Street children need shelter not a jail cell
Lowering the age of criminal liability for children compounds the failure of govt to look out for their welfare
Children behind bars in the Philippines where the country's lawmakers are planning to lower the minimum age of criminal liability from 15 years old to nine. (Photo courtesy of Preda Foundation)
I first saw Rosi, a six-year-old girl, inside a police detention cell in Olongapo City's red light district. Remembering that day, I am afraid that more girls like Rosi will be in jail if the Philippine government has its way.
The country's legislators are planning to lower the minimum age of criminal liability of children from 15 years old to nine.
I was in downtown Olongapo one evening during a Holy Week some years ago. It was filled with tourists, many of them looking for sex partners. It was a time when the American military had its bases in the Philippines.
Homeless children were all over the streets, begging money from the foreigners and U.S. servicemen, some of whom were pedophiles prowling the streets to lure potential victims.
In 1983, I uncovered a child sex ring that abused street children and infected them with disease. One U.S. serviceman was accused and later brought to trial in Guam. It was all over the news, but the abuser got a light sentence.
The city of Olongapo used to be a haven for sex tourists. Hundreds, if not thousands, of young girls, many under age, became victims of human trafficking. Hundreds of sex bars lined the city's streets and operated with a permit. HIV was then spreading.
It was during that time that the Preda Foundation established a home for street children. Today we have 40 children recovering from sexual abuse at the Preda Home for Girls. Another 30 children are at the Home for Boys.
Going back to the evening I first met Rosi.
I went to a police precinct and greeted the officer on duty. I asked if there were children in detention. He said yes. I went to the cells and heard a child crying. There I saw six-year-old Rosi crying. "Mama, I want my Mama, Mama." It would have broken your heart if you had seen her.
I found eight other street children aged between six and 12 years old in the filthy cell. Most were sleeping on the floor. In the opposite cell, was a half-naked man. He was so close to the children that he could almost touch them. Rosi and the children were treated like criminals.
I went to the desk officer and told the man that he must release the children because it was a violation of their rights. The man was surprised. He seemed not to know. After almost an hour, a police van with a wire cage at the back came to fetch the children and took them to a child-care center.
I later found out that Julia, Rosi's mother, was a poor street vendor. A corrupt village guard was collecting money from the vendors. When Julia could not pay, the guard arrested Rosi and locked her up until Julia paid. It was an extortion racket.
When Julia arrived, looking for Rosi with borrowed money. The young girl was already at the child-care center.
Since that night, it has become my lifetime vocation to look for abandoned street children and provide them a safe haven. I continue to campaign for a stop to the jailing of minors.
After the Americans abandoned their military bases in the country, we campaigned for an end to the sex tourism industry. We proposed to convert the former military facilities into an economic zone with factories that will provide jobs for people. Today, the base is a thriving economic zone providing 68,000 jobs to Filipinos.
Unfortunately, thousands of children continue to be jailed around the country as the Philippine government fails to implement the country's juvenile justice and welfare law that provides for the building of homes for street children.
We cannot help them all. With the proposed lowering of the age of criminal liability for children, there will be many more like Rosi who will be needing our help.
Irish Father Shay Cullen, SSC, established the Preda Foundation in Olongapo City in 1974 to promote human rights and the rights of children, especially victims of sex abuse.
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