Professor Simbulan is the Executive Director, of the Philippine Human Rights Information Center (PhilRights). This article was published in the Opinion Section, Yellow Pad Column of BusinessWorld, January 2, 2006 edition, page S1/5.
The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC, 1989) declares that children, defined as individuals 17 years and younger, have human rights which every State is obligated to protect, respect and fulfill. These include the rights to life, to be protected from abuse and neglect, to health, education, rest and play, and the right not to join an armed group and take part in war.
In this regard, we have to pay serous attention to the children’s involvement in armed conflict (CIAC), for this has resulted in the serious violation of children’s rights. The phenomenon of CIAC has been discussed in the latest publication of the Philippine Human Rights Information Center (PhilRights) entitled Deadly Playgrounds: The Phenomenon of Child Soldiers in the Philippines (2005). The study has not only affirmed the existence of child soldiers in the country but has likewise shown how neglectful the State has been in promoting children’s rights, consequently making them vulnerable to recruitment by armed groups like the New People’s Army (NPA), Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), Civilian Armed Force Geographical Units (CAFGUs) and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).
A typical Filipino child soldier is male, one who voluntarily joined the armed group, state or non-state, between the ages 13 and 17, belongs to a big, poor and agriculturally-dependent family, and usually assigned combat functions (while girls are commonly assigned support or auxiliary functions). A total of 194 respondents, 89 percent of whom were affiliated with non-state armed groups, were interviewed in the study.
A confluence of interrelated factors has made children decide to participate in armed conflict as an option for survival. These include poverty and government neglect of rural communities as exemplified by the dismal state in the delivery of social services; experiences of abuse and injustice in the hands of government officials and powerful private entities; family affiliation/membership in armed groups; and belief in the armed group’s ideology and political cause, which is pronounced among children belonging to the MILF.
A disturbing feature of the child soldiers’ phenomenon in the country is the fact that children join armed groups, especially the non-state ones, in the absence of coercion and torture. No one of the 194 respondents, 73.5 percent of whom were 18 years and older at the time of the interview (2003- 2004), said they were abducted, recruited at gunpoint, threatened or harassed. For most of the study participants, the lack of a better option and the desire to survive have made them decide to join and embrace child soldiering as their life.
Contrary to the dominant societal perception of children as vulnerable, passive and weak, children’s involvement in armed groups reflects their strength and resiliency in the midst of harsh and cruel conditions. Children have the capability to make decisions which they believe are good for them and to determine what they want to be. Notwithstanding these positive traits, the children’s constant exposure to risks and the stressful conditions due to their involvement in armed conflict have serious, and perhaps life-long, consequences on their physical, intellectual and psychological development.
Physical separation from the family; the highly mobile and unstable living conditions; familiarity and ease in the handling and use of high-powered firearms; disruption of formal education; constant exposure to violence, hunger, heat, cold and disease; and the risks of arrest, torture and death, are consequences which make the lives of child soldiers highly abnormal and difficult. The heavy and premature burdens they are made to shoulder in the name of survival have forced them to abandon the rights to play and recreation, to education, and to be cared for by their parents. Battlefields have become their deadly playgrounds; and armalites, carbines and M79 grenade launchers have become their toys and constant companions.
Ironically, children, have become both victims of and players in, armed conflicts not of their own making. When asked what aspects of their lives would they want to change, close to one-third or 31.4 percent of respondents in the PhilRights’ study answered they want to have ”normal lives than be involved with an armed group” while 27.4 percent essentially wanted changes in the context of their present status as members of armed groups or did not want any change at all. Among the desired changes were expansion of the support extended to their armed group, victory for the political cause of the armed group, and promotion in rank within the armed group.
The Philippine government has responded to the problem of child soldiers and in compliance with its obligations as a State Party to the CRC with the formulation of laws, policies and programs aimed at protecting and promoting children’s rights. Among these are Republic Act 7610 or the Special Protection of Children Against Child Abuse, Exploitation and Discrimination Act of 1992, Executive Order 56 on the Adoption of the Comprehensive Program Framework for Children in Armed Conflict, and the Inter-Agency Memorandum of Agreement in the Handling and Treatment of Children Involved in Armed Conflict.
Much more is needed to address the issue of child soldiers in society. Greater political will and more resources are required of the State towards resolving the root causes of armed conflicts and convincing child soldiers to return to mainstream society. Putting in place sustainable livelihood projects, raising the people’s productivity and purchasing power, providing the necessary support mechanisms, and adequately providing the essential services are some of the important measures that the PhilRights’ study has recommended.
Meanwhile, non-state armed groups like the NPA and MILF, have the responsibility to protect Filipino children and to promote their best interests by stopping the recruitment of children into their ranks and their participation in the armed conflict. Pronouncements that they adhere to International Humanitarian Law as embodied in the four 1949 Geneva Conventions and its two Protocols would be best demonstrated in practice.
The persistence of poverty, discrimination and social injustice breeds violence and conflict. And a society that is characterized by violence and conflict serves as a fertile ground for children’s involvement in armed conflict. As the primary duty-holder, much is expected from the State in addressing the root causes of various forms of human rights violations in society. Only then can Philippine society be transformed from a deadly playground into a safe and healthy environment for children to play, rest, grow and develop as human beings.