VERONICA “Kitty” Duterte, the youngest of the President’s four children, was just 12 years old when she was with her father on the campaign trail. If you remember, she was there for many of his rallies and campaign sorties. She would gently call time on the garrulous candidate’s meandering speeches, or get him to turn around and wave at the crowds behind him. In those febrile months of presidential campaigning, her presence was a tremendous boon to Team Du30. It is no exaggeration to say that she helped him clinch victory. Because of Kitty, Duterte got to flash his doting dad credentials. She made him look fatherly in all the right ways—protective, indulgent, affectionate, kindly. That was the Kitty effect. The father-daughter relationship on show was, well, you know, cute, touching, and intimate. Millions and millions of sentimental middle-class voters’ hearts melted. What a political masterstroke. Kitty made it easier for so many to imagine Duterte as a benevolent father not just to his own brood, but also to the nation’s children.
Other, lesser politicians, compelled by their PR people to publicly show that they have a soft, caring side, however minuscule, make a tortuous exhibition of themselves by holding babies, squatting with toddlers, and chatting, often through clenched teeth, with schoolchildren. Such staged encounters are hugely risky and frequently end in disastrous photo-ops. Duterte didn’t need to do any of that. He had Kitty. She was the dependable foil to her father’s tough guy image. He could swear his head off, admit to murder, promise bloodshed, joke about rape, tout outrageous promises, and still, somehow, come off as authentic, sincere, and tender-hearted. Kitty would calmly walk up on stage, push her way through the wall of handlers and hangers-on and, without hesitation, totally unafraid and utterly confident, interrupt her dad, firmly tugging on his arm to whisper her message into his ear. The swearing and boorishness would momentarily be put on hold. The audience, straining to hear, was drawn to her poise, assurance, and sweetly charming innocence. She made everyone emote en masse. “Anak,” Duterte would respond with a tender rasp, “sandali lang, ha.” The audience drooled. The script really couldn’t get much better than that. Kitty was political gold.
It was during those mawkish moments when I think voters’ critical faculties were the least engaged. Duterte made no specific promises to deal with the abject poverty that so many families endure in far too many of the country’s slums. There were no calls to end child labor, cut the numbers of malnourished and stunted children, ensure inclusive access to quality education, promote child health and well-being, provide universal health care coverage, and safe and affordable medicines and vaccines. Few even took Duterte to task for not addressing these basic concerns. Were we all so mesmerized by Kitty that we assumed Duterte would care about helping poor children?
One would also have thought that middle- and upper-class voters, who are skilled at emulating Western standards of living, would exert serious pressure on their chosen presidential candidate to do a few things that would make everyday life more agreeable for children. But where was the push for more green spaces and children’s outdoor play areas that are free, safe, and accessible to all? Where was the insistence for more municipal lending libraries, free museums, and sports facilities for children? Where was the demand for safer roads and drastic reductions in pollution levels that would save young and developing respiratory systems? Where was the clamor to increase the funding for public children’s hospitals and clinics?
Nowhere. The upper classes don’t need to make these demands on politicians because they can provide such facilities privately for their offspring and so are content to remain complacent. Those less well-off, and suffering everyday purgatory, are forced to put their own adult concerns first. Middle-class folks, doing the best they can under the circumstances, go to the mall with their kids and thank heaven they could manage to do that.
Last Christmas, the President was photographed doing the rounds in a children’s cancer ward. He fist-bumped afflicted toddlers; distributed gifts and made small talk with anxious parents at the bedsides of their sick children. Domestic scenes of how the President spent Noche Buena, modestly at home and in tsinelas, with family, friends, and a handful of children, were circulated on Facebook. These images now have a hollow ring to them. After scores of children have been killed in the war on drugs, their deaths trivialized as “collateral damage,” Duterte’s projection of paternal kindliness is looking altogether feigned.
This is especially so given how Congress, through which Duterte ventriloquizes, is currently bidding to lower the age of criminal responsibility from 15 years old to 9 years old. While a few industrialized nations have imposed a low age—the UK for example, stands at 10 years old—it is wrong in the Philippine context. The country lacks a strong, juvenile court system that guarantees young offenders are treated differently from adults and youths. It lacks the proper facilities and policies that take a humane approach toward juvenile offenders, emphasize rehabilitation, and protect them from abuse. Those who end up being incarcerated will overwhelmingly come from poor backgrounds. If passed, the bill will needlessly wreck the lives of countless children and cast their futures into the dark abyss.
Initiatives to improve the quality of life for all children must be spearheaded by an enlightened and compassionate government. Duterte has five and a half more years to go of his presidential term. There is still time for him to show he truly cares about all Filipino children and not just those who come from privileged families like his little girl.