Alarmed by reports on the presence of child combatants amid the clash between the Maute fighters and government troops in Marawi City, Senator Sonny Angara has called on government authorities to stop terrorist groups from using children to participate in hostilities.
“Talaga pong nakakaalarma na pati ang ating mga kabataan na walang kamalay-malay ay nadadamay sa gulong ito. Our children are the most vulnerable in times like these, and I call on our government agencies, local officials and military personnel to make a concerted effort in ensuring the protection and care of our children affected by the armed conflict,” Angara said.
According to news reports, the Maute group is using children, as young as four, to fight as soldiers on the frontline, and even filming them for propaganda.
Reports stated that the Maute is recruiting children through Quranic study sessions, enticing young Muslim men to join the fight as a way to heaven or martyrdom.
Many are reportedly seized and recruited by force, targeting orphans whose rebel parents were killed in combat.
Angara cited Republic Act 7610, known as the Special Protection of Children Against Abuse, Exploitation and Discrimination Act, which prohibits children to take part in the fighting during armed conflicts.
The Philippines is a also signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and has vowed to eradicate the proliferation of child soldiers.
“The law declared children as zones of peace. But for the longest time, the rights of our children are being violated especially in conflict areas. They are being used as combatants, informants, as human shield against government forces, and now as propaganda tools. We must put an end to this,” he lamented.
The lawmaker stressed that children must be prioritized during evacuation, and delivery of basic social services such as education, nutrition and healthcare to children should not be hampered.
UNICEF Philippines has recently estimated that around 50,000 children have been displaced by the conflict within Marawi City or other cities in Lanao del Sur and Lanao del Norte.
Meanwhile, RA 7610 provides that children who have been arrested for reasons related to armed conflict are entitled to a separate detention from adults, and immediate free legal assistance.
Within 24 hours of recognizance, the child must be released to the custody of the Department of Social Welfare and Development or any responsible member of the community as determined by the court.
“We must ensure that appropriate measures will be taken to promote physical and psychological recovery, and social reintegration of the child victim,” Angara said.
The senator is set to file a resolution to see if there is a need to strengthen existing policies to finally abolish the practice of using child soldiers.