MANILA – In anguish, one boy cried out: “’Yung tingin sa mga batang lansangan ay isang putik na kailangan walisin!”
(They see street children as dirt that need to be swept off!)
Social workers and police officers gathered for a forum that Friday fell silent, awed at the skinny teen’s tenacity.
The boy was with 24 other children and teens who have been seeking shelter in facilities of child-care group Bahay Tuluyan. They could never forget the horror during their dark days on the streets, feeling neglected, violated, and brutally treated as criminals.
In a forum held on April 12, they finally had a chance to confront people they had considered enemies.
Another teen, Fang (not his real name), suddenly became timid and petrified upon seeing a police officer during the dialogue, held to mark International Day for Street Children.
“Kasi nagkaroon ako ng phobia. Natatakot ako ’pag may nakikitang pulis,” he told ABS-CBN News at the sidelines of the event.
(Because I have a phobia. I feel afraid when I see police.)
Fang became a street child when he was 11, stealing food and sniffing rugby around Quiapo district in Manila. His father had died, while his mother abandoned him with his 2 siblings upon losing her job.
“Sobrang hirap po. Ang hirap maghanap ng makakain,” he recalled. Fang was straightforward and spontaneous.
(It was really hard. It was hard to find food.)
For six years, he was in and out of prison-like facilities for homeless children run by government in Manila and Marikina cities. The brutality of social workers and even other wards who were in trouble with the law was severe in that he always tried to escape, he said.
“May mga lider-lideran po doon, mga feeling siga. Nanggugulpi po sila lalo na po ’pag hinamon ka ng suntukan, ’pag hindi ka lumaban, pagtutulungan ka,” Fang related, referring to children in conflict with the law (CICL) who were held in the shelters.
(Some act like leaders, they feel superior. They would maul you more if you do not agree to a fist fight.)
He continued: “’Yung mga staff po, kinukurot kami sa dede po tapos sinasampal. Sabi nila, ‘Pasalamat kayo hindi namin kayo puwedeng saktan, ’pag puwede lang naming kayong saktan, matagal na namin kayong pinatay.’ Ginaganon po kami.”
(The staff would pinch us on our chest, then slap us. They would say ‘be thankful because we are not allowed to hurt you, otherwise we would have already killed you.’ They do that to us.)
But outside the walls of the child centers, the streets are an even more dangerous jungle where police are hunting down street children like him.
In 2016, inside a detention cell in Intramuros district, Fang said he suffered the worst torture he had ever experienced, one that has left his soul scarred to this day.
“Dating komang po ako. Pinag-tripan nila ang kamay ko, pinalo-palo ng walis tambo tapos sinindihan nila,” he said of the police brutality he allegedly experienced when he was arrested.
(My arm was crooked before. They made fun of my arm, they hit it with broom stick and set it on fire.)
Justin Nacambra, 18, had almost a similar experience. He was left to fend for himself after his mother was jailed over drug charges, while his father deserted him.
From being a garbage collector in Quezon City at age 10, he learned how to steal, at first little things such as slippers, and then moving to jewelry. Eventually, he robbed passenger jeepneys.
“Napakadilim po, parang wala akong pag-asa, na ganito na lang ako habang buhay,” Nacambra said. “Parang kalat lang po talaga kami sa lipunan.”
(It was really dark, it seemed there was no hope for me, that I would be like this forever. We were really like litter in society.)
He claimed he also experienced torture in the hands of the police, left nearly half dead.
Fearing for their lives, the two teens sought refuge in foundations that offer help for those like them.
They had witnessed how their friends died: Fang's 17-year-old friend committed suicide to escape unbearable circumstances, while Nacambra found his 16-year-old friend dumped lifeless on a street, wounded and beaten, hands tied with barbed wire after being nabbed by police.
Based on data from the Philippine National Police Directorate for Investigation and Detective Management-Women and Child Protection Center, police rescued 9,562 children at risk and children in conflict with the law (CICL) in 2018.
While these children are supposed to be moved to Bahay Pag-Asa (House of Hope), a state-run transformation center for CICL, the Commission on Human Rights recorded 409 of them held in detention cells from 2013 to 2018.
Nacambra had his own ordeal inside a jail cell.
“’Yung damit namin, kung ano ’yung ginagamit ng isa gagamitin namin, pati sabon,” he said.
(We shared clothes, even soap.)
A separate report from the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Council (JJWC), meanwhile, showed that there were 7,108 CICL in 2018, down by 29 percent from 2017.
According to JJWC, there are only 63 Bahay Pag-asa in the Philippines, 5 of which are still not operational.
“They lack the minimum staff requirement, they even lack food for children. Some of the Bahay Pag-asa we saw are worse than jail, they don’t have programs, they don’t have beds. The children there, they are just told to keep quiet the whole day and not do anything so some of them, they do self-harm because they’re very bored,” said JJWC Executive Director Tricia Oco.
Representatives from the Department of the Interior and Local Government, the Department of Social Welfare and Development and Philippine National Police present during the forum said they were aware of such abuses against children and that many of their erring colleagues were already held to account. They do not tolerate such acts, they all echoed.
The Philippines, a signatory to the widely ratified and accepted United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), has an obligation to protect civil, political, economic, social, health, and cultural rights of all children.
It also has an existing Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act of 2006 (Republic Act 9344). In its Declaration of State Policy, Congress discussed how the State recognizes “the right of every child alleged as, accused of, adjudged, or recognized as having infringed the penal law to be treated in a manner consistent with the promotion of the child’s sense of dignity and worth, taking into account the child’s age and desirability of promoting his/her reintegration.”
In 2017, the UNCRC passed General Comment No. 21 on Children in Street Situations. This landmark document explicitly recognized street children as rights-holders – the first such recognition at that level. It calls on governments to take a rights-based approach to improving the situation of children in street situations.
Despite all the legislations and documents, Bahay Tuluyan Executive Director Lily Flordelis said the Philippines is “still in a very difficult time for street-connected children” due to continuous child rights violations and abuses such as being stigmatized, labeled as criminals, subjected to supposed rescue operations and arbitrary arrest, among many others.
Based on the 2018 report of Save The Children, the Philippines fell to the 104th spot among 175 countries in the global ranking of best and worst countries for children to grow up.
Nacambra and Fang are now among Bahay Tuluyan’s volunteers who teach street children about their rights.
“Sana ’yung nangyari sa amin, sana huwag nang maranasan ng ibang bata. Sana maintindihan ng iba na kaya rin naming magbago kahit madilim ang aming nakaraan,” Nacambra said.
(I hope other children will not suffer what we went through. I wish others will understand that we can also change despite our dark past.)