"Our indignation is not enough; it must translate into action."
Every year, thousands of children and teenagers fall prey to this cruel malaise of sexual abuse and exploitation. The prevalence of this has motivated the Committee on the Welfare of Children and the Committee on the Revision of Laws in the House of Representatives to finally approve at the committee level, House Bill 4160, which increases the age of sexual consent, and consequently the age for determining statutory rape and other acts of sexual abuse and exploitation. This comprehensive proposed legislation intends to provide stronger protection of children from sexual abuse, and to ensure that those commit such crimes are accordingly prosecuted for their criminal actions.
The proposal to increase the age for determining statutory rape was first introduced in the Fourteenth Congress. However, it was not until Rep. Yedda Marie Romualdez of Tingog Party-List took the helm of the Committee on the Welfare of Children, with the support of their colleagues in the same committee and the Committee on the Revision of Laws led by Rep. Cheryl Deloso-Montalla that the bill finally received committee approval.
The approval of this landmark bill is crucial for one reason: The establishment of a minimum age of sexual consent is the most important and critical criteria in protecting minors from sexual violence. In most cases, this high incidence can be traced to the fact that sexual offenders take advantage of minors who are considered too young to intelligently decide for themselves in terms of engaging in any form of sexual intercourse with another person who is usually older.
In 2015, the Council for the Welfare of Children (CWC) in cooperation with UN Children’s Fund, the Child Protection Network, the Consuelo Alger-Zobel Foundation, and the University of the Philippines Manila conducted the first National Baseline Study on Violence Against Children. The study revealed very chilling statistics. It mentioned that one in every five children aged 13-17 years old experienced sexual violence, while one in 25 of all respondents experienced forced consummated sex during childhood. The study also revealed that the perpetrators are often family members and that more boys than girls reported experiencing sexual violence.
Sadly, however, the current law established the age of sexual consent at 12 years, in which case, any sexual intercourse with a minor who has not reached the age of 12 is automatically regarded as rape, even if the minor consented or appeared to have voluntarily engaged in the sexual act. However, once a child reaches the exact age of twelve, he or she is legally deemed mature enough to give sexual consent to another person. This means that over the age of 12 or by 12 years old, sexual intercourse is possible provided that there is consent and that no force was used.
That the age of sexual consent in the Philippines is set at 12 years old is a shocking fact for many. In a country, where you have to be at least 15 years old to be employed, 15 years to be criminally responsible, 17 years old to get a driver’s license, 18 years old to vote and 21 years old to marry without parental consent —our laws presume a child to be capable of expressing sexual consent at the very young age of 12 years old.
The Philippines has the lowest age of sexual consent in Southeast Asia and one of the lowest in the world, only bested by the African country of Niger, which assigns it at eleven years. Other countries like Brunei, East Timor, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Taiwan peg the age of consent at 16 while Japan and Vietnam set it at 13 years old.
By reason of this lower age of sexual consent, there are sexual offenders who commit child rape and they are not prosecuted under the current rape law and instead are imposed of lesser penalties, leaving children vulnerable to sexual predators especially those who are significantly older than they and who may take advantage of their immaturity and manipulability. Moreover, it has been found by studies that early sexual intercourse is strongly associated with sexually transmitted infections, teenage pregnancy, depression and suicide, and sexual abuse.
House Bill 4160 accordingly aims to increase to 16 years the age for determining the crime of statutory rape, wherein for reasons of his or her age, the consent of the victim, even if present or was presumed given, cannot be used in defense of the offender.
By defining the crime of statutory rape to be any sexual activity with a child, of both sexes, under the age of 16, the law makes certain the punishment of those who commit such crime, without unnecessarily furthering the emotional and physical trauma of the child that may be brought about by a lengthy court proceeding or the need for any further physiological or material evidence. This certainty of punishment, on account of the victim’s age alone, will surely be a strong deterrence to those who would even just attempt to commit such sexual offenses.
Among the proposal’s more radical provisions is the removal of the forgiveness exemption where the perpetrator is freed of legal responsibility if the perpetrator marries the person he raped.
A penalty of life imprisonment shall be imposed on those who commit statutory rape against minors who are under 16 years old, regardless of the sexual orientation of the offenders or the victims - providing equal protection for both boys and girls.
It is important to note that the recently approved House Bill 4160 also intends to educate and empower the home, the school and the community to put safeguards that will prevent any such crimes from happening in the future. Prosecution can only go as far to eradicate the crime—but ensuring that children grow up to their fullest potential requires utmost attention and affirmative action on our part.
Last week, during a joint meeting of the Committees on Justice and Human Rights, and of Women, Children, Family Relations and Gender Equality, the Senate counterpart bill was also approved at the committee level.
Child rape is an ugly and painful reality that we must collectively confront and address immediately and decisively. But it is not enough that we are indignant. Our indignation must translate into action, and concrete measures to stop it.