The story behind the photograph of Rosi

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FR. SHAY CULLEN, SSC

ROSI was a six-year-old child detained at the jail of Police Station B on Magsaysay Drive in Olongapo City some years ago. More minors like her will be jailed if the minimum age of criminal liability will be lowered to nine or 12 years old.

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The evening I found Rosi, I had gone to downtown Olongapo City. It was Holy Week and the city was teeming with sex tourists. Many street children were as usual running about begging money from the foreign sex tourists and US servicemen from the nearby US Naval Base.

The city had one source of employment and that was entertainment for sex tourists. Hundreds of sex bars lined the streets and they operated with a mayor’s permit. Thousands of young girls, many underage, were victims of human trafficking and bound to the sex bars by debt bondage. HIV-AIDS was spreading.

The children were vulnerable, as pedophiles would prowl the streets and try and lure them away and abuse them. In 1983, I uncovered a child sex ring where dozens of street children were raped and sexually abused and infected with venereal disease. A US serviceman was charged as one of the many abusers. He was brought to trial in Guam. It was sensational news but he got only a light sentence.

The Preda Foundation established a home for these street children, staffed with professional social workers, to protect and care for them. Today there are 40 children in the care of the Preda Home for Girls recovering from sexual abuse. In the Home for Boys, another 30 children are protected and safe.

That evening, I had gone to visit Police Station B on Magsaysay Drive, Olongapo City, to look into the many children who were jailed there begging for food. It is part of the work of the Preda Foundation to get them out and take them to a safe home. They needed protection, therapy, support, and a new start in life.

I walked to the desk at Police Station B and greeted the police officer on duty. I asked if there were any children who had been detained. He said yes. I went to the cells and heard a child crying. Inside one of the cells I was shocked to see a little six-year-old child holding a soft drink can and crying her heart out. She was crying, “Mama, I want my Mama. Mama, come for me.” It was a heartbreaking sight.

I found about eight other street children, aged six to 12, in that filthy cell. Most were sleeping on the dirty stone floor. A few feet away in the opposite cell was a half-naked man, so close that he could almost touch the children. Rosi was terrified of him.

I was shocked when I saw the children and Rosi crying. Tears streamed down her face. She was treated like a criminal, kept behind the iron bars of that terrible, smelly cell. I felt very angry at this and immediately took out my camera and photographed Rosi as evidence of the crime being committed against the children.

I immediately went to the police desk and told the police on duty they must release the children to the social workers immediately as the children were being traumatized and treated as criminals. I said detaining them in a jail cell was a violation of children’s rights. They seemed surprised as if they did not know that.

I advised them to call the child care center to be ready to receive the children. Then after almost an hour, a police pick-up with a wire cage in the back arrived, and the children were released and placed in the cage. I saw to it that they were brought safely to the child care center where they were given food and shelter.

Later, I found out that Julia, the mother of Rosi, was a very poor peanut vendor. She always had the child with her while she plied the streets to sell peanuts. A corrupt local government official called a “tanod,” or village watchman, forcibly collected a fee from the vendors to be allowed to sell informally on the streets. When Julia was unable to pay the fee, as she never earned enough, the “tanod” arrested her child Rosi and locked her up in the jail cell until Julia could come up with the money to pay for her release. It was an extortion racket that the poor vendors suffered.

When Julia came looking to get Rosi out, having borrowed money to pay the fee, she was told that Rosi was at the child care center. So, that is the story behind the photograph of Rosi holding the red soft drink can.

We were and are still campaigning to stop the jailing of minors as it is illegal. But the police and the city authorities act as if they were above the law. Looking for abandoned street children to be able to release them and bring them to a safe haven was my goal that night.

Some years ago, the Preda Foundation formed a coalition with supporters throughout the Philippines to campaign to end the sex tourist industry and remove the US Naval base. The conversion plan idea that we promoted was to convert the huge facilities into an economic zone with hi-tech factories to give jobs and work with dignity to the people of Olongapo City. After 10 years, the anti-base campaign was a huge success with political action that removed the US military facilities in the Philippines. Today, the huge former base is now a thriving economic zone providing 68,000 dignified jobs.

Today, thousands of children are thrown into detention cells as local governments do not obey the juvenile justice and welfare law. They are mandated by RA 9344 to build homes for the children and provide care for them.

The Preda Foundation has provided safe and beautiful homes for many of these children. But we cannot help them all. There will be many more jailed children like Rosi until the local government units do their duty and respect the law and the rights of the child.

shaycullen@gmail.com
www.preda.org

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