Hundreds of children were among the thousands of tribal people who fled their homes in the hinterlands of Mindanao during military operations against communist rebels in 2018. (Photo by Mark Saludes)
The Philippines has a new law that aims to protect children caught in armed conflict, but a 17-year old tribal girl from Mindanao doubts it will keep her from harm.
Those who are supposed to uphold the laws are among the worst offenders when it comes to breaking them, she said, citing her own experiences.
Last year, Jenny (not her real name) and several other children from the southern province of Davao del Norte sought refuge in Manila after they were labeled "rebel sympathizers."
Jenny's home in the town of Talaingod has become a battleground between communist guerrillas and government troops in recent years.
Local villagers have sought shelter in churches in nearby provinces and even in Manila because of the presence of soldiers in their communities.
"The only law that exists in remote places like ours in Mindanao is martial law," Jenny told ucanews.com.
President Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law across the southern Philippines following the terrorist attack on Marawi City in 2017. It has since been extended on several occasions.
However, since its declaration, tribal people have reported a sharp increase in incidents of harassment, intimidation and displacement of people, including children.
On Jan. 21, about 500 tribal people, including 96 schoolchildren fled to safety due to military operations against communist rebels.
"Who is going to protect tribal people, especially our children, if the reason for our suffering is the government?" said Imelda Belandres, chairwoman of the tribal group Mapasu.
It was not the first time that tribal people have fled their homes in recent years.
In July 2017, at least 1,600 people from different communities in Surigao province fled due to conflict.
They stayed away for more than a month and affected at least 400 children.
"We understand that the military has a job to do, but civilians must be left unharmed," said Father Raymond Montero-Ambray of Tandag Diocese.
The priest said shows of "military might" within civilian communities "endangers the lives of residents and traumatizes children."
He cited a 2015 incident when members of a government-backed militia killed two tribal leaders and a school director in front of residents, including children.
The killings resulted in an exodus of about 3,500 tribal people who sought shelter in an evacuation center for a year.
"Some of the consequences on the children who witnessed the killings were extreme," said the priest, adding that some of them now suffer anxiety attacks and depression.
Frances Bondoc of the Children’s Rehabilitation Center said some children still need to undergo psychosocial treatment even though the incident happened several years ago.
"The effect on the children is lingering," she said.
"What they witnessed could cause irreparable damage, especially if they continue to be victims of armed conflict."
Bondoc called on the government to ensure "proper application" of the new law called the "Special Protection of Children in Situations of Armed Conflict Act."
The new law seeks to safeguard children from all forms of abuse or violence during an armed conflict.
It has strict provisions that mandates government agencies to "prosecute persons or groups" violating the rights of the children in times of war.
It also includes provisions that prohibit the killing, torture, rape, intentional maiming, abduction, recruitment of children into government forces or other armed groups, fortifying communities (hamletting), implementing food blockades, arbitrary detention, and denial of humanitarian access.
Father Ambray said the law is a "welcome development ... but it would be better if we seek long-lasting peace that would allow our children to live a life free from fear and threats."
He said peace efforts between the government and communist rebels should continue to address the root cause of the armed conflict.
Jenny, meanwhile, has temporary protection within the walls of a religious institution in Manila. She expressed hope that someday children in her village will "need no walls to live in peace."