For the Philippines’ estimated 250,000 street children life can be tough. It’s set to be even tougher under the country’s new ‘punisher’ president Rodrigo Duterte, with the risk of greater sanctions and arrests, less rights, and even the threat of extrajudicial killing.
Following his victory in the Philippines presidential election, Rodrigo Duterte has made public statements that offer a glimpse of what the country might look like under his administration. The future looks particularly tough-on-crime.
The new president’s plans include stronger sanctions against criminals, endorsement for vigilante killings, curfews for minors, and trying parents whose kids are caught on the streets. Warming up to the last two ideas, police across the country have already started to catch minors and homeless families on the streets.
Despite their violent and extrajudicial nature, such policies are no surprise to those who have observed the rise of Duterte. The former mayor of Davao has maintained the same platform in that city for more than 20 years. Human rights groups have accused him of being the mastermind behind the rampant extrajudicial killings in Davao, carried out by a so-called “death squad”. The victims range from alleged drug pushers and kidnappers to thieves and robbers.
In a report by Human Rights Watch, street children are also listed among the victims. The Philippines’s Human Rights Commission estimated that 19 out of 206 persons killed between 2005 and 2009 were children. But Duterte’s seven consecutive re-elections as mayor is a sign that voters welcome this hardline approach.
While Duterte’s plans sound like the worst-case scenario for street children, they reflect a continuation of the status quo. Even before Duterte, street children were portrayed negatively within policy debate, which saw them as villains instead of victims.
Two discourses dominate policies on street children in the Philippines — child protection and public order. Both are contradictory in their principles but have led to similar drives for action. Laws about children in the Philippines shows the tendency to depict street children either as vulnerable children who merit the state’s protection or as a group of children who are a threat to society simply by being on the streets.
Two pieces of legislation articulate these discourses. In Chapter I of the Juvenile Justice Act of 2006, street children are categorised as “children at risk” – or children who are likely to commit a crime. The Act identifies nine characteristics of children at risk which include: being a street child, being abused, being neglected, coming from a dysfunctional family, being out of school, and living in a crime-ridden community. These are all typical depictions of street children.
However, in Section 58, the Act exempts street children from criminal charges of vagrancy, begging, and sniffing of the cheap and popular drug ‘rugby,’ since such prosecutions are inconsistent with the Convention on the Right of the Child (CRC).
The second piece of legislation is the 1992 Republic Act No. 7610, covering the special protection of children against abuse, exploitation and discrimination. Under this Act living on the streets without parents or being coerced to beg are considered to be intolerable abuses. The main concern here is that the regulatory framework makes the presence of children on the streets more complex either because streets are harmful to them, or because they represent a risk to public space. Both views emphasise violence and protection from it.
Both views also come to the same conclusion: children should not be on the street. It is no wonder that the Department of Social and Welfare Development (DSWD) implemented a program dubbed as “Sagip Kalinga”, which means “to save and to care.” The objectives are to prevent the increase of street dwellers, including street children, and to protect them from the hazards of street life. However, activists have consistently criticised the program.
Rescued street children face more dangerous conditions in camps that are characterised by abuses and maltreatment. The case of Frederico, a child whose photograph in a near-skeletal condition went viral and triggered the temporary closure of a camp, highlights this.
But even so, the public mood continues to be increasingly antagonistic towards street children. One only need to look at the DSWD’s Twitter account, which encourages Netizens to give information on street children’s whereabouts so the department can rescue them.
Although some citizens framed their reports as a plea for these children to be saved, the majority were couched in punitive language, depicting them as nuisances, unsightly, or a threat to orderly streets. Even the expansion of a conditional cash transfer program, Pantawid Pamilya, to street children and their families is still rooted in a view that children’s presence on and relation with the street is fundamentally wrong.
The collusion between calls for public order and protection of children has erased other voices for children rights, especially children’s own participation in this debate. The Philippines is the first country in Southeast Asia to recognise child participation, mandated in the Child and Youth Code of 1974 that predates the CRC. It also has one of the most established mechanisms for child participation in public policy.
However, participation is only accessible for children who meet certain indicators; their input is controlled by the state and dominated by particular political voices. Street children described as “criminals in the making” are inherently unable to meet these indicators and thus remain vulnerable to punitive policies.
With Duterte’s leadership just commencing, the odds are not with street children. His tough law-and-order plans, a rising public sentiment against street children, and the previous amalgamation of child protection and public order discourses will worsen the lives of street children. It appears that there is even a reduced appetite for rhetoric calling for the paternalistic protection of children.
Jailing parents has the potential to harm street children even further. Duterte’s endorsement of extrajudicial killings of suspected criminals has resulted in casualties among street children. Further, the curfew for minors is a step away from recognising children’s rights to public space. None of these policies and rhetoric offers street children’s voices a platform.
Such policies are a clear sign of a government that is failing to provide safe spaces and streets for its young citizens whose aspirations, documented under the Child Friendly City Program, ironically include the ability to roam the streets without fear.
Clara Siagian is a Researcher at the Center on Child Protection (PUSKAPA), Universitas Indonesia.