Poverty and Family Abuse Force Davao’s Children to the Streets

Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism
Published: December 2002

Second of two parts

DAVAO CITY — In 2000 and 2001, Davao City was adjudged the country’s “Most Child-Friendly City” by the National Council for the Welfare of Children, a government body under the Office of the President.

This year, however, Davao failed to get the recognition because of what local officials here have dismissed as negative noises coming from child-rights groups.

The NGOs retort that they had found it ironic that a city that tolerates the killing of minors as part of a brutal campaign against crime would be considered “child-friendly” at all.

Moreover, says Mae Templa, a social worker who is also with Karapatan’s Task Force for Women and Children, public discussion of killings have also “glossed over the real story of the children, why they are in the streets in the first place.”

The Davao City Local Development Plan for Children (2003-2007) says that in 2000, Davao had 1,505 street children. This figure more than doubled the following year to 3,213. According to the child-rights group Tambayan, most of the city’s street children belong to gangs, of which there are now some 150.

These gangs have become the bane of the city, say the police, who blame such groups for the various crimes committed by juveniles. But the killings of juvenile offenders have not deterred more young people from engaging in crime. The city’s plan for children says that the number of minors in conflict with the law increased by 18 percent between 2000 and 2001.

The Women and Children Division of the Davao City Police also says that between January and September this year, 749 minors committed crimes, with theft topping the number of cases at 285. The police say the juvenile crimes constitute a majority of the crimes committed overall during that period.

Child-rights advocates like Templa, though, argue that in the case of these youths’ involvement in crime, they are as much the victims. “They are for example used as drug couriers and, in a way, the community is involved in that,” says Templa. She adds that oftentimes, violence is just the youth gang’s reaction to society’s neglect. “They are,” she says, “pushed to the periphery.”

Tambayan program officer Pilgrim Guasa agrees, saying, “Poverty pushed them to the streets, where they are vulnerable to criminal activities, like drug use. For sure, these children are not the ones running the drug business. For one thing, they don’t have the capital to do it. So they are in fact being used because they do not have options and the necessary skills to venture outside the streets.”

According to a study done in November 2000 jointly by Tambayan, Save the Children-UK, Caritas, the Stichting Kinderpostzegels Nederland and the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef), most gang members belong to urban-poor families, and 81 percent of them are out of school due to poverty.

The study showed that 90 percent of respondents who were minors in conflict with the law had experienced abuse at home. The children also said they joined gangs because this is where they find “happiness,” and their gangmates are more likely to listen to them and understand them.

“Joining gangs is a means of support,” confirms Templa. She explains that because the structures of mainstream society including youth groups like the Sangguniang Kabataan do not absorb these children, they form their own groups. Unfortunately, she says, in cities like Davao, they usually end up being called thugs and labeled as society’s problems. Says Templa: “They have become the scapegoat for the community’s troubles. That’s very unfortunate.”

Kabataan Consortium executive director Bernie Mondragon says these youths simply lack the opportunities in life. For example, he says, if they cannot find wholesome entertainment at home, they would naturally gravitate to the outside world.

“I tried my best to keep my children here, in this house,” says Clarita Alia, the 48-year-old mother of three teenage gang members who were casualties in Davao City’s war against crime. Nanay Clarita Alia lives in a tiny, cramped shack in the middle of Bankerohan, the largest public market here.

Since her husband Cornelio left the family in 1996, Nanay Clarita has been forced to work double time. For a fee, she hauls vegetables using a wooden cart she rents for P10 a day from the market’s tambakan to the stores that sell these. Her day often starts as early as 2 a.m.

Nanay Clarita had eight children, six by Cornelio, one by a previous lover and another one she adopted. Tending to the children in such a chaotic neighborhood proved to be a problem. And no matter what she did, the streets would beckon to the children. “I once bought a television set so they would not be tempted to go out to the streets,” she says. The tactic worked, but after money problems forced Nanay Clarita to pawn the TV, so the children went back to the streets.

Richard, the second of the Alia children, had been an excellent dancer. “He dreamed of someday being part of a dance group,” Nanay Clarita recalls. But dancing was not a good enough diversion for Richard to stay off the streets. He managed to finish Grade 4 and soon joined the aptly named Notorious Gang.

Richard had had numerous run-ins with the law. In 2000, he was accused of stabbing another minor; he spent two months in jail for that. The next year, he was shot and wounded allegedly by the nephew of a traffic aide. The shooting was apparently an act of vengeance by the nephew, who was earlier manhandled by Richard’s younger brother, Bobby. “Richard vowed to exact revenge against those who shot him,” Nanay Clarita says. But he never got around doing that and was killed on July 17, 2001.

Christopher was jailed in 1997 for rugby use, when he was barely 12 years old. He was sent twice to a rehabilitation center. The first time, in 2000, he escaped. Later, he ended up in jail and was released in July 2001. On October 20, 2001, Christopher became the second Alia boy to be knifed to death.

Bobby had also been jailed, but his charge was illegal possession of a deadly weapon. Like Christopher, he had been placed in the rehabilitation center, from which he escaped after three months. On November 3, 2002, Bobby, too, was stabbed dead.

After Richard’s death, Bobby had joined a gang called Emergency because he was afraid he would be targeted next. Each time they ran into trouble, the Alia brothers would not run to their mother for help. Instead, they would go to their gangmates. “If not these gangs, who would defend them?” asks Nanay Clarita. “They told me they could not be alone in the streets because they would be easy prey.”

“I wish we still had that TV set,” she says, crying. Yet one look at the family’s miserable shack dispels any notion that it would be a place teenagers would want to while their time away in, TV or no TV.

The sad truth is that, aside from the sorry physical state of the home, there were other factors why Nanay Clarita’s children found the streets far more appealing. Their parents’ relationship, for instance, was one of constant bitterness and rancor. Cornelio, a notorious slacker in Bankerohan, would berate Nanay Clarita in front of their children, calling her offensive names and accusing her of having affairs with other men. Cornelio would also physically abuse her and her children. One time, he even nearly strangled the then five-year-old Richard to death.

“My children would tell me that if their father went ahead with his ways, they themselves would kill him,” Nanay Clarita says. Their father finally left them, but by then it was already too late to wean them away from the streets and the gangs.

“I tried to make things easier for them, by making sure that they had breakfast before going to school, by buying them notebooks, by washing their uniforms in the middle of the night,” says Nanay Clarita. “Each time they flunked, I would re-enroll them but their teachers would tell me I shouldn’t do it any more because I was just wasting my money.”

Soon, even going to school ceased to become an option for the children. It was achievement enough that Richard made it to Grade 4. In comparison, Christopher and Bobby managed to finish only Grade 1.

It only took a while before the Alia boys became notorious in Bankerohan. “Ask any police officer in Bankerohan or the CSU (Civilian Security Unit) and they would say that my children are almost always the first suspects in any crime here,” Nanay Clarita herself says. Neighbors would also accuse the children of being thieves, sometimes physically abusing them.

Obviously, the Alias had not been beneficiaries of the efforts of Bankerohan’s Barangay Council for the Protection of Children (BCPC), which had been cited for “best practice” by the Unicef in 1999 and 2000.

According to Leon Dominador Fajardo, Unicef area focal officer for Davao City, the selection of Bankerohan’s BCPC for “best practice” had been “mainly an initiative of the city government.” He also explains that the selection was based on the city government’s implementation of education and feeding programs for Davao’s poor children.

Fajardo says that the Unicef is “definitely concerned” about the killing of minors and had informally expressed this concern to the city government and such agencies as the Commission on Human Rights. He adds, “We have urged the city government to squarely face this problem. Children in conflict with the law have rights. We should never lose hope on them.”

When asked if it is perhaps about time that something more than “expressing concern” was done about the situation, Fajardo replies, “We still believe that, as far as policies and programs for children are concerned, Davao City has made a lot of contributions that other cities are using as a model. It is still positive to engage with the city. It would be too hasty and too careless to condemn the (local) government for what is going on.”

In fairness, even child-rights advocates recognize that Davao had the first child welfare code in the country. It was largely because of this code, which focuses on child protection and the establishment of programs for children, that it was twice recognized as the “Most Child-Friendly City” by the national government.

But the code’s good intentions and aims seem to be lost on many local authorities, who continue to ignore the rights of children in trouble with the law, especially if these happen to be poor. In a study commissioned by Save the Children-UK, Karapatan’s Templa found that the city’s juvenile justice system is not responsive to the needs of young offenders. “Of the city’s 180 barangays,” observes Templa, “only one has a special procedure for handling children in conflict with the law.”

In focus group discussions, it also appeared that barangays in the city exert little effort, if at all, to protect these children. Many officials don’t even know there are laws relevant to children, she says.

This, she adds, “indicates very low appreciation of children’s rights. They especially don’t appreciate the rights of children in poverty circumstances.”

“To the rest of the world, these children do not exist,” she says. This makes them vulnerable to abuse, both by police and criminals.”

In fact, Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte insists it is “not true” that minors have been among the victims of extra-judicial killings. “The problem is that I and the NGOs operate on a different paradigm. They are concerned about human rights. I am concerned about crime. And life is never fair. We are not in a perfect world.”

“I don’t buy what the NGOs are saying, that we should address first, for example, poverty,” he said in a recent interview. “If we go into that, into a social study of poverty, we will all be killed. What happens to society if we individualize the situation and in the meantime crime goes unabated?”

Guasa, for her part, says such conditioning by the city’s leaders of the public’s perception of the problem just makes matters worse. These days, Guasa says even some of the mothers of the dead teenagers say their children had their gruesome ends coming. Nanay Clarita may still be grieving for her murdered sons, but Guasa says, “I can never forget one mother who told me that at least she no longer has a problem because her child is dead.”

About Carlos H. Conde

Researcher at Human Rights Watch (@condeHRW @hrw_ph). Former journalist (NYT, IHT, among others).
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