KASAMA Vol. 19 No.
3 / July-August-September 2005 / Solidarity Philippines Australia
The Life of Street Children in the Philippines
Initiatives to Help
The following are extracts from the testimony to the U.S. House Committee on International Relations by Fr. Shay Cullen, mssc, founder and president, People's Recovery Empowerment Development Assistance (PREDA) Foundation, Inc., Philippines.
September 13, 2005
Dear Honorable Members:
Last week before I left the Philippines to come here, I was working
with street children. One particular group led by a
Filipino–American street boy lives under a bridge abandoned
by their parents and society. They are addicted to sniffing industrial
glue to ward off hunger and they suffer malnutrition, parasites, and
live in fear of police beatings, arrest and detention without trial in
They are typical children of the streets, vagrants and in some other
cities, such as Davao in Mindanao, they become victims of shadowy death
squads that act with impunity in executing the teenagers leading us to
believe they are government sanctioned. The silence and inaction of the
authorities despite the mounting death toll is for us a sign of
approval. When we protested the killings some years ago we were sued by
the city mayor for defamation, but won our case when we proved
we were merely defending the human rights of the children and freedom
of speech on their behalf. We have been harassed, threatened
with death and brought to court to be deported for working to protect
the street children and defend their rights to experience childhood and
not to be abused.
Street kids are considered pests by some of the business
community—as vermin to be exterminated. But they have
committed no crime and are the victims of the wrongdoing of uncaring
and corrupt politicians and abusive, impoverished parents.
According to UNICEF, an estimated 100 million children worldwide live
at least part of their time on the streets. In the Philippines, a
government report in 1998 put the figure at 1.2 million street
children—about 70,000 of them in Metro Manila alone. Another
report estimates that there are approximately 1.5 million children on
the streets working as beggars, pickpockets, drug abusers and child
prostitutes (ECPAT). Today, the number of children and youth living
part of their lives on the streets in the Philippines could reach two
million out of a total population of 84 million.
This is the result of human neglect, spiritual paralysis,
greed and political irresponsibility that allows and exacerbates the
entrenchment of poverty in an unjust social system. The Philippines is
a fractured democracy, where feudal practices persist and where the
greater national budget is dedicated to servicing foreign debt and
paying a bloated bureaucracy, or is wasted on fake or overpriced
development projects. There is very little for social programs. We
believe that foreign aid is wasted when poured into the coffers of rich
politicians for projects they design to benefit their own family
businesses or those of their cronies. Even disaster relief money is
squandered and dissipated through corrupt practices.
Homes and shelters for street children are urgently needed. We are
trying to establish more. When we requested last month the use of a
government building constructed with relief funds given for the victims
of the volcanic eruption of Mount Pinatubo (and soon
abandoned), we were told it was better used for
officials’ offices and vehicles.
Advocacy and public awareness is achieved by workshops and training
seminars on the rights of children that PREDA gives to members of the
government, the public, students and teachers. The police and
prosecutors are specially targeted audiences, as they inflict the most
harm on children. The training and awareness–building
sessions teach as many as 11,000 people every year.
Street children are always hungry. They leave home hungry and beg on
the street where they are vulnerable to sexual exploitation, disease,
malnutrition, illiteracy, abuse and trafficking for sexual
exploitation. Most male street children in the Philippines are in
conflict with the law at some time and as many as 20,000 see the inside
of a prison cell, where they are mixed with pedophiles, drug addicts,
murderers and rapists. The street children are exposed to HIV/AIDS and
tuberculosis in the prisons.
One of the street children we are helping is a
14–year–old boy I call Francisco. He is a
Filipino–American living on the streets — abandoned
like many others when the military bases pulled out in 1992 and
thousands of children were left stranded.
All support ceased and many children fathered by American servicemen
became street children. We filed a class action suit in 1993 on their
behalf in the International Court of Complaints here in
Washington, DC, to establish these Filipino–American
children’s rights to assistance. They have been consigned to
live on the streets in hovels or slums in unimaginable poverty. Our
case did not prosper. The court ruled that the children were the
products of unmarried women who provided sexual services to US service
personnel in Olongapo, Subic Bay and Angeles City and were therefore
engaged in illicit acts of prostitution. Such illegal activity could
not be the basis for any legal claim.
Through the PREDA Foundation we are doing all we can for the street
children, the Filipino–American kids and those street kids
put in jail, where they suffer the worst punishment of all for a street
child—the unjust deprivation of freedom. Thousands of street
kids are behind bars for petty misdemeanors and no other crime than
being homeless on the streets, taking food without paying to ease their
hunger or, when no food is to be had, sniffing cheap industrial glue to
ease the pangs.
Solutions can be found in fair trade and by creating jobs for the
parents of street kids. This is one of our interventions to break the
cycle of poverty passed on from parents to children. Using our own
financial resources, we have saved hundreds of street children and
Fil–Am kids. Our funds come from PREDA Fair Trading, raised
from marketing the products from development projects PREDA has
established for the poor. The products are then exported and the
parents of street kids or those in dire circumstances are employed when
By providing direct service homes, feeding programs, street education
and advocacy to change the system, our work for children has continued
unabated and we have been able to save many from the streets, bring
them to a residential home, give values formation and formal and
non–formal education. Many have good jobs today. This work
still goes on. We have a home for former street kids who had been
imprisoned, some of whom were never charged and others were not found
guilty of any misdemeanor or crime. Some as young as eight and ten
We are asking that foreign aid assistance be focused, directed and used
to bring change in protecting the rights of street children, that World
Bank loans and ADB loans be more closely monitored for waste and abuse
and that child support programs be a component of every aid package.
WHO ARE THE STREET CHILDREN?
Street children are those children who, when they experience family
problems, hunger, neglect and domestic violence, escape from their
homes and live part–time on the streets. When they are
settled and know street survival techniques, they return at times to
their hovels and shacks to visit their families and bring food for
their younger brothers and sisters. When they see that the food they
bring is not enough, they return to the street and their brothers and
sisters sometimes follow them, looking for the source of the food.
Parents at times send them out to beg and scavenge and even prostitute
them or sell them in to bonded labor. We cannot forget the children
born of teenage street children and aborted in backstreet clinics.
Other street children are child workers, permanently on the streets and
engaged in scavenging, child labor, begging, peddling drugs and petty
theft. Many end up in jail. Their rights are frequently abused by the
police while on the streets. The girls are sometimes raped in custody
and forced to hand over their daily earnings.
Others are accused falsely for crimes committed by street children who
have been recruited into gangs controlled and protected by the police.
The gangs of street children prey on the younger and weaker children
and sometimes make them sex slaves, using drugs, food and fear to
control and dominate them. The street children are trained to be drug
couriers. Although innocent, the younger and unprotected can suffer
untold abuse by the other street youth. When in the jails, they can be
mixed with criminals, rapists and pedophiles.
They are runaways from dysfunctional, broken homes with an abusive
parent. In the home, usually a hovel and poor environment beside a
polluted canal or malarial swamp, they suffer sexual abuse, rape,
physical abuse, verbal battering, rejection, malnutrition, malaria,
diarrhea and dengue.
Most street children are illiterate. Having no incentive, money or
support and encouragement to study, they have dropped out of elementary
school. They join street gangs for their own protection and use
industrial glue as a mind– and mood–altering
tranquilizer. They work selling plastic bags, newspapers and flowers or
begging for a syndicate. Many are controlled by pimps and sold to sex
tourists on street corners or brought to the casa, a house of prostitu
tion. Street children are the poorest of the poor; they are the most
vulnerable and weakest and unless they are helped they will be the
HIV/AIDS victims of the future. They are forced to be child prostitutes
that attract foreign sex tourists. They are susceptible to becoming
criminals or even terrorists angry at the adult world that gave them
life in the worst misery imaginable. The adult world has done this to
The gender balance of the street children is roughly estimated to be
two–thirds boys and one–third girls. No exhaustive
research has been done to determine this. Based on the reports of
charity workers, this is a fair comment.
The groups of children are divided into those who live on the streets
permanently and those who live part–time on the streets but
go home every three or four days for a few hours or a day and then
return to the streets. They sleep in doorways, in push carts, under
plastic sheets, under bridges, in drainage pipes, in derelict
buildings, in abandoned cars and buses. Some even make shacks in the
trees along the fashionable boulevards. They favor being with the rich
dead in cemeteries where the tombs have roofs. They sleep in doorways
on the pavements or in the church porch. They live along the sea walls
HOW YOUNG ARE THEY?
The children on the streets a few days a week are the youngest, from
seven to twelve years old. The older boys and girls on the street who
have been there for one or two years — that is, permanently
on the streets — are aged 13 to 16, although nine and
ten–year–old children are also in this group.
WHERE DO STREET CHILDREN COME FROM?
The unstoppable march of global materialism and economic domination
further enriches the elite and plunges the poor into even greater
poverty, increasing the number of street children and displaced
families. Poverty drives hungry farmers into the arms of the communist
rebels and the ranks of the Muslim rebels and other insurgents. They
recruit the children as child soldiers and expose them to terrible
dangers, violence and killings. These child soldiers are mentally and
emotionally damaged and flee the war for the streets. As the economy
worsens, poverty increases, political violence grows and more and more
impoverished rural families are driven from their homes in the
countryside because of an insurgency and rebellion.
FROM THE STREET TO THE JAIL
Frequently arrested, street children are jailed without proper legal
procedures. They are at times treated as non–persons. In a
society where money is the measure of human worth, the children have no
value. In the subhuman conditions of overcrowded jails and
mixed with adults, they are deprived of light, learning, exercise,
family and companionship.
They are sodomized and sexually abused by adult prisoners in
overcrowded cells without even enough space to lie down together. Half
of the prisoners have to stand while the other half sleeps. The only
schooling the street children receive inside is how to be a criminal.
They suffer systematic violation of their human rights from the day
they are accused and are incarcerated without due process of law. When
they do get out, they return to the streets and are able to organize
street gangs of children to engage in crime. They are psychologically
damaged and traumatized and sometimes deranged. They face the dangers
of tuberculosis and other diseases while in the prison.
WHAT ARE THE INITIATIVES ON BEHALF OF
The children are helped where they are — on the streets.
Street contact workers are trained to conduct non–formal
education and provide basic needs. Some are successful in getting the
children off the streets and into school. This project needs constant
follow–up, monitoring and financial support.
Street children themselves are sometimes trained to become street
educators themselves. They belong to the peer group and are respected
and accepted. They help to break down the lack of trust that street
children have of social workers and helpers. Maximum participation of
children in the work is a sign of best practice. Non–formal
education on the street is an indication of this.
JOBS FOR STREET CHILDREN
The children are helped to find income–earning activities to
support themselves on the streets, such as washing cars, guarding
parking areas, working as shine boys, selling products on the streets
and selling plastic bags around the markets. Sadly, some are made
professional beggars, drug couriers, pimps and child prostitutes.
This is an approach that tries to bring responsive children into the
school system by providing support and encouragement and regular
follow–up and monitoring. Livelihood opportunities for
parents of the street children are sometimes provided by the project.
Thus the child becomes valuable to the family, as the child is a source
of financial assistance.
Drop–in centers for street children are common in the major
cities, but they are vulnerable to the children’s love of the
freedom they have on the streets. The dropout rate can be high. There
is the added difficulty of providing sufficient care that will make a
difference in the lives of the children. The centers provide basic
needs and shelter but the programs are usually short–lived.
When children do stay longer, they are referred to centers that provide
care for the long term. Residential live–in centers are
expensive projects and there are not many of them. Unless they are
placed in an area remote from the street and efforts are made to locate
and bring the parents into the process of helping the children, their
success rates will be low, as many children will be enticed to go back
to the streets.
FORMING SPECIAL ACTION GROUPS OF
The goal of these strategies is to help street children organize
themselves for self–protection and help. Some have been
successful. They feed each other, run for help to organizations like
PREDA in emergencies, bring medical help and in the past have even made
collections to pay extortion money to police to release their group
members. Today they call on PREDA’s legal officers to get
their group members out of jail.
STREET CONTACT FOR CHILDREN
This project entails regular contact by dedicated social workers with
groups of street children. The workers relate with the children to win
their trust, offer legal and personal protection against acts of abuse
by the authorities and work to release the children from jails and
holding cells or to get charges against them dismissed. The project
provides basic needs such as clothes, food, medical help and shelter
when needed. Efforts are made to contact parents and enable the child
to visit the parents. Part–time work for older children is
provided when possible.
Livelihood projects for parents are at times an aspect of street
contact, as are meetings, outings and non–formal education.
This model is being implemented by the PREDA Foundation, Olongapo City
and other agencies. There is no attempt to take the children off the
streets unless they are willing to enrol in school or agree to take
non–formal education courses.
The full text of this article and more information about what action you can take is available at the PREDA website http://www.preda.org/home.htm
or contact us here at SPAN.