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Back in their community, 15-year-old Lea Dela Cruz is expected to have been married and be raising children already.

As tradition, this is what most Dumagat teenage girls in Tanay, Rizal are presumed to do once they hit adolescence.

Lea, however, chose to break away from this.

“Nakikita ko rito sa amin, maraming nagkakasakit o namamatay dahil sa panganganak nang maaga. Mahirap ang buhay dahil napakalayo ng aming lugar (I noticed that here in our village, many get sick and many women die from giving birth at young age. Life is difficult because our village is very remote),” Lea shared.

Being aware of this problem, she became determined to do something to escape that kind of fate.

“Ngayon, nagsisikap talaga akong mag-aral nang mabuti.  Ayaw ko pang mag-asawa (Now, I really persevere and study hard. I don’t like to get married yet),” she said, who is glad that her parents Guillermo and Soledad support her dreams.

Lea, currently in Grade 8, sees a better future not only for herself but also for her whole tribe.

She and the rest of the indigenous people (IP) in Sitio Kinabuan realized that there are others ways they can live their lives because of the interventions the government has provided them.

Lea’s family is one of the beneficiaries of the Modified Conditional Cash Transfer (MCCT) program for IPs in Rizal province.

The MCCT, as the name indicates, is a modification of the regular Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program of the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD). It is designed to specifically target IPs (particularly those in geographically isolated and disadvantaged areas), homeless street families, and others that were not covered by the regular Pantawid Pamilya.

In Rizal, there are 356 families who are beneficiaries of the program, while there are 182,588 IP-families registered nationwide.

Through MCCT, the beneficiaries are provided improved access to basic social services including health, nutrition, sanitation, and formal or non-formal education.

“Binibigyan kami ng programa ng tulong, lalo na sa pagsuporta sa aming pag-aaral… Nakikita kong sa pagsisikap ko sa pag-aaral, magiging maginhawa ang buhay namin  (The government assists us especially with our schooling… I believe that with my determination to study, we will eventually have a better life),” Lea continued.

She also wants to use her education to shatter misconceptions about IPs.

“Kahit kami ay mga katutubo, may mga pangarap din kami. Hindi kami dapat kutyain dahil pantay-pantay lahat tayo. Patuloy kaming magsisikap para makamit ang mga pangarap namin (Even if we are IPs, we also have our dreams. Other people should not look down on us because we are all equal. We will continue to persevere to achieve our aspirations),” she said with conviction.

Lea promises to work hard in school. She wants to become a doctor in the future to serve her tribe and contribute in improving their living condition.

She is confident that with breaking some of their practices, she can help break the long-time problem of poverty in their community.