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Too many hungry children languish behind bars

Mentally and emotionally damaging experience turns innocent youngsters into criminals

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Too many hungry children languish behind bars

Many 'children in conflict with the law' in the Philippines are put behind bars with adults. (Photo courtesy of Preda Foundation)

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If you are ever in Manila and have the chance to visit a so-called "House of Hope" where children as young as 7 years old are incarcerated with adults, you will notice that most of the children look smaller than their age.

One in every three Filipino children go hungry and are malnourished. There are 3.4 million Filipino children who lack proper food and nutrition.

Take the case of Jeremy. He was rescued from a Manila jail, and we thought he was 8 years old but he was already about 12.

A 2015 study noted that 20 percent of children under 5 years old die due to poor health services. As many as 300,000 children under five were also found to be underweight for their age. The Philippines is ninth among nations that have high incidents of stunted children. 

The rate of chronic malnutrition and stunting among Filipino children is 33.4 percent. Poor children living in the streets, in the slums, and in rural villages suffer the most. If this continues, the country will have a big number of stunted, malnourished, and mentally challenged children.

Children in jails suffer the most. Government officials treat children in jails like criminals. These children are hungrier than most — hungry for food, for freedom, for respect, dignity and recognition. 

They are supposed to be in school and not forced to sleep on concrete floors and be locked up all day, and abused, and bullied. They have no exercise, no sunlight, no stimulation, no entertainment, no reading, no games, nothing to occupy them.

Imagine your life in a small cell for months with 20 others. These children can already be mentally and emotionally damaged. They are innocent going in, but with criminal minds when they come out. They will grow up angry at society, and without a basic education, they have no chance for a better life than becoming vagabonds and being viewed as criminals.

Many a criminal sit in our Congress, dressed in fancy clothes and living a life of luxury and corruption while at least 16 million Filipinos go hungry.

Our good legislators are overwhelmed and seem unable to change anything. When one good senator, Risa Hontiveros, was reading a column written by this writer about children in jails, she was stopped by another senator, Richard Gordon, who did not want the senators to hear the truth about the condition of children in jail.

He silenced and blocked the lady senator from speaking. Senator Gordon has been named in a criminal case of crimes against humanity before the International Criminal Court together with the president for the drug-related killings in the country.

Many Filipino Catholics support the killings. We ask if they are Christians, followers of Jesus of Nazareth. Every parish in the country, especially in the capital Manila, ought to have a mission in their local "House of Hope."

In the Gospels, Jesus made it one of the conditions by which we will be judged on the last day. Enter the Kingdom, he said, for "I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me."

Then the righteous will answer him, "Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?"

And he will answer them, "Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me." 

We need to find Jesus not only in churches, but in action for justice and compassion. If not, our spirit dies forever. Let's act to release children from jails of hopelessness and give them a new life.

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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