March 8, 2022
MANILA — The United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) has congratulated the Philippine government for raising the minimum age of sexual consent from 12 to 16 to protect minors from rape and sexual abuse.
Republic Act No. 11648, which President Rodrigo Duterte signed into law on March 4, “was an essential step toward fulfilling children’s rights to protection from sexual violence, abuse and exploitation, regardless of their sex, orientation and gender identity and expression,” Oyunsaikhan Dendevnorov, the Unicef Philippines representative, said in a statement.
She noted that sexual violence results in severe physical, psychological and social harm for children, and victims experience an increased risk of human immunodeficiency virus and other sexually transmitted infections.
Victims also suffer from pain, illness, unwanted pregnancy, social isolation, and psychological trauma with many of them resorting to risky behaviors like substance abuse to cope with trauma, Dendevnorov added.
Until now, the country had the lowest minimum age of sexual consent in Asia and one of the lowest worldwide, behind Nigeria’s age 11, “leaving children vulnerable to abuse and exploitation,” she said.
A joint 2015 study by Unicef and the Center for Women’s Resources, a local nongovernmental group, showed that seven of 10 rape victims in the Philippines were children.
It also reported that one in five respondents aged 13 to 17 reported experiencing sexual violence, while one in 25 experienced forced consummated sex during childhood.
Under RA 11648, any adult engaging in sexual contact with anyone 16 or under would be committing statutory rape, unless the age difference between them was three years or less and sex was proven to be consensual, and neither abusive nor exploitative.
The exemption, however, would not apply if one of those involved was under 13.
Significantly, the new law amended the language of the rape provision to make it gender-neutral. It defined rape as an act committed by a person who shall have carnal knowledge of another person, instead of an act committed by a man who shall have carnal knowledge of a woman.
Children, whether male or female, would also be deemed as exploited in prostitution and other sexual abuse if they indulge in sexual intercourse or lascivious conduct for money, profit, or any other consideration or due to coercion or the influence of any adult, syndicate, or group.
The new law likewise raised the age of victims of qualified seduction, simple seduction, child prostitution, and child trafficking in the Revised Penal Code.
At the same time, it mandated public and private institutions involved in educating and caring for children to ensure that their curriculum for staff development also had plans and learning sessions on the scope of their duties and responsibilities in identifying, responding to and reporting rape and other sexual offenses.
This included the Department of Education, which was asked to add to the basic education curriculum appropriate subjects concerning the rights and protection of children in relation to the new measure.
Sen. Risa Hontiveros, the measure’s principal author, welcomed RA 11648’s passage into law as it proved that the branches of government, regardless of different political views, could still unite to uphold the welfare of the youth.
“As a mother, I am relieved that we have a government that is ready to listen and to defend our children,” she said.
She added that she had been disheartened by the stories of advocates about teenagers as young as 13 to 14 years old who were victims of sexual abuse but still had to prove that they did not consent to such an act.
“In other cases, they were even asked if they enjoyed it. This is a form of cruelty that has no place in our society,” Hontiveros said.
According to her, it took decades for action to be taken on measures changing the age of sexual consent in the country, leaving many Filipinos, mostly women, victims of violence.
“The passage of RA 11648 is also a way of asking forgiveness from them, from all children then, who were not protected by our institutions,” she said in a statement.
“Together, we will keep working to attain a Philippines where every child lives happily, peacefully, and with dignity,” she added.
Agusan del Norte Rep. Lawrence Fortun, one of the bill’s main sponsors in the House of Representatives, described it as “a major step forward.”
“I am elated that our collective efforts [in] pushing for stronger protection against rape and other forms of sexual abuse are advancing,” he said in a statement.
For Josalee Deinla, National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers spokesperson, the new law was a welcome legal development that they hoped would “help protect young girls from rape and sexual abuse.”
— WITH REPORTS FROM LEILA B. SALAVERRIA, MELVIN GASCON AND REUTERS