A few weeks ago, I visited yet again several child detention centers and police holding cells around Metro Manila with the Preda Foundation social workers. We found two small girls, 13 and 14 years of age behind bars looking out tearfully; and next to their cell was an adult male prisoner reaching through the steel bars beside them. They were terrified. The cell of the children had no beds, curtains, toilet, just a bucket in the corner and no privacy. It was terrible.
One had been charged with stealing food, the other for kidnapping a child. An adult told her to bring a baby to another place. She was arrested. Immediately we began legal action to have them released to the Preda Girl’s Home.
In another child detention center on the other side of Metro Manila, we found three small girls, from 6 to 12 years of age, locked in a room with male teenage boys. The place was bare and empty: no beds, chairs, showers, just a single toilet in the corner. It was a depressingly empty detention room.
Preda began negotiations with the Center Head to have the girls taken out of that detention holding room. It was no easy task. They were oblivious of the danger of sexual molestation to the small children. The Mayor received US$58,500,00 from the national government’s Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) to build a home for the children but as yet, only another room in the same building is being renovated.
In other jails, we found many more young minors behind bars without proper recreation, education, exercise, food, sanitation and legal assistance. This is the secret shame of the Philippines, hidden away from the media and the public. Hundreds if not thousands of children suffer the humiliation and deprivation of sub-human jail conditions every year. More must be done to change the system that locks up children without care and education and respect for their human and child rights. It is similar in many developing countries.
Philippine government, NGOs, churches, and international aid agencies and charities are giving too little funds and advocacy to challenge and stop the gross violation of children’s rights in the jails around the Philippines where thousands of children suffer time behind bars in dehumanizing conditions not fit for animals.
It is much the same in other developing countries and much more has to be done by Unicef and the World Health Organization to pressure governments to change and transform the whole system of recovery and stop jailing children.
I can write from experience on this because of the success of the Preda social workers getting the children out of jails and transferring the custody to their parents and relatives or to the Preda Home for Boys in Castillejos, Zambales and to the Preda Home for Girls. As many as 138 teenage youth were transferred to Preda coming from jails in Metro Manila in 2012 alone. Several small girls were rescued and helped to recover and find a new home safe from the abusers.
The boys or girls are released by court order and transferred to the Preda centers. This takes much time and expense. The more preferable way to release the child is before charges are filed against them by the recommendation of the municipal social worker using the diversion provision in the law. They are released from the fetid life threatening conditions of prisons and given a new start in life.
The Preda Home for Boys and Home for Girls are far from each other, but they are in a place of natural beauty, open countryside, where they can recover in dignity, where they are respected and cared for. Their faith in themselves and their self-worth is restored. Their trust in adults is healed.
The reason why there are so many children treated like criminals and jailed with them is because the public and the authorities have a very wrong attitude and perception of children in conflict with the law (CICL). The public have been misled by sensationalized tabloid media and the baseless statements of the police.
I have challenged police generals at a Senate hearing to go after the gang leaders of criminal gangs that abuse and force children to commit crimes. It’s so easy to arrest a child but are the police scared to go against the real criminals? Surely not, they are brave and courageous, they’re not into thinking that the street children are all thieves, robbers and even murderers or members of adult crime syndicates and deserve punishment and life behind bars. A nation is judged civilized, developed and moral not by the number of malls it has but by the way it treats children and women. We have a long journey ahead.
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Fr. Shay Cullen is President/CEO of Preda Foundation, Inc., a Philippine human rights social development organization working for 34 years through fair trade practices to help the poorest andmost vulnerable people in society and overcome injustice and poverty. There are 88 professional Filipino staff implementing the 12 projects of Preda (see www.preda.org).