A Senate panel on Thursday, October 1, approved proposed measures to raise the age of sexual consent to 16 years old, setting the threshold for determining statutory rape at the same age.
Currently at 12 years old, the age of sexual consent in the Philippines is the lowest in Asia and among the lowest in the world, noted Senator Richard Gordon, head of the Senate committee on justice and human rights.
This means anyone who has sexual contact with a minor not younger than 12 years old currently has no liability under the law if the minor says the act was consensual.
Senators who authored bills seeking to raise the threshold age argued that minors older than 12 may not have the ability to exercise sound judgment on sexual matters, and may be taken advantage of by “predators” older than them, especially adults.
“Those who want to go out with 14-year-old boys and girls, 13-year-old boys and girls are sick in the mind. They are predators…. They should be in jail,” said Senator Juan Miguel Zubiri, who authored one of the bills.
Other senators who have filed similar measures were Gordon, Risa Hontiveros, Imee Marcos, Nancy Binay, Leila de Lima, Sherwin Gatchalian, and Bong Revilla. Their bills will be consolidated into a single Senate bill following their approval at the committee level.
Besides Gordon’s justice committee, the Senate committee on women, children, family relations, and gender equality headed by Hontiveros also participated in Thursday’s panel hearing.
Citing data from a study by the Council for the Welfare of Children, Gordon said that one in every 5 children aged 13 to 17 experienced sexual violence, while one in every 25 respondents in the study experienced forced consummated sex during childhood.
The same study revealed that the perpetrators were often family members, and more boys – 65.2% – than girls – 60.4% – reported experiencing sexual violence, Gordon added.
The figures are already dire under normal circumstances, Hontiveros said, but the economic uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic exposes many children to a greater risk of sexual violence, especially girls.
Zubiri noted that the Philippines has one of the highest adolescent birth rates among member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Every year, the country counts an average of 47 births for every 1,000 women aged 15 to 19. This is higher than the global rate of 44 and the ASEAN rate of 33.5 adolescent births.
In the Philippines, some 500 adolescent girls get pregnant every day, and 70% to 80% of the time, their partners are adult men “over the age of 21,” Zubiri said.
“As legislators, we need to ensure that our children are protected and that we set measures that will mitigate if not totally eradicate these alarming cases and statistics on sexual violence against children and teenage pregnancies,” Zubiri said.
Marcos pointed out that besides the Philippines' alarming rate of teenage pregnancy, the country has been touted as the global epicenter of child pornography – “a disgraceful fact,” she said.
“This age of consent at 12 years old does not help in any of these issues,” Marcos added.
These senators, including Binay who joined in briefly through a phone call with Gordon, agreed that 16 years old is a reasonable age as the threshold for sexual consent and determination of statutory rape.
Zubiri moved to amend his bill, which had set the threshold at 15 years old. He told the panel he agrees that it should be 16 years old. He noted that in some societies and cultures including several in his native Bukidnon, it is common for people to marry at an early age.
The target of the proposed measure, Zubiri said, are “adults who prey on children.”
Hontiveros’ bill includes a “sweetheart provision” that allows consensual, non-exploitative, non-abusive sexual relations between two minors whose age difference is not more than 4 years.
The senators said statutory rape is when an adult or a person of legal age has sexual relations with a minor below the age of consent. In this case, it is immaterial whether the minor consented to the sexual act – the adult partner is criminally liable for statutory rape.
Hontiveros’ bill states that if the perceived victim is between 14 and 18 years old, the perceived perpetrator is not more than 4 years older, and the act was consensual – there is no liability for rape.
Marcos told the panel she agrees with this, adding only that the bill should state that the partners should both be minors on the date of the commission of the act.
“Puppy love” among youngsters has at times grown into mature, lifelong relationships, Gordon said, and relationships among teenagers close in age are normal.
However, the senators should “make certain we are serious in punishing statutory rape,” Gordon added.
Other considerations raised by resource persons at the virtual hearing were the possible liability of parents, guardians, and other authority figures who push minors into sexual relationships, especially for economic gain.
Jelen Paclarin of the group Women’s Legal and Human Rights Bureau said raising the threshold for statutory rape helps protect minors and children from demoralizing interrogations during investigations of sexual abuse. They wouldn’t have to be asked sensitive questions if the liability of the perpetrator were automatic under the law.
A representative from the Department of Justice said the agency agrees that the age of sexual consent should be raised to 16 years old.
The Senate panel will prepare its committee report over the weekend, Gordon said, so that the final bill can be taken up in plenary next week, as its authors push for swift passage.
The proposed measure “should have been done a long time ago,” said Gordon.
JC Gotinga often reports about the West Philippine Sea, the communist insurgency, and terrorism as he covers national defense and security for Rappler. He enjoys telling stories about his hometown, Pasig City. JC has worked with Al Jazeera, CNN Philippines, News5, and CBN Asia.