Oct 16, 2011

Philippines - Wasted youth in the Philippines

MANILA - It's a cliche for politicians to talk about youth as the hope of a nation. In the Philippines, national leaders are instead planning a war on youth.

A series of startling crimes committed by children barely out of grade school has national legislators mulling legal changes that would make kids as young as nine years old criminally liable for their actions.

Calls to lower the age limit gained momentum following news footage featuring a series of armed robberies committed by minors who forcibly open the doors of taxis caught in traffic, rob the driver and passengers at gunpoint, and scamper away with the loot.

More recently, the nation was stunned by the case of a 12-year-old youth who shot his 16-year-old friend in the head inside a shopping mall before turning the gun on himself and taking his own life.

Senator Francis Escudero, the legislator leading the move to amend the law, has claimed that today's children mature more quickly than previous generations due to their exposure to the Internet and social media platforms. "The times have rendered the law impotent to address objective realities and needs," Escudero said.

Consistent with Western norms, Philippine law considers anyone under the age of 18 a minor and not criminally liable for their actions. Offenders between the ages of 15 and 17 are sent to child rehabilitation facilities, while those below the age of 15 are exempted altogether from prosecution.

In reality, however, rehabilitation programs are seldom carried out as most local governments do not have the capacity or funds to implement them. The criminal syndicates that increasingly resort to youth to ply their illicit trades have leveraged into that weak law enforcement.

Most of the minors involved in recent taxi robberies have been below 15 and are well aware that even if they are caught by police they will simply be remanded to the custody of social workers who will eventually release and send them home without charges. Many of the children caught, reports show, are repeat offenders. In one well-publicized case, a minor escaped severe punishment despite robbing, raping and almost killing a young mother.

Authorities have long complained that drug and car-jacking syndicates use minors, particularly street children, as couriers because they know the children are protected under the law and if caught will be released without punishment after a mandatory eight-hour detention. The syndicates are known to provide training to the children, both in how to commit crimes and how to deal with authorities if they are arrested.

Mean streets

Crime bosses draw from a huge mass of vulnerable youth. The London-based Amnesty International estimates that there are as many as 200,000 street children in the Philippines, one of the world's largest such populations. Between 50,000 to 70,000 are situated in Metro Manila, according to Action International Ministries, a missionary group that works with urban poor around the world.

While fertility rates have steadily fallen, from over 7% in 1960 to over 3.1% at present, many Philippine families lack the means to look after their children. Independent research has found that many of the street kids are runaways escaping from difficult family situations. According to the End Child Prostitution in Asian Tourism, a child-rights advocacy group, many of these youth work as pickpockets, scavengers and beggars to survive. Others end up in forced prostitution situations.

Their large vulnerable numbers are easy prey for Philippine criminal syndicates, particularly those involved in drugs and armed robbery. The government also claims vulnerable youth are forcibly conscripted by armed rebel groups, including the communist New People's Army (NPA), to bolster their otherwise dwindling numbers.

Both the International Committee of the Red Cross and The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) have published reports showing that the NPA has deployed "children in combat". UNICEF estimated that around 3% of the NPA's 9,000 or so fighters are minors, some as young as 10 years old. (Other rights groups, including the New York-based Human Rights Watch, have challenged government assessments of the extent of child recruitment among rebel groups.)

That has raised questions about whether moves afoot to lower the legal age for criminal liability will deal more with the symptom than the disease. Elnora Tobias, president of the Philippine Action for Youth Offenders, has argued that authorities should instead prioritize prosecuting the leaders of crime syndicates who use minors to commit criminal acts.

This is easier said than done, however. Many crime syndicates have top notch political connections and Philippine law enforcement is frequently cited as corrupt, poorly managed and under-resourced. Indeed, Philippine security forces have become an embarrassing national symbol of ineptitude in light of the bungled bus hostage crisis in Manila last year that resulted in the deaths of nearly a dozen Hong Kong tourists and a diplomatic clash with China. Fittingly, the hostage taker was a disgruntled police officer.

Congresswoman Jayne Lopez thinks a better solution to rising youth crime would be to implement stiffer penalties for parents or guardians of delinquent kids. In a bill she has proposed to congress, parents could be held liable for failing to provide proper education to their minor children and allowing them to loiter, play or wander unsupervised in public areas.

Tricia Oco, executive director of the juvenile justice and welfare council, believes that the only long-term solution is to reduce the country's endemic high poverty rate, where currently around one-third of the population can't afford even basic commodities and services.

She has proposed greater subsidies for housing, health care, education and other social services that would give the state a greater role in providing for the country's poor youth. The political momentum, however, is behind criminalizing youthful indiscretions and adding more pressure on the country's already dysfunctional criminal justice system.

Joel D Adriano

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