‘Victory for children’: PH to raise age of consent
Rose Alvarez, 16, started having sex three years ago 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 described 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.
“This is a victory for Filipino children,” said Patrizia Benvenuti, chief of child protection of the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) in the Philippines.
Alvarez, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, said she now realized 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,” she told Agence France-Presse (AFP) at a clinic run by the Likhaan Center for Women’s Health in Navotas City.
Alvarez said she was drunk the first time she slept with the man, who was about 29 when they met on Facebook.
Child rape and sexual abuse are rampant in the Philippines, according to official data.
A woman or child is raped nearly every hour, Sen. Risa Hontiveros said in a document to the Senate, citing figures from the Center for Women’s Resources.
A government-backed nationwide study in 2015 showed one in five children aged 13-17 experienced sexual violence, while one in 25 were raped during childhood, the Unicef said.
But prosecuting adult perpetrators in rape cases involving children as young as 12 has been difficult because they can argue the sex was consensual, said Rowena Legaspi, executive director of the Children’s Legal Rights and Development Center.
“Imagine a 12-year-old … that girl is still a minor,” Legaspi said. “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.
The Senate is expected to approve the bill in the coming months before President Duterte signs it into law.
More needs to be done
Activists say increasing the age of consent will deter sexual predators. But they caution more needs to be done to combat sexual violence against children.
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 Carlos Conde of Human Rights Watch.
Sexist and “victim-blaming” attitudes among prosecutors and judges also needed to be changed, and cases needed to move faster, Legaspi said.
Not everyone favors increasing the age of consent. According to a social worker dealing with adolescents in Manila’s impoverished areas, this could push relationships between children and adults underground and make it more difficult to assist youngsters in need.
Misses her old life
Fifteen-year-old Donna Valdez (not her real name) said it should be left to the couple to decide if they are ready to have sex.
Valdez was 13 when she met her current boyfriend, who is 10 years older than her, on Facebook.
The couple lives together, and under the proposed bill, he could be charged with rape.
Valdez had no regrets about becoming a mother so young. “We’re happy that we’re blessed with a child,” she said.
But Alvarez said she misses her old life. “I want to go out with friends again, I want to have fun,” she said. “I’m jobless, my parents are also out of work. Where will we get money for my baby’s needs?”
Still, she hopes to finish high school so she can work overseas.
“I still have plans, I want to marry an American to have a better life,” she said. —AFP
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