The young cast of the Hollywood film ‘Bless the Beasts and Children’ in 1971.
Even before the coronavirus pandemic and the lockdown and quarantine restrictions that has forced numerous businesses to close and rendered thousands of workers jobless, we see children out on the streets begging and fighting over food thrown in garbage dumps.
These are the Philippines’ throwaway street children and as many as a quarter of a million of these youngsters are treated like trash by being discarded and abused in many cities and towns across the country.
With many parents with meager income and some even without livelihood, these children have simply been forced to live on city streets and slums to fend by themselves and learn the law of the jungle—that of survival of the fittest.
Joselito is one of the 250,000 or more homeless children in the Philippines who live on the alleyways, rubbish dumps and open markets. They have no secure home, love, care, security nor dignity.
Joselito was abandoned by his biological parents who had a broken relationship. Children like him are rejected and neglected and find their alternative home in a pushcart, enduring a life of day-to-day survival and self-support.
Joselito was given away as a child to a couple that agreed to informally adopt him. By the time he was 13, he was feeling increasingly unloved. He had no will to succeed. He failed in school, had no birth certificate and could hardly read or write.
He became for them a problem child yet he did not suffer any abuse or maltreatment with the adoptive family. In desperation, in 2020, his adoptive parents decided to return him to his biological father who had rejected him at birth and was living in Manila.
It was traumatic for Joselito to be rejected a second time and to be left with a man he never knew, one that did not care for him either. He was neglected, hungry and continually beaten and rejected by his father. When the hurt and pain of being kicked and beaten was unendurable, he ran away to live on his own.
These street children also have to escape being grabbed by pimps and human traffickers who would sell them to pedophiles who preyed on their vulnerability brought about by hunger and loneliness.
Globally, there are about 126 million such children in the world and many live on the streets of Metro Manila, linking up with other street children as they scavenged on the dumps. They beg for food and money from passersby or else do any odd jobs they could find, collecting scrap, junk plastic for recycling and buying and eating recooked leftover scraps of restaurant food called ‘pag-pag’.
These street children–young boys and girls aged 7 to 15–are vulnerable, without protection and unable to make complaints to authorities when they have been raped.
When human traffickers knock them out by giving them industrial solvents to sniff, they force them to perform sex with each other on live streaming sex shows to foreign customers over the internet.
Internet service providers, like PLDT/Smart, Globe and Dito and their Singapore-based investors and shareholders, have the moral and legal responsibility to obey the local anti-child pornography law and block such criminal abuse of children. Yet they fail to do so despite all the public appeals.
Street children like Joselito live in constant stress, anxiety and fear of capture and abuse. They develop mental health conditions that few people know or care about. They are the throwaway children, considered useless to society, being illiterate, diseased, malnourished and suspected of having criminal minds because they stole a banana or bread to survive the bitter pangs of hunger.
Some ask if the authorities can stop the evil of child sexual abuse in the country. They say the Church should act because of the government lack of empathy. Actually, the real criminals in this situation are corrupt authorities who abuse these children and ignore their plight as they live and die on the garbage dumps and in the sewers.
And the neighborhood informal police or barangay tanods see them as pests, thieves and potential criminals. They harass, arrest and jail them in youth detention centers to await trial.
Many, some as young as 10, are detained without charge and held behind bars on suspicion of breaking curfew hours–now being vigorously implemented in an attempt to curb the spread of Covid-19. This is when these kids run away from the sex abuse and beatings in their family homes and hide out in the markets and back alleys. That’s when they are offered food and shelter by human traffickers and pimps who hold them in another kind of captivity for sexual abuse.
How can they avoid being on the streets at night when they have no homes?
The authorities frequently arrest the children on trumped-up charges, such as curfew breaking or being couriers or delivery boys for drug pushers, and jail them in the Bahay Pag-asa, houses known as houses of hopelessness. Inside, they suffer beatings, sexual abuse and torture as documented by the Commission on Human Rights (CHR).
Joselito survived by his resilience and conviction that he was a good boy. Somehow, he made his way back to his adoptive parents and, after an emotional encounter, they accepted him for a while. But the relationship had been broken. They could not live together and Angelo went out to live and survive on his own again in the market, which is no easy life.
City authorities found Angelo and brought him to a Church-based home for orphans, where he was accepted and given welcome, affirmation, kindness and understanding in a family that has shared his hardship and rejection.
He is now studying, having therapy, learning practical skills in vocational training and enjoying freedom from fear, hunger and want. He does art, plays games and basketball. He has found a happy childhood with many others. Angelo’s adoptive parents have come to visit and family therapy is ongoing. A happier future is now possible.
In ending, we find there is truth in the song popularized by the Carpenters and sung by Karen—“blessed are the . . . children.”