The prevalence of illegal drug use in our society has been quite alarming. With exposé after exposé coming from President Rodrigo Duterte himself, it is hard to believe that we have been living in a society like this. We cringe and worry upon hearing the different personalities involved in drugs – from politicians to celebrities, to everyday people we meet on the streets.
It is perhaps agreeable to say that cracking down on drugs and crime was never the previous government’s strength. And now that we have a President whose expertise is exactly this, we are now seeing the side effects of cleaning up a backyard that was left unkempt for such a long time.
Children caught in the line of fire
But Duterte’s method in the war on drugs seem to be hitting some very sensitive areas of society. Recently, two deaths of children have been reported as a result of this campaign. One of them was a four-year-old girl who was accidentally shot by the police during a buy-bust operation in Negros Oriental. The suspect selling shabu died while the little girl, despite being brought to the hospital, died two days later.
Senator Grace Poe requested top police chief General Ronaldo “Bato” dela Rosa to conduct an investigation on this incident. In her Senate resolution, she emphasized that “numerous children and/or minors are being killed in legitimate police operations.”
Even schools, which are considered zones of peace, are not spared. In some provincial areas in the country, public elementary schools have been allegedly infiltrated and trespassed by police authorities while conducting police operation. It has been clear by law that these places should be free from the presence of the police and military.
This is one aspect that perhaps the government has not taken into consideration. Despite the intensive operations of the police force in neutralizing pushers and arresting users, the children are indirectly caught in the line of fire. And this is one line that should never be crossed.
Children are also at risk of being used in drug operations. In a study by the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) done years back, it has been reported that around 1,300 children in the city of Cebu were involved in drug trading either as lookouts, barkers, packers, or in cleaning up drug paraphernalia. Sadly, most of the children were users themselves, and more alarmingly, their parents were also involved in the drug trade.
Money was cited as the main reason for children getting involved and that is one issue that the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) needs to look into. We are not only dealing with addicted individuals; we are dealing with families who engage in the drug trade as a way to earn money. Can we really blame them for such circumstances? As such, the DSWD needs to provide alternative ways of earning for those families who have resorted to selling drugs. Much like in Brilliante Mendoza’s movie Ma Rosa, the harrowing realities of the drug business can be indeed devastating to a child.
Another concern that needs to be looked at is the protocol of the police in dealing with children during buy-bust operations. It seems to be unclear as to what the procedure is if a minor is caught involved in the illegal drug trade. If children were caught to be selling drugs, how will they be dealt with? If children were caught to be using drugs, what will the interventions be?
The Department of Education has stated openly their plan to strengthen drug awareness and prevention among students. It is also likely for them to further explore drug testing for students as the Commission on Higher Education (CHED) has already announced their plans about it. But what about those minors who are already within the drug trade? Will a classroom lecture solve their problem if they are faced with poverty?
Children as victims of drug-related violence
In an interview with ABS-CBN, UNICEF’s country head, Lotta Sylwander noted that three out of five children have experienced severe physical abuse (meaning marked with bruises.) She further stated, “I think there’s a lack in understanding how the child’s mind works and what children understand of action and consequence; and parents tend to overreact,” she said.
And the physical abuse experienced by children may come from drug-related violence. According to some reports, children have become victims in the hands of their own parents or relatives after withdrawal from drug use. And with thousands of drug personalities surrendering to the police, the government is unable to respond with sufficient interventions for them. Community-based rehabilitation is seen as the most viable solution as of the moment, but one unseen consequence of this is that violence from withdrawal on drugs may be inflicted upon innocent children.
As such, how will our government agencies support these kinds of scenarios? Trauma arising from these circumstances can adversely affect the minds of children especially in school. And in such cases, are school personnel equipped and knowledgeable in handling these circumstances?
In light of the recent bombing in Davao, President Duterte has already declared our country to be in a “state of lawlessness”. Violence has escalated in recent months, even if crime has decreased significantly. Yes, we see results. Yes we are glad to see that the so-called “big fish” in illegal drugs are going to jail. But no, not at the expense of children, not at the expense of creating a more hostile and violence-laden environment.
The lawlessness we see is not just because of the bombing in Davao. The lawlessness comes from the very way things have escalated in the war against drugs. And what is more worrying for us is that our children are not shielded from this, because they themselves are becoming victims of this campaign. There is no disagreeing that we want drugs out of our country, but please, let us spare the children.
This post is supported by a writing grant from thePhilippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ)