We entered the so-called Bahay Pagasa, "House of Hope". It turned out to be a children's jail. We brought snacks and drinks to share with the young people in the cells. About 25 girls were crowded into one room. No air conditioning here, no fans either, so we brought some, but the rancid body smells pervaded the cells in the hot tropical heat.
There is a water shortage. One of the children that Preda Foundation rescued from the cells told us later that they were only allowed washing or showering twice a week. This is a very big hardship for Filipinos living in overcrowded cells who are normally fastidious about washing and showering and maintaining good personal hygiene. The steel bars of the gate and on the windows told us it was a jail cell. There was no escape. They were looked upon as youth offenders, seen and treated as criminals by the authorities.
The boys were taken out of their cells and brought into an open space to receive the snacks and drinks. The staff were ashamed that we would see the overcrowding of children behind bars, without beds, without furniture in cramped cells. The staff can do little to change the situation. That is the decision of the city councils and the mayors in the 17 cities of Metro Manila.
These places are lock-up internment blocks without much hope for the youth detained here. They are like animals in cages. The youth over 15 years of age are held on remand. In the boys' cell, I saw a very young child crying. I asked why he was in a cell with older youth. He was a small boy, about ten years old. He was detained like a criminal with 30 or so boys 16 to 18 years old. He was terrified what they could do to him. Few agencies or politicians challenge such violations of child rights. We at the Preda Foundation and other child rights' groups do and call for it to be changed.
The levels of aggression, frustration, anger and violence is high among the boys and girls in the confined space. There is no outlet. No basketball or exercise, little entertainment. What might happen to the small boy in the dark at night where sex abuse is common is horrific. Those small boys rescued from places like these tell us of rape, sexual abuse, bad food, punishment, bullying and beatings. I told the social worker the little boy should be removed there as it is a serious violation of children's rights. The staff seemed to think he would be okay. It was very frustrating.
The youth over 15 years of age have court cases, usually for some petty misdemeanor, like sniffing industrial glue from a plastic bag that damages their brains. Others are in for drug abuse. They are lucky to be still alive, it's better than being shot dead as a victim of the iron-fisted crackdown on drugs. But minors under 15 must not be charged with a crime and should not be detained in jail cells and never with older boys or girls. It's a violation of child rights that government, and all in society, are responsible for. They are supposedly committed to uphold and protect the children from such abusive conditions.
It is the direct result of corrupt government officials that rule for themselves and not for the welfare of the people. Super rich dynastic families and clans rule the nation. The laws they make favour their interests and businesses and those of their children. Besides their own, children for them are of little importance.
We rescued John-Jo, 14 years old from the youth detention centre. He told us he was arrested for curfew violation. There are no government homes for the small street children that live on the street and have no home where they can go. They sleep in doorways, under trees or in the back of parked jeepneys or buses.
They are the throwaway children, the unwanted and abused and rejected human flotsam of society. They run to the streets when they are beaten at home, rejected and scolded by their parents. There is little food, comfort, or love for them in their families. They seek a better life with other street children in similar circumstances. Then they are arrested to add to their hardship.
Before taking John-Jo to the Preda Foundation Home for Boys for a new happier life, we sought out his parents. We drove to a remote part of the city, walked along narrow alleys and found his father and elder brother living in a small box-sized shack with space for only two people to stand in. They were watching a small television. John-Jo's father asked why his boy had been arrested and then, after the Preda social worker explained we were taking him out of the jail to a better life where he could go to school, he understood and embraced his son.
By 15 May, the Philippine Senate will debate and vote on lowering the age of criminal responsibility from 15 years to 12 years. That will put many more children in detention centres where they will likely be beaten and abused. It criminalises children and will be a descent into ignorance and ignominy. We at Preda are lobbying against this move.
Shay Cullen is an Irish Columban missionary priest and founder of the Preda Foundation in Olangapo City in the Philippines.
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