Playing with children’s rights
It is assumed that no parent in their right mind will, in any way, commit an act that will harm their children. The same goes for President Duterte, who is even dubbed by his avid followers as “Tatay Digong.”
Yet as 2019 swept in, that parental assumption suddenly disappeared. The President and his head honcho in the House of Representatives, Speaker Gloria Arroyo, appear bent on bartering away children’s rights in hopes of scoring good optics. The game: Pass a bill that would amend the current provisions of Republic Act No. 9344 or the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act of 2006 (JJWA) to lower the minimum age of criminal responsibility (MACR) from the current 15 to 9 years old. The prize: Prolong the illusion of the incessant drug war’s effectivity.
Experts and child rights groups are united in their opposition to this move, as it can invariably result in having more children sentenced for petty crimes and placed either in jam-packed jails or dilapidated rehabilitation centers. Still, despite these objections, Mr. Duterte’s stalwarts are persistently following the script, even adding a little action.
The scene: a drug buy-bust operation in Navotas City on Jan. 16, where agents of the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) nabbed 16 people suspected of selling drugs and “rescued” 12 minors aged 4 to 15 years old. The PDEA then paraded the children in front of the media.
The next day, Jan. 17, House committee on justice chair and Oriental Mindoro Rep. Doy Leachon announced that his committee would finalize the bill amending the JJWA. Arroyo herself declared that she was in favor of the bill.
The brazen power play did not go unnoticed, as it faced massive opposition even from international institutions. The United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund described the sinister move best: It is “wrong from every angle.” Children in conflict with the law are victims of circumstance, and proper rehabilitation, not criminalization, is needed, said the experts. Lowering the MACR will also do nothing to stop drug syndicates from using children as drug runners, as these syndicates will simply tap younger kids to continue evading the law. Worse, given how Oplan Tokhang’s infamous “nanlaban” excuse works, the bill can even legitimize the killing of minors.
Attention is now on the Department of Social Welfare and Development and how the agency will stand on the matter, as it is set to play a vital role in the proposed amendments.
Expectedly, the bill hurdled through the House justice committee with ease. The committee passed it on Jan. 21, in less than an hour, voting 9-1. The day after, Leachon introduced the consolidated version at the House plenary for second reading. With the Senate also fast-tracking its version of the bill, the Duterte administration is confident that the measure will be passed into law before the 17th Congress adjourns.
Whoever wrote this narrative has a penchant for drama, as it appears to be ending in Malacañang, with PDEA announcing that Mr. Duterte will invite the children supposedly involved in the Navotas City operation any time soon. That occasion will surely give Malacañang the convenient moment to cash in on the good optics it has long sought after on this issue.
What Mr. Duterte doesn’t realize is that gambling the rights and welfare of children to score political gain is the bellwether of a desperate, failing presidency. As his administration flounders, the President has been called many names: tyrant, dictator, chauvinist. If this law is passed, we can add another moniker to that list: child abuser.
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Marjohara Tucay is an independent public governance analyst and a children’s rights advocate.
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