It’s back to the dark ages for the hysterical tabloid press in Metro Manila where the bellowing newscasters and commentators are condemning street children and children in conflict with the law as criminals. The most strident commentators call for the children to be charged and jailed and reduce the age of criminal liability to 12 years old or younger. They demand that the Juvenile Justice Welfare Act be changed.
This act, Republic Act 9344, is a landmark legislation of compassion that seeks to restore the deprived life of children in conflict with the law. It says that children younger than 15 have an alternative to harsh, cruel prison life where many of them have been raped, abused, beaten and starved in sub-human conditions. They can be helped, given a chance of an education and rehabilitation through meeting their basic human rights, nutritional needs and education. The one straight forward solution is to feed and educate the young and give jobs with a living wage to the older teenage youth.
Those who advocate the repeal of the law don’t know the reality. They are branding the street children as the tools of the criminal syndicates which the police are either too scared to oppose or are in cahoots with. Instead of exposing the criminal syndicates and their wealthy masterminds, the irresponsible commentators are setting up the street kids as targets for the death squads.
The death squads are busy killing hundreds of street youth and doing their bloody butchering work with a nods and winks from their political backers and incompetent police. Cebu and Davao cities are the most notorious for the extermination of street youth. Ten years ago, I called on the former Mayor of Davao City to defend human rights and stop the killings of street youth. Instead, he charged me with libel and had me hailed to court.
It was a proud moment indeed to be able to take a stand for the kids in court but what’s even more amazing was the crowd of street children that came to Davao City airport to surround me with their malnourished bodies to protect me from the assassins’ guns and escort me to a van away from danger. In the end, the Mayor was persuaded to drop the baseless charge. The death squads rule by fear, but the politicians call it democracy. If the majority of the people approve by their silence, then I suppose it is. It is the democracy of death and the death of democracy.
There will be no end to the thousands homeless urchins that challenge our conscience and religious beliefs until the root cause is dealt with. That is the corrupt system of government and the insurmountable inequality of society. There is the unbridgeable gap between the tiny group of luxurious living rich and the masses of struggling poor. It’s a society where 2% of the population own about 70% of the natural wealth and the millions of hungry slum dwelling people are barely surviving from day to day.
Poverty, mass unemployment and hunger drive the children from these slums on to the streets to a miserable life of hunger and hopelessness. They go begging, and cannot resist stealing when they are hungry and smell the delicious foods that waft out from the fast food restaurants. The hungry children are driven crazy with the desire for a decent meal. Most of the time they live on left over from the garbage cans. The government has no homes that cares for them and delivers their basic human rights. They are the abandoned and forgotten until they are forced to steal in order to eat. Then they are condemned to prison.
This is the fundamental failure of the Church, politicians, society and humanity – to remain indifferent to the hungry needy children and allow them to be condemned as criminals. We have to come to their defense and give them a life of dignity and decency.
Columban Fr. Shay Cullen lives and works in the Philippines.