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The Senate has just approved a bill to change the age of sexual consent from 12 to 16. An official from the Child Protection Network explains why this hard-fought policy matters

In a conservative Catholic country like the Philippines, it is utterly surprising—even to many locals—that sexual contact with a 12-year-old child is still backed by the law.

Under Article 266-A of the Revised Penal Code and as maintained by the Anti-Rape Law of 1997, an adult abuser can get away with what most other places in the world consider statutory rape if he or she can convince the high court that the child "gave consent".

But change is finally underway. After years of advocacy led by the Child Protection Network (CPN), on September 27, 2021, senators approved Senate Bill (SB) No. 2332, which would consider it rape if an adult makes sexual contact with a minor below 16 years old. The proposed law was authored by senators Leila de Lima, Risa Hontiveros, Juan Miguel Zubiri, Win Gatchalian, Nancy Binay, Francis "Kiko" Pangilinan, Joel Villanueva, Pia Cayetano, and Grace Poe.

The House of Representatives passed its own version in December 2020. Now members of the bicameral committee will discuss and settle the provisions of the bills. The reconciled version of the proposed law will then be sent to President Rodrigo Duterte for approval.

"I applaud our present Senate and Congress,” said CPN Executive Director Dr Bernadette "Bernie" Madrid in an interview with Tatler. “This took a long time to happen; in fact, many of them did not know that our age of statutory rape was below 12 years. They were shocked by it."

Related: How To Help The Child Protection Network Safeguard 500 Young Lives

You ask anybody in the street if they think a 12-year-old is ready to be a parent and nobody will reply 'yes'
Child Protection Network (CPN) Executive Director Dr Bernadette "Bernie" Madrid

Double standards to the highest degree

Developmentally, a 12-year-old person is still a child. "You ask anybody in the street if they think a 12-year-old is ready to be a parent and nobody will reply 'yes'. Neither will an average person say that it is okay for a 12-year-old to have sex, much more so, sex with an older man," says Dr Madrid.

"Think of your children and grandchildren; the age of marriage in the Philippines is 18 years old with their parent's consent. So are we saying that it is all right for these young teens to have sex outside marriage?  This is double standards to the highest degree," she further explained.

According to UNICEF, the Philippines has had the lowest age of consent (AOC) in Asia, and one of the lowest in the world. One of the organisation's joint research reports even revealed that every one in five Filipino children (19.1 per cent) aged 13 to 17 years old reported being sexually assaulted. Meanwhile, one in 25 (4.8 per cent) of all respondents said they experienced forced consummated sex during childhood.

The study also revealed that the perpetrators are often family members and that more boys (22.1 per cent) than girls (15.9 per cent) experienced sexual violence.

More from Tatler: Dara Mae Tuazon On Pursuing Her Advocacy With 'The One Philippines'

Lawmakers urged to take action

For 10 years, CPN remained committed to pushing lawmakers to take the country's AOC seriously. "CPN has been working on this bill for at least 10 years now. It is that important. Most of the patients that we see at the Child Protection Unit at PGH and the Women and Child Protection Units across the country are child sexual abuse cases and the age with the highest incidence is between 13-15 years of age," Dr Madrid disclosed. 

She added that the COVID-19 quarantine has set an alarming number of sexual violence. "As a country, especially now during the pandemic, there is an increasing number of girls who became pregnant at 14 years of age. The fathers of their babies are older men as reported by the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA). We know that there are many consequences for early sex and pregnancy; health-wise, because of the immaturity of their reproductive tract, they are at high risk for injuries, sexually transmitted infections including HIV and later in life for developing cervical cancer."

Dr Madrid also warned against the complications brought by early pregnancy. "The risk for pregnancy is very high especially since minors have no access to contraceptives in our country and the perpetrator does not care if the child becomes pregnant. Pregnancy and childbirth complications are the leading cause of death among girls aged 15-19 years globally. For those who do give birth the risk is high for having a low birth weight or premature baby and experiencing the complications of pregnancy like bleeding and hypertension," she said.

Read more: Pie Alvarez On Giving Birth During The COVID-19 Pandemic And GCQ

I remember, in the failed bills not so long ago, the opponents of the bill worked even at midnight to stop the bill from being approved.
Child Protection Network (CPN) Executive Director Dr Bernadette "Bernie" Madrid

As of this writing, Dr Madrid, along with the members of CPN, hope for the speedy approval of the proposed law. "Many of our legislators have children who are around this age and they know the peril of not increasing the age of statutory rape. The full celebration will come when this bill is finally signed into law.  Let us remain vigilant and not take anything for granted. I remember, in the failed bills not so long ago, the opponents of the bill worked even at midnight to stop the bill from being approved," she concluded.

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