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Our children, our future

/ 05:20 AM January 25, 2019

There must be something wrong when children whom the state doesn’t consider old enough to make proper choices of their own are, nonetheless, considered old enough to be convicted as criminals. Young Filipinos cannot be legally employed until they are 15, can’t have a driver’s license until they’re 17, and can’t vote until they are 18 years old. And yet they can be convicted as criminals at age 9? That’s what our so-called representatives in the Lower House have just approved.

As father to five and grandfather also to five (with another two coming in the next few weeks), I cannot imagine having someone as young as my 9-year-old granddaughter being convicted as a criminal. Critics and oppositors to the approved bill lowering the age of criminal liability to 9 years old rightfully assert that children who are involved in crimes should be treated as victims, not as criminals. Even the badly written bill—poor grammar and all—implicitly admits this when it states in its explanatory note that young minors involved in crimes are prey to unscrupulous and ruthless criminal syndicates. Its author then illogically declares that he “believes in the restorative system of justice, thus, lowering the age of criminal responsibility.” Does he even understand what restorative justice means?

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Article II, Section 13 of the Constitution states that “The State recognizes the vital role of the youth in nation-building and shall promote and protect their physical, moral, spiritual, intellectual, and social well-being.” Republic Act No. 9344 had set the minimum age for criminal liability at 15 years, and was signed into law, as then President, by the same House Speaker who has now presided over the approval of the bill reducing it to 9. That law declares it state policy to “protect the best interests of the child through measures that will ensure the observance of international standards of child protection.” It also provides for the participation of children in program and policy formulation and implementation related to juvenile justice and welfare. Was there even such participation in the process of crafting this new policy?

I, like most of us I’m sure, have a soft spot for children, perhaps because my wife and I have had many in our family. I have long maintained that children, apart from being the direct successor generation to today’s present grown-ups, are the most powerful agents of change in our society. Not only would they directly embody any change they embrace today, and shape society’s future as they take over from the previous generation. They also have an important role for the present. I have witnessed how children could be the best entry points into the hearts and minds of adults around them, especially in their families, and thus can best change attitudes and mindsets among adults.

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My wife and I directly saw this at work firsthand as we spent part of our weekends, back when our own children were small, gathering children around in poor communities in Los Baños and reading them children’s books, especially those inculcating good values. What gratified us about working directly with poor, young children then was how we witnessed the impact we were making not only on the children themselves, but also on their parents. Some of these parents were to later tell us that their children would come home full of eager stories about what they had just read with us. A mother told the touching story of how her child treated the book we gave as a Christmas present like a treasure, carefully wrapping it up in a piece of cloth at night before going to bed. A number of those parents saw their children begin asking difficult questions about negative behaviors they were seeing in their family and community. They later admitted to us having been impelled to change themselves.

Much as we grown-ups care for our offspring, we cannot presume to think and speak for them well enough, and there’s nothing like hearing the young express their sentiments from their own minds and mouths. How I wish our legislators listened to some of them speak out. We must listen to the children and youth, as we plan our future.

It is, after all, their future.

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TAGS: age of criminal liability, children, Constitution, criminal, Lower House
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