If ever you were in Metro Manila and went to visit a Bahay Pag-asa, that is a “House of Hope” where children as young as seven to 15 are incarcerated behind bars and mixed with youth up to 17 years of age, you will see that the majority of 12 year-old children look like eight years old. This is because one in every three Filipino children go hungry and are malnourished. They are stunted in growth due to lack of nourishing protein and vitamin-complete food. There are 3.4 million Filipino children that are stunted. Take the case of Jeremy. He was rescued from a Metro Manila jail and we thought he was eight years old but in fact he was about 12 years of age.
A study in 2015 discovered that 20 percent of kids under 5 years old die due to poor health services and as many as 300,000 children under five years old are found to be underweight for their age. The Philippines is ninth place in nations that have high incidents of stunted children. The rate of chronic malnutrition and stunting among Filipino children is 33.4 percent. Poor children on the street, living in the slums and in poor rural villages, suffer the most.
If this continues and poverty remains unchanged, the Philippines will have a huge percentage of children that are stunted, malnourished and mentally challenged, unable to study and learn.
The children in the jails suffer the most from hunger and neglect. Because that is what these places are- kids behind steel bars of cells. Local governments manage the jails for children and the officials think they are criminals. They are hungrier than most, hungry for food, for freedom, for respect, dignity and recognition that they are human and need to be cared for. They need to be in school and not forced to sleep on a concrete floor and be locked up all day and night and be abused and bullied. They have no exercise, sunlight, stimulation, and entertainment, reading, games or anything to occupy them.
Imagine your life in a small cell for months with twenty others bored and going slowly insane. These children can be mentally and emotionally damaged. They are innocent going in but will be of a criminal mind coming out and will grow up angry at society and without a basic education, they have no chance for a better life than on the streets as scavengers and beggars. They are told they are criminals by being locked in cells.
They need their parents but the parents do not always know they are jailed. Many more as young as nine years old will be locked up if the Philippine Congress and Senate pass a bill that reduces the minimum age of criminality liability to nine years old. That’s how the adult world of leaders see innocent children- as criminals at nine years old. In fact, many a criminal sits in Congress dressed in fancy clothes and living a life of extreme luxury, corrupt and uncaring. Sixteen million people said they go hungry in this wealthy nation where they say 140 families rule the 103 million Filipinos.
The good congress people are overwhelmed and cannot change anything. When one good senator Risa Hontiveros from the Akbayan Party was reading a column written by this writer about the children in jails, she was stopped by Senator Richard Gordon who did not want the senators to hear the truth about the condition of the children in jail. He silenced and blocked the good senator from speaking. Her right to free speech violated. Senator Gordon has been named in a criminal case of crimes against humanity before the International Criminal Court together with the President for the 8000 killings so far in the war on drugs. So many Catholics support the killings. We ask if are they Christians, followers of Jesus of Nazareth? Some churches in Pampanga are hanging banners calling for a stop to the killing and the death penalty.
The authorities love to blame innocent children for the crimes of the adults. No evidence needed. The police are frequently involved in crimes themselves so they blame and arrest children. They claim they have solved the crime and get a promotion perhaps.
Every parish in the country and especially in Metro Manila ought to have a mission to their local Bahay Pag-asa or House of Hope. He made it one of the conditions by which we will be judged on the last day of our lives. (Matthew 25: 31-46) Enter the Kingdom, he said, for “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.' Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?' And he will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
We need to find Jesus not only in Churches but in action for justice and compassion. If not, our spirit dies forever. Let’s act to release the children from the jails of hopelessness and give them a new life.