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EDITORIAL - Child soldiers

Children in several countries with armed conflict including the Philippines are being recruited as spies and soldiers, according to a study conducted by the International Labor Organization. The story is not new; children have been used for a long time as couriers, lookouts and even armed fighters by Philippine rebels and terrorists. In the ongoing Marawi siege, teenage fighters have been spotted in the company of the Mautes and Abu Sayyaf.

Even crime rings in this country use children for their illegal activities, aware of the law that spares those younger than 15 from criminal prosecution for most offenses. Since Republic Act 9344 or the Juvenile Delinquency Act of 2006 raised the age of criminal responsibility from nine to 15, children have been used as drug mules, jueteng collectors and gofers for illegal activities.

Children are used not only for crime but also for paid labor. Young boys have been photographed working in backyard firecracker manufacturing facilities in Bulacan, their bodies and faces covered in toxic substances. Among the reasons for the high dropout rate in basic education is that children stop schooling to help their parents in farms or in other livelihood activities.

While the government is aware of the problems, the nation has limited resources to save children from direct participation in armed conflict or from child labor. The task is complicated by the fact that children are recruited into armed groups or exploited for income-earning illegal activities often with the consent or on orders of their parents. This is true even for child pornography; parents are the most common pimps of their own children.

Law enforcement agencies have scored some victories in the fight against sexual exploitation of children particularly for cybersex. But children in this developing country continue to suffer from various forms of abuse and exploitation.

The government lacks the resources to even keep impoverished children off the streets. All that child welfare personnel can do if street children are rounded up is to return them to their parents, who almost always send the kids back to the streets to beg or sell flower garlands.

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Saving children from abuse and exploitation calls for a hefty investment. While the problem is largely poverty-driven and is therefore expected to persist, the government can go after the exploiters. It can also exert more effort to rescue those who are losing their childhood because of direct involvement in armed conflict.

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