“Paano na lang kami?”
Protecting children from violence via direct access to the law needs one key element: the voice of children themselves
“I’m always afraid, we kept moving homes because of clan wars. Whenever large vehicles come by, I fear it would be another armed attack,” says Aisah, 16. “Paano na lang kami? (What about us?),” Rashid, 10, asks if they will always be the ‘victims’. As the eldest to three younger sisters, he feels especially helpless during conflict and disasters.*[i] [ii]
Rashid and Aisah are among the young delegates to the consultations with parents, local government, teachers, and social workers on setting up a Children’s Ombud in the BARMM[iii].
Most of them, children and adults alike, fear the flares of violence in their community, abduction, forced conscription to armed conflict, and feudal killings. At the consultations, young participants’ childhood memories juggle between these fears; having to work in farms instead of being in school; and, like Rashid, wondering if the law does protect them or if they are simply left to fend for themselves.
One child too many already
The children’s fears are valid. In his report [iv] last year, the UN Secretary-General himself cited 115 cases of grave child rights violations, with 83% of cases verified in Mindanao. These cases included children conscripted into armed conflict, killed, or maimed. One girl was forced by terrorists into marriage; a boy was abducted by the Armed Forces.
While this year’s UN report on the situation of children in armed conflict saw a decrease in verified cases in the region, four of them are sustaining [cases] from previous years: that means four boys and girls are still experiencing abuse in the hands of armed groups. In addition, the report includes the sexual assault of a girl and abduction of another, by an auxiliary unit of the state Armed Forces; while one child was denied humanitarian access by a non-state armed group.
These are all just numbers and are only the reported and verified cases; but many remain unnoticed. More children – with a name and a face – are silently experiencing multiple forms of abuse and violence.
A UNICEF-commissioned review of Child Protection Assessment, Justice for Children, and Social Service Workforce also found weak policies on child protection in BARMM; no action plan to respond to and prevent violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation; and no strategy to strengthen the child protection system. While there are relevant ministries tackling children’s concerns and a youth commission pushing the children and youth agenda, there is a need for a stronger voice independent from government.
Hence, UNICEF and the BARMM Human Rights Commission aim for the Children’s Ombud to provide direct access to justice to protect children’s rights; and investigate grave violations especially against children affected by armed conflict.
The Children’s Ombud will be impartial in investigating and making recommendations on cases; and lobby for laws to protect children from all forms of abuse, ensure survivors receive reparations, and monitor the government’s compliance with the UN-CRC.
Pathway to justice for children, by children
The first step is to let children share their lived experiences in their communities, and how the Children’s Ombud can make them feel safe. In parallel, at the consultations the parents, guardians, duty-bearers, government agencies identify the gaps they see that need solutions. All the 235 delegates from Basilan, Cotabato City, Marawi, Sulu, and Tawi-Tawi are clear on their desire: direct access to a legal system that ensures they are well protected from all forms of abuse, crime, and violence.
“As the most vulnerable in society, children have no vote in elections nor access to policy-making, as well as a limited space in the legal system to protect them from any form of violation. At best, they can only be represented by parents or guardians, or lawyers. Hence, adequate policy frameworks to protect them from abuse, and its implementation, are necessary for an environment that upholds their rights as children,” UNICEF Chief of Mindanao Field Office Radosław (Radek) Rzehak says.
The Children’s Ombud also takes cue from the proposed Bangsamoro Children’s Code, which UNICEF advocates for BARMM Parliament to include in its priority legislative agenda. Earlier this year, the BHRC signed a workplan with UNICEF, covering programmes that increase the number of children, adolescents and women who benefit from more effective, gender-sensitive, and preventive child protection systems.
Aisah and Rashid can still be considered fortunate: to still have one or both parents around, to have a home in spite of poverty, live close to nature, be able to play with friends outside, “or even just to be alive,” they say. But some of their friends aren’t as lucky. This is why they are now asserting their place at the policy table, asking the right questions using their own experiences – no matter how sensitive the issues get.