If you were in Metro Manila and went to visit a Bahay Pag-asa or “House of Hope” where children as young as seven are incarcerated along with youth up to 17 years of age, you will see that the majority of 12-year-olds look like 8-year-olds.
This is because one in three Filipino children is malnourished and stunted. There are 3.4 million stunted Filipino children. Take the case of Jeremy. He was rescued from a Metro Manila jail and we thought he was eight years old but in fact he was about 12 years of age.
A study in 2015 discovered that 20 percent of children under 5 years old died due to poor health services and as many as 300,000 children under five years old were underweight. The Philippines ranks ninth among nations that have high stunted incidence. The rate of chronic malnutrition and stunting among Filipino children is 33.4 percent. Street children and those living in slums and in poor rural villages suffer the most.
If this continues, the Philippines will have a huge percentage of children that are stunted, malnourished and mentally challenged, unable to study and learn.
Children in jails suffer the most from hunger and neglect. Local governments manage the jails for children but officials think they are criminals. Children are hungrier than most — hungry for food, for freedom, for respect, dignity and recognition. They are human and need to be cared for. They need to be in school and not forced to sleep on a concrete floor, locked up all day and night and abused and bullied. They have no exercise, sunlight, stimulation, and entertainment, reading, games or anything to occupy them.
Imagine living in a small cell for months with 20 others, bored and going slowly insane. These children can be mentally and emotionally damaged. They were innocent going in but they will have a criminal mind coming out and will grow up angry at society. Without basic education, they have no chance for a better life, thus will likely end up as scavengers and beggars.
They need their parents but the parents do not always know that they are jailed. Many more children as young as nine years old will be locked up if the Philippine congress passes a bill that will reduce the minimum age of criminal liability to nine years old. That’s how the adult world of leaders see innocent children – as criminals at nine years old. In fact, many a criminal sits in congress dressed in fancy clothes and living a life of extreme luxury, corrupt and uncaring. Sixteen million people said they go hungry in this wealthy nation where they say 140 families rule the 103 million Filipinos.
When Sen. Risa Hontiveros from the Akbayan party-list was reading the column of this writer about children in jails, she was stopped by Senator Richard Gordon who did not want the senators to hear the truth about the condition of the children in jail. He silenced and blocked Hontiveros, violating her right to free speech. Senator Gordon was one of the respondents in the criminal case filed against President Rodrigo Duterte at the International Criminal Court for the killing of thousands of people in the government’s war on drugs. So many Catholics support the killings. Are they Christians, followers of Jesus of Nazareth? Some churches in Pampanga are hanging banners calling for a stop to the killings and opposing the death penalty.
The authorities love to blame innocent children for the crime of the adults. No evidence needed. The police are frequently involved in crimes themselves so they blame and arrest children. They claim they have solved the crime and get a promotion perhaps.
Every parish in the country and especially in Metro Manila ought to have a mission to their local Bahay Pag-asa or House of Hope. On the last day, we will be judged by the acts of charity we did in our lives. God will say “Enter the Kingdom, for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me (Matthew 25: 31-46).”
We need to find Jesus not only in churches but in action for justice and compassion. If not, our spirit dies forever. Let’s act to release the children from the jails of hopelessness and give them a new life.