Philippines' push to raise age of consent to 16 a 'victory for children'

Philippines has one of the lowest ages of consent in the world, allowing adults to legally have sex with children as young as 12.
Philippines has one of the lowest ages of consent in the world, allowing adults to legally have sex with children as young as 12. PHOTO: AFP

MANILA • Manila teenager Rose Alvarez was 13 when she started having sex with a man who was more than twice her age. That would be statutory rape in most countries, but not in the Philippines.

The Catholic-majority country has one of the lowest ages of consent in the world, allowing adults to legally have sex with children as young as 12.

Child rights activists have lobbied for decades to increase the age - enshrined in the penal code since 1930 - but faced resistance from what they describe as a "culture of patriarchy" in a country where abortion and divorce are illegal.

Congress now looks set to approve a Bill to raise the age to 16.

Campaigners say the legislation would help protect youngsters in a nation that has become a global hot spot for online child sex abuse, and where more than 500 teenagers get pregnant and give birth every day.

"This is a victory for Filipino children," Ms Patrizia Benvenuti, Unicef's chief of child protection in the Philippines, said recently as the proposed legislation moved closer to a final vote.

"Pegging 12 as the age of consent is really not consistent with scientific studies on brain development."

Rose, who became pregnant when she was 14, says she now realises she had been too young for a sexual relationship and the demands of motherhood.

"I was still a child then, I didn't know anything about sex," Rose, now 16, told Agence France-Presse (AFP) at a clinic run by the Likhaan Centre for Women's Health in Navotas, one of the poorest areas of Manila.

"I was telling him to use a condom... but he removed it. He didn't want to use it," said Rose, whose name has been changed to protect her identity.

Rose - who until the age of 12 thought it was possible to get pregnant from kissing - said she was drunk the first time she slept with the man, who was about 29 when they met on Facebook.

"When I woke up, I was shocked to see blood in my underwear and it hurt a lot. I was too intoxicated to know what was happening."

'CONSENSUAL SEX'

Child rape and sexual abuse are rampant in the Philippines, according to official data.

A woman or child is raped nearly every hour, Senator Risa Hontiveros said in a document to the Senate, citing figures from the Centre for Women's Resources. Seven out of 10 victims are children and the vast majority are girls, she said.

A government-backed nationwide study in 2015 showed one in five children aged 13 to 17 experienced sexual violence, and one in 25 was raped in childhood, the United Nations Children's Fund said.

But prosecuting adult perpetrators in rape cases involving children has been difficult because they can argue the sex was consensual, said Ms Rowena Legaspi, executive director of the Children's Legal Rights and Development Centre.

"Imagine a 12-year-old... that girl is still a minor," Ms Legaspi told AFP. "How could she have consented?"

The proposed Bill would make it automatically illegal and carry a penalty of life imprisonment, though it would not punish young couples close in age.

It is expected to be approved by the Senate in the coming months before going to President Rodrigo Duterte to be signed into law.

Activists say increasing the age of consent will deter sexual predators. But they caution that more needs to be done to combat sexual violence against children and one of the highest rates of teenage pregnancy in South-east Asia.

All children should have access to age-appropriate sex education from an early age, as well as information and services to make sex safer and avoid unplanned pregnancies, said Mr Carlos Conde of Human Rights Watch.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 22, 2020, with the headline 'Philippines' push to raise age of consent to 16 a 'victory for children''. Subscribe