In a move long demanded by activists, children’s rights groups and many lawmakers, the Philippines is on the verge of changing its much-criticized rules around sexual consent by moving the age from 12 to 16.
Advocates say the measure remedies the abuse and legal intricacies caused by the country having the lowest age of sexual consent—12 years old—in Southeast Asia, and one of the lowest in the world.
The Senate passed its version of the bill early this week, nine months after the House of Representatives did so in December 2020. The two chambers will now reconcile their versions of the measure and then submit it to President Rodrigo Duterte, who’s expected to sign it into law.
The bill supposes that children 15 years old or younger may be sweet-talked or intimidated into sexual activity with older persons, and are in no position to give informed consent. Any such sexual contact is then considered statutory rape, punishable with permanent imprisonment. There is no death penalty in the Philippines.
“Our current law allows adults to have sex with children who are as young as 12 years old. Our children would be made to testify in court, recall traumatic events, just to prove the crime of rape,” Senator Risa Hontiveros, the bill’s principal author, said in a statement.
“The pain of remembering alone has scarred many Filipino kids. The lifelong psychological and emotional injury inflicted upon them is a cruelty we should no longer allow,” she added.
The bill includes a “sweetheart clause” that exempts consensual sex between a 14 or 15-year-old and a person not more than three years older. During earlier deliberations on the bill, lawmakers said “puppy love” should not be considered a crime. The measure, they said, targets adults who sexually prey on children.
A 2015 UNICEF-backed study by the Council for the Welfare of Children found that about one in every five Filipino children aged 13 to 17 experienced some form of sexual violence while growing up. Around 3.2 percent of the roughly 4,000 respondents said they experienced forced anal, oral or vaginal sex during childhood, with a significantly higher prevalence among boys.
Activists and rights groups welcomed the bill’s passage as a deterrent to child sexual abuse.
“Adolescents behave in ways that manifest their still-maturing brain, which, according to scientists, finish developing in the mid-20s. The last part of the brain to mature is the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for skills like planning, prioritizing, predicting consequences and controlling impulses,” the NGO Save the Children said in a message to VICE World News.
“This means that adolescents often make decisions and act in ways that are not cognizant of possible risks and consequences. Hence, despite their age, they are still highly vulnerable, and in need of guidance and protection not just from their families but also from the wider society,” the group added, emphasizing the importance of the bill.
“Child rights advocates all over the Philippines are beyond elated with this development,” said Romeo Dongeto, convenor of the Child Rights Network. “This truly monumental move expands the Philippines' legal mantle of protection for children.”
Both the Senate and the House also recently ratified a bill that bans child marriage, where one or both partners are minors. It is also up for Duterte’s signature into law.
Follow JC Gotinga on Twitter.