A Manila slum. Photo: Wikipedia

I spent almost 15 years of my life in Pasig, a city in Metro Manila. My uncle’s family lived there. Every summer I visited them to take care of my young cousins. When I was a student, we got our own place in the same city. Before I reached home, I would pass by Mutya ng Pasig Public Market. I would walk about four minutes to reach the tricycle station that ferried passengers to different villages in Pasig.

I was used to the chaos of the market. It was open 24 hours a day.

Like the rest of the poverty-ridden places in the Philippines, Pasig has its share of batang hamog, or “children of the dew.” Many of these children are from dysfunctional families living in the slum areas in the vicinity of the city. Often, their families are so huge that they are forced to find ways to survive. We noticed them only when they encountered us directly – begging, snatching our bags, or selling us something. Then they disappeared. Like the dew. There but not there.

In Pasig, many of them begged. There were also children selling plastic bags, errand boys and girls and, of course, pickpockets. They were driven away by security guards whenever they stood near the entrances to Jollibee fast-food outlets.

I particularly remember a neighbor’s child in Afable Street. He practically grew up naked. Actually, they were not really neighbors. The family just made a home out of a cranny in between office buildings.

Recently in the Philippines, House Speaker Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has been pushing for the passage of House Bill No 505, which seeks to amend Republic Act No 10630. The bill seeks to lower the age of criminal responsibility from 15 years old to nine years old.

On Monday, the House Committee on Justice approved the bill.

Republic Act 10630 is the amendment of the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act of 2006, known as the “Pangilinan Law,” after Senator Francis Pangilinan, its main author. According to the Integrated Bar of the Philippines – Makati:

“The Act maintained the exemption from criminal liability of children aged fifteen (15) years old. However, a child who is above 12 years of age up to 15 years of age and who commits parricide, murder, infanticide, kidnapping and serious illegal detention where the victim is killed or raped, robbery, with homicide or rape, destructive arson, rape, or carnapping where the driver or occupant is killed or raped or offenses under Republic Act No 9165 (Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002) punishable by more than 12 years of imprisonment, shall be deemed a neglected child under Presidential Decree No 603, as amended, and the child shall be mandatorily placed in a special facility within the youth care faculty or Bahay Pag-asa called Intensive Juvenile Intervention and Support Center.

“Moreover, repeat offenders, or children who have committed crimes more than three times, would also be considered as neglected children and, as such, must undergo intervention programs supervised by the local social welfare and development officers.”

But the maximum penalty will be given to a person or group that exploits children to commit the criminal offenses.

In 1989, the Philippines signed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. As such, the country committed itself to “undertake all appropriate measures to ensure that the child is protected against all forms of discrimination or punishment on the basis of the status, activities, expressed opinions, or beliefs of the child’s parents, legal guardians, or family members.” Further, the Philippines must uphold the principle that “actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration,” according to the Convention.

The plan to lower the criminal age to nine years made me think of those kids in Pasig who were left to fend for themselves. Yes, I am aware that kids are used by criminals. Their innocence and of course their small size are advantageous. They can easily slip into windows. And when they get caught, their age is an excuse not to prosecute them.

The argument that kids are used by criminals is nonsense. I wonder how these representatives and senators obtain data on the crime rate. There are no data claiming that the crimes committed by minors are increasing.

But are they mature enough to understand the gravity of the crimes they commit? How about the adults who used them? And the government that is supposed to protect their rights and to provide them opportunities?

The kids are doubly exploited and abused, and in the end, they have to pay for the crimes that someone asked them to do.

The Philippine government is used to Band-Aid solutions. It wants to marginalize poor children in the guise of the “law” instead of providing them education, a livelihood for their parents, and providing a just society for all of us. It has become a war on the poor again. Instead of tokhang (drug-related killings carried out by vigilante groups or the police) the police can round up people in the slums and jail kids who can be accused of all kinds of crimes.

Our public officials continuously rape and plunder us Filipinos, but we seldom punish them. Instead we continue to vote for them. They are the Estradas, Enriles, Revillas, Marcoses, and Arroyos who were all accused of different crimes while still in office but remained free. Some of them are now vying for electoral positions again.

When I last visited the Philippines in 2016, the family living in the cranny on Afable Street was still there. And there was a naked little boy again happily making the busy street his playground. My sister told me that there were not many batang hamog. Maybe some of them got tokhanged, or had grown up and become hardened criminals.

Meanwhile, we want to protect ourselves from our own children.

Eunice Barbara C Novio is a Thailand-based freelance journalist. Her articles have appeared on Asian Correspondent, America Media, and The Nation. She is also a contributor to the Bangkok Post and Thai Enquirer and a stringer to Inquirer.net's US Bureau. She won a Plaridel Award from the Philippine American Press Club.

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