Music therapy to save children from Manila's streets

Posted at 02/25/2009 11:33 PM

MANILA (Reuters Life!) - Scarred by a life of neglect and abuse, street children in Manila have many poignant tales to tell, which a local shelter is helping to turn into song as a form of therapy.

Tahanan Santa Luisa, a home for abused and abandoned children, teaches adolescent girls guitar playing and song writing, urging them to release their emotions through lyrics based on their experiences to help develop their self-esteem.

Their compositions, ranging from street rap to sentimental tunes, tell of torment, anger and fears for the future. The girls have also written about betrayal and their longing for love and appreciation.

"Once it's taken away from them, their innocence, you cannot really bring it back. They have lost so much already," said social psychologist Gladys Cruz, who works at the shelter.

"But what we can offer is to direct them to the path that they would view themselves as something better," she added.

The Philippines' social welfare department estimates there are up to 200,000 children on the streets of Manila. At least a tenth have been victims of trafficking since 2001, and more than 7,000 were either physically or sexually abused in 2007.

But teaching youth hardened by a life on the streets is no easy task.

Retired marketing officer Ramon Chito Ramos, who volunteers his time to give guitar lessons at the shelter, said many girls were initially resistant.

"Some of them don't listen, some are hard-headed and that makes things difficult. But all you need is a little patience so they will learn," he said.

A girl who only gave her name as Amihan, Filipino for northeasterly winds, used to wander the streets of Manila, hooked on sniffing glue, but she came to the shelter hoping for a better life.

"I came here so I could change. And it's here where I learned to dream, and to strive to finish my studies so that I can have a good future," she said.

Along with the music lessons, the 19 adolescent girls living in Tahanan Santa Luisa also attend classes in math, English and science, as well as receiving counseling.

Many psychologists believe music can be a form of therapy for trauma, helping victims of violence, conflict and abuse.

According to a study by the University of Melbourne, youth who have experienced grief are inclined to share negative feelings through music, as they don't have to rely only on words.

"When I play the guitar, I can express my heartaches, my anger toward the people around me who don't understand me," said a shelter resident who only gave her name as Diwata, and who was sexually abused while living in the streets.

Playing the guitar also allows the shelter's residents to be like other adolescents their age, and helps them cope.

"Learning how to play the guitar and how to compose songs later on will help them let go of past experiences. They can release their angst, their hardships, and their heartaches so that they can finally experience healing," Ramos said.

The sessions create a bond among the girls, and nurture otherwise hidden talents. These music skills can also be useful when they eventually leave the shelter, social workers say.

"Playing the guitar is important because whatever you learn from it, you can share with other people," said a former street child and now shelter resident who gave her name as Imelda.