Graciela Ann Awkit, APMA 2020
Philippines

Since 2019, there was–again–a big push in the Philippine congress to lower the minimum age of criminal responsibility (MACR) in the country, from 15 to 9 years old. Yes, 9 years old. This has caused national outrage, especially among human rights defenders. As we monitored the developments, I completely lost confidence and trust in these legislators who were doing exactly the opposite thing of what they should be doing. Instead of giving hope and providing a better life for every child, they prioritized putting them behind bars.

I cannot emphasize enough how absurd this is. I will never be in favor of holding a child accountable for doing something he/she couldn’t even understand due to his/her environmental factors that impeded his/her maturity and development.

Don’t get me wrong, I also believe that crimes committed should be punishable by the law. But in the case of children, all I ask is a matter of prioritizing. I think that instead of the government rushing to push for the MACR Law, it must first consider more urgent reforms in providing basic needs—including education–for these children. Only if we dig deeper and assess the root causes can we understand why such  incidents happen. This kind of understanding is very much needed to be able to appreciate how important it is to exhaust alternatives for the best interest of a child.

I commute to work five days a week, and let me tell you, there was not a single day that I didn’t see a street child. I see some of them not wearing any clothes, some of them sniffing solvent to ease their hunger, and some of them even intimidating the people passing by to force them to give alms. As data shows, crimes by a nine-year-old child are committed by those we see on the streets, begging for food or worst, most of them are just being manipulated by a syndicate to commit crimes, such as stealing. Such exploitation won’t be eradicated if we continue to focus on blaming the child, who, in the first place, is only a victim here. While the real perpetrators continue to benefit by exploiting these vulnerable children, these children are the ones who bear the heavy penalty once they get caught.

If these children could only tell how hopeless they are to see other people able to afford their own food while they starve to death, how frustrated they feel when they are sick but couldn’t understand why can’t they have access to healthcare, or when it’s raining and they were left on the streets without shelter. What do we expect from them when they are hungry, sick, or being exploited? They are left with no choice but to resort to commit violations, especially when half of the day already passed and no one has given them alms. These underlying factors should be addressed first.

We were all children once. When I was a child, my parents were able to provide me all the basic necessities, like food, water, clothes, and shelter. My parents were also the first ones to teach me right from wrong, what we should and shouldn’t do. Stealing is wrong. Hurting someone is wrong. Being addicted to illegal drugs is wrong. They sent me to school to attain proper education that would help me to learn more and make educated decisions.

Now, just imagine a child who doesn’t have any of these comforts and proper guidance we take for granted. I understand that it is the responsibility of a parent but once the parents are not providing for their child, the government can—and should–provide support in order for a child to still live a dignified life.

Moreover, if these children will be put behind bars (well, I really hope not), the facilities here in the Philippines are very questionable. Even the adult jails here in the country are all overly populated per cell, with very poor environment. How can we assure that the government will provide a proper facility for children? Do we really have to put additional budget on creating more cells than helping them or sending them to school?

The MACR Law is so anti-poor that it targets the children in the poor community. We should refocus our lenses and be more compassionate to those who do not have access to food and shelter, especially these vulnerable children. We should be creating bills and reforms to help a child live decently so he/she can contribute to the society and so he/she can reach for their dreams and live his/her full potential.

*The contents of this opinion piece are solely those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the view of the either Global Campus of Human Rights Asia Pacific, the universities under it, or the APMA program.

Photo from New Mandala.

 

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