor has carried on with what has become her personal crusade of enlightening her countrymen on what they call the "strange disease" and "nameless fever."

Dr. Gao Yaojie is one of this year’s Ramon Magsaysay awardees who has fought the battle against AIDS ignorance, and treated and comforted patients for the past seven years.

For this, the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation (RMAF) gave honor to this tireless crusader in the Public Service category, recognizing her "fervent personal crusade to confront the AIDS crisis in China and to address it humanely."

Dr. Gao could not make it to the recently held week-long tribute to the seven 2003 Ramon Magsaysay awardees but conveyed her message of gratitude to the RMAF and expressed "great honor" for receiving Asia’s most prestigious award.

The Ramon Magsaysay Award is Asia’s equivalent to a Nobel Prize.

Dr. Gao, a specialist in ovarian gynecology, was already retired from Hernan College of Traditional Chinese Medicine when she encountered her first AIDS patient in 1996. She traced the woman’s infection to a tainted blood transfusion.

It came to her attention that the blood trade in rural Henan was rampant.

Between the 1980s and 1990s, the commerce in human blood began to flourish to meet the demand of hospitals and medical product companies for blood plasma.

At local collection stations, technicians drew blood from donors, combined it with that of others to extract plasma, and then reinjected the donors with the now-mixed red blood cells. The aim was to strengthen donors for the next sale.

Health and military officials performed this lucrative yet dangerous practice until the Chinese government banned it in 1998.

But making money proved to be a strong motivation when underground "bloodheads" moved from village to village to tap plasma for a booming market.

Probing deeper into the extent of the spread of AIDS in Henan’s crowded villages, Gao discovered a hidden epidemic. She estimated that 20 percent of the province’s population was HIV-positive.

Gao shared with the media her findings, which were recorded and documented with photographs, that later led to attempts by local officials to muzzle her.

But Gao fearlessly carried on with her work in publishing and distributing books, brochures and pamphlets she wrote on the lethal virus.

Her persistence prompted the Chinese government to acknowledge the country’s AIDS crisis and today, Gao’s books are in open circulation.

China’s progress in battling the AIDS virus still seems slow but Gao perseveres to keep the public educated and the infected persons cared for.

Gao’s concern is now focused on unwanted Chinese orphans who have AIDS. As they suffer most from the disease’s stigma, Gao finds families for them and in wary villages, she holds them in her arms.

Gao’s motivation to relentlessly help curb the AIDS crisis in China comes from the pain she witnesses and feels from her AIDS patients.

Each of their photographs tells a sad story, she says. And she remembers every one of them. [TO BE CONTINUED]

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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