Filipino child rights activists hold a demonstration outside the Senate building in Manila on Feb. 4 to lobby against a bill to lower the age of criminal responsibility. (Photo by Jhun Dantes)
The Philippine Senate recently adjourned without a vote to lower the age at which children can be held liable for criminal acts from 15 to 12. That vote may come in the first week of June.
Before that, lawmakers in the Lower House of Congress, without serious reflection and without listening to expert opinions or having a meaningful debate, decided that 9-year-old children could be charged as criminals if they violate laws made for adults.
The country's congressmen did so without caring about the serious ramifications and consequences on the lives of thousands of children who make childish mistakes or who are manipulated by corrupt adults.
There was shock and outrage from the public, civil society and the international community. The legislators changed their minds and set criminal liability at 12 years of age. To soften the harsh and cruel decision, they called it the age of "social responsibility."
The blaming of children for crimes is done to cover up the failure of the government to rein in crime syndicates if they are using children to commit crimes. Instead of arresting the ringleaders, authorities arrest children whom they ridiculously blame for adult crimes.
Child psychologists say children aged 12 cannot have sufficient rational thought processes and clear knowledge of right and wrong to be held fully accountable for committing serious crimes.
Now the decision to make the change in the law lies with the Philippine Senate.
Children's rights defenders held a demonstration outside the Senate gates while members of the Preda Foundation went to the chambers of the five senators who were undecided. There, they presented to each office a folder of photographs and two large photos of small children held in jails.
These graphic photographs are hard evidence showing that for many years children younger than 10 years old have been held as criminals and prisoners inside jails insidiously called Bahay Pag-asa, or Houses of Hope.
The senators, or their staff, have never visited and do not know the abuse and pain the children suffer in overcrowded jail cells. They suffer 24 hours, seven days a week without exercise, social care, education, parents' visits or entertainment.
The senators are fooling themselves if they say these are beautiful places of reform and education. They naively believe that these places are lovely youth homes with reform, education, counseling, values formation and therapy programs. There are no such programs.
The children are incarcerated and abused. Some are jailed for breaking curfew, taking food in a market to survive, living on the streets afraid to go home to a brutal parent, or arrested for sniffing industrial glue to ease their pain.
They are accused frequently without evidence but declared guilty by an official and then locked up and confined in jail cells. They sleep on the concrete floor, sit there to eat expired food and endure the awful stink of urine and feces in blocked toilet holes.
Joshua, a 12-year-old, was a homeless boy afraid to go home to a strict father who beat him and relatives who cursed him when he made any little mistake. He found refuge on the streets with friends who gave him food. He sniffed glue to ease the loneliness and hurt of being rejected by his family.
He was arrested by village guards and was locked in a Bahay Pag-asa cell like a prisoner. The older inmates bullied him, tied him down and raped him several times. He was made a slave washing the clothes of the older boys. They threatened him if he complained.
He was given expired canned food and stale rice several times. He slept on the concrete floor. The cell stank from the blocked toilets. He was made to clean them. He was held for nine months.
Many other small boys suffered the same. They were forced to perform sex acts on the old bullies. If they refused, they were beaten and their food was taken from them, Joshua said. Then he was transferred to the Preda NGO Home for Boys where he was free and happy and he told his story of abuse and suffering.
Many children saved from the hellholes of the Bahay Pag-asa tell the same damaging experience of being a prisoner suffering abuse, rape, beatings and always being hungry.
The senators think these hellholes will reform children aged 12-15. They are gravely mistaken. These places dehumanize innocent children, convince them they are criminals and prepare them for a future of violence, anger and crime.
These are dungeons of death where noble senators risk condemning thousands of children in the days and years to come.
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.