Child rights advocates demonstrate outside the House of Representatives in Manila on Jan. 22 to protest against a move to lower the minimum age of criminal responsibility in the Philippines from 15 to 12. (Photo by Jire Carreon)
The Philippine Lower House is proposing to pass a law lowering the minimum age of criminal responsibility from 15 years to 12.
The legislators originally wanted to reduce it to nine years but a public outcry put paid to that idea.
Still, it is not right to impute criminal liability on a 12-year-old. What knowledge and discernment do uneducated, impoverished hungry street children of that age have?
The current Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act would be a good law if it were ever properly implemented. But it hasn’t been. Out of more than 100 urbanized cities and provinces that were supposed to build care homes for children, only 40 have attempted to do so.
Unfortunately, many of these supposed children's homes called Bahay Pag-asa, or House of Hope, are in reality jails for children where they languish hungry, underfed and abused.
They are cruel detention centers where children are mostly treated as criminals, held for weeks and months behind steel bars. Practically no activities, exercise, entertainment or education are provided in most of these places.
Many children in these centers suffer bullying and sexual and physical abuse by older detainees. If the minimum age of criminal liability is lowered to nine or 12, more abused children will be added to these numbers.
This we know because our work at the Preda Foundation for the past 45 years has been to rescue children and give them a happy home in an open center without guards, gates or fences.
We give children the freedom of choice to decide to stay and get educated, and 95 percent choose to stay. They are not criminals in the power of criminal syndicates as legislators assert.
It should be mandatory for every local government unit to build a real home for children under the direction of the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Council and to fund its operations every year.
The reality is that child detention centers in the Philippines have small cells where dozens of teenagers and small children are crammed inside. Usually there is a stinky toilet clogged with waste. The children sleep on the concrete floor.
Local governments must not put children behind bars. Children put in these horrid cells should not be allowed to testify before Congress, God forbid lawmakers might hear the truth. They have never visited a child detention center and know nothing about human suffering.
It is not true, as legislators have asserted, that children are provided with medical care and education by local governments. It is the opposite: children are treated as criminals.
Millions of pesos have supposedly been provided to implement the current law to care for children, but much of the money has gone unused or has been misspent.
Local government officials do not seem interested in building a nice, clean, well-managed home for abandoned children at risk, or in dire circumstances, or in conflict with the law. Politicians consider these children as vermin, pests, undeserving poor and throwaway creatures.
"They have criminal minds," said one official.
If a nation’s reputation as a morally upright, dignified one is judged by the way it treats its poor and its neglected children, then the Philippines will get a very low score, if any at all.
National pride is absent when it comes to the plight of the Philippines’ neglected street children. National dignity is also sullied and is often nowhere to be found.
Child detention in the Philippines is a horrific, unjust, undeserved punishment that is detrimental and destructive of the child.
According to the Philippine National Police, out of all recorded crimes, only 2 percent are committed by minors.
Of the offenses committed by minors, only 2 percent of crimes are committed by children under nine years of age, while children aged nine to 11 years are responsible for 7 percent.
Those from 12 to 15 years of age are responsible for 43 percent, whereas those between 15 to 18 are responsible for 48 percent of alleged wrongdoings committed by minors.
One of the biggest crimes is these children watching politicians get away with crimes of plunder while they struggle to survive one scant meal a day.
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.