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The perfect crime: How the state robs our youth through oppression and exploitative child labor

Words by Giancarlo Morrondoz

Children are the epitome of innocence, individuals who need extra protection compared to other sectors in society. They are supposed to be the first to leave a sinking ship. Stories and movies always show the selfless adult saving the poor and helpless child. But in reality, however, that’s not the case. Exploitation and violence against children remains rampant, despite widespread clamor for its eradication. For the month of June, we solidify our commitment to end aggression against children and child labor. 

Spanning from June 4 to 12, these are days where we raise awareness about the abuses and injustices inflicted on children; these are the days that we remind ourselves of the responsibilities we have towards one of the most vulnerable groups in our society.

In the Philippines, two out of every three children have stories of physical and psychological violence at home and school. One in four experience sexual violence. 

Filipino children are heavily exposed to violence throughout their developmental years. Physical violence, psychological abuse, and peer violence are common. The Philippines is one of the top ten producers of sexual content using children. This ranking is something we’ve sustained for the past ten years, even increasing as time goes on due to the prevalence of the Internet for live streaming.

No child’s play

On May 23, 2021, the Kapuso Mo, Jessica Soho show aired a special episode about Reymark Mariano, a farmer at the young age of ten. Discussions about his tenacity and dedication gave way to political squabblings as the topic went viral across social media. 

While some were outraged with Reymark’s plight, norms have accustomed us to applaud him for his tenacity as well as paint his parents as irresponsible adults. The situations of these children should not be used as an example of “filial piety” and hard work. These things should not happen at all. We should view headlines like “10-anyos na bata, nag-aararo para magkaroon ng pangtustos sa pamilya” not as a feel-good story about upward mobility, or how ‘good things come to those who persevere’, but for what it really is. The gross maltreatment of the working class resorting to child labor, and a state apathetic enough to permit these social injustices to pervade.

Reymark is only one out of three million children in the Philippines. Some are working in gold mines, others are working in sweatshops assembling fireworks, or sewing clothes, but the majority are like Reymark, working in the agricultural sector. One common denominator of these jobs is that they’re all high-risk with high chances of debilitating injuries. 

The fashion accessory industry in the Philippines is an industry that commonly employs girls below the allowed working age. Due to the perception of safety in this industry compared to pyrotechnics and agriculture, the fashion accessory and clothing industry has stayed under the radar. Children from the age of 12-16 are usually tasked in making bead bracelets, woven necklaces, and anklets. Manufacturers are usually found in impoverished, underdeveloped, and underemployed areas. Child laborers are preferred by these manufacturers because of the perception that children are more creative with their works, while adults would only do it for money. Children are also more susceptible to economic exploitation as they are often brushed off or ignored whenever they’re demanding for better wages. Families of the children are usually complicit in this, usually due to lack of assistance from the government, like many other families depending on the informal economy.

At the turn of the year, the Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking (IACAT) released information about their activities for the past year. In one of their operations, a baby that was only twenty-five days old was rescued from sexual exploitation. Imagine, a child treated like a sexual object the moment it leaves the womb, to be traded like any other commodity in our markets. (Read: The Filipino mothers selling their children for online sexual abuse

The reality is that of the three million kids forced to work, majority of them are sex workers. The demand for child abuse materials has heightened, especially during the pandemic. Data shows that foreign demand is one of the main drivers of this market.

But how did countries halfway across the globe become the Philippines’ biggest clientele for child sexual abuse materials? The ease of transaction is a factor, as most Filipinos are fluent in English. The ease of sending remittances to the Philippines also helps disguise transactions.

Poverty is the primary reason why these transactions exist. The pandemic has caused millions of citizens to struggle financially. Online sexual exploitation of children thrives on predators stuck at home and an abundance of people destitute enough to depend on the commodification of their children. 

The existence of this trade is a mark of an incompetent government and a history of imperialism in our country that we seem eager to encourage. Just like how the government allows foreigners to extract our natural resources, or abuse our workers, it permits industries like these to prosper. The government is keen on resuscitating the economy through other means, leaving our countrymen starving to death during the pandemic.

These children should be at school studying. Due to the current mode of education, many children are unable to go to school and are left idle. Not every family could afford gadgets and resources needed for remote and online learning. Not only does this situation leave children more vulnerable to child labor, but it also causes stress and frustration among students. Suicide rates have increased during the pandemic. The current situation leaves many students unable to comply and suicide rates continue to increase. Online learning has only served to compound the stress from the pandemic. It is an unfair educational system that only alienates children from accessing quality education.

The laws that bind but do not protect

Laws protect the liberties and the rights of citizens. Policies to ensure and safeguard the rights of vulnerable groups like children are especially important. Without proper mandates, children are rendered helpless before the law.

The Revised Penal Code from 1930 until 1997 classified the crime of rape under crimes of chastity. Even after the Anti-Rape Law of 1997, children above twelve were still considered to be able to give sexual consent. For more than 91 years, the Constitution states that the minimum age to be able to give sexual consent is twelve. The difficulty of filing a plausible case for rape combined with a low minimum age of consent promotes sexual abuse of children. The need for a court proceeding for sexual violence against children aged twelve above made justice unattainable for people who could not afford legal counsel. 

Instead of protecting vulnerable children from sexual violence, the law safeguards offenders. The forgiveness clause releases offenders from all criminal liability if they marry their victims. What would happen if the perpetrator was married to their victim? Are they considered free from liability? The cruelty of this clause is immeasurable, but it has existed on paper for a long time. The effects of this clause will stay for a long time even after it’s been repealed. These reasons along with the taboo associated with rape have led to a culture of silence from victims of abuse and harassment.

Albeit laws exist, its validity lies in the rigorous implementation and execution of our governmental entities. Antithetical to the government’s responsibilities, the Congress, back in 2019, held extensive talks about lowering the age of criminal liability from the already low age of fifteen to twelve years old. A proposal to lower the age of liability only further exposes young children to hardened criminals. Prisons are already lax with the separation of juvenile delinquents from adult criminals. This move, to lower the age of liability, also has no legal basis. There is no data that shows that children are responsible for the increasing crime rates. Lowering the age of liability does not prevent adults from taking advantage of children, it further penalizes them for something beyond their control. Just like how children are forced to work against their will, child criminals are also victims of circumstance.

Corporal punishment is one of the most common violations of children’s rights. It is also something deeply ingrained in our culture. Beating and punishments that damage a child’s health are measures commonly used by families across the country. Despite existing laws that ban the use of corporal punishment for children, it is still present in many homes. Because many of these parents are simply “repeating” what their parents taught them. 

This culture of violent punishment is a relic of the past, yet we can’t seem to let it go. Children are perceived to be underdeveloped, in need of lessons, sometimes, through physical violence. However, two wrongs do not make a right. Corporal punishment does not teach children the “lesson” they were supposed to learn, they only fear the belt and the slipper. “Coming out” stories of many Filipino LGBTQ+ members are met with punishment. Despite their child’s personal decisions, many parents still view it as a “disease.” Something that they can beat or drown out of their child just like when they misbehaved. The belief that seniority and superiority go hand in hand is widespread in the Philippines. However, age is not equivalent to wisdom, and age doesn’t give you the right to belittle and repress.

A law was passed to ban corporal punishment throughout schools and homes. This was a comprehensive law that aimed to penalize and ultimately eliminate the use of corporal punishment. The President vetoed this bill, who with his penchant for violence against the helpless, stated that he “did not agree to a sweeping condemnation of corporal punishment”.

The children of the Duterte administration

Violence and bloodshed is what Duterte promised in his bid for presidency back in 2016. This is one of the few things he’s achieved in his six-year term. Streets have been bloodied by his war on drugs as well as the crackdown on the opposition, and children are no exception. 

Last February, state forces raided the University of San Carlos, arresting teachers and Lumad students. The National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) then proceeded to paint the school as a training ground of the Communist Party. Many Lumad students have already been harassed, tortured, and killed by the state. Despite already being displaced from their homes, they continue to face discrimination. The victims of Duterte’s ill-conceived crusades do not end here.

Who can forget seventeen-year-old Kian Delos Santos? He could have been a college sophomore had the state not deprived him of his future. Instead, he’s a casualty, murdered in cold blood by the police. The police were even shameless enough to plant evidence to incriminate him.  (Read: Sack the police: Abusing the boundaries of law enforcement

Who can forget the death of Skyler Abatayo? A four-year-old child, barely able to go to the toilet without his parents. Killed by a stray bullet during a police operation. How about five-year-old Danice Mae Garcia? Gunned down while preparing to go to school because her  grandfather was part of Duterte’s watch list.

This isn’t a case of collateral damage, or as Senator Bato would put it “shit happens.” The children killed during Duterte’s campaign on illegal drugs numbered at least 122. This number can’t be brushed off as mere ‘collateral damage.’ These are all victims of Duterte’s war against drugs.

These numbers are a fraction of the real number of children killed during the Duterte administration. Murderous policemen, scarred families, and a long list of deceased, innocent children. This is the real legacy of the Duterte regime.

Assisting children during the pandemic

The Bureau of Workers with Special Concerns (BWSC) director vowed last 2019 to free a million child workers from labor. Last February, the director vowed to free 600,000 child workers. The pandemic is expected to increase the instances of child labor across the Philippines due to declining remittances, migration, and a rise in an informal economy due to lockdown regulations.

Marked gains have been made to decrease the number of child laborers across the country. This is due in no short part to many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working to eradicate child labor and help facilitate rehabilitation for those affected. Organizations such as Childhope Philippines have been in operation since 1989.

Another recent victory is the impending passage of a bill to raise the minimum age of statutory rape. This was approved by the House in late December last year. After twenty long years, the bill will finally address the numerous legal loopholes found in the Revised Penal Code, such as those that allow child marriage.

All of these victories are due to a lot of people. It stems from representatives, activists, and advocates of the abolishment of child labor. But there’s a reason why every battle is hard-fought. Because for every NGO that aims to rehabilitate children, there still exists child prostitution rings that treat these minorities as “goods.” 

Free, quality, and accessible education must be provided by the government to address ever growing gaps and disparities in socio-economic status. 

We must continue to demand for accountability because this is the fault of no one but the government. No parent should have to decide whether or not they should send pictures of their three-year-old child just to survive.

What Reymark Mariano and millions of children have in common is that they are all victims of poverty, robbed of their youth; a perfect crime where the state and the ruling class are in connivance, the guiltiest parties of all. [P]

Design by Dayniele Loren

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