Vital step for child justice | Inquirer Opinion
Editorial

Vital step for child justice

/ 04:07 AM December 08, 2020

The House of Representatives last week passed the bill raising the age of sexual consent and the threshold for determining statutory rape from 12 to 16 years old, an important measure that would go a long way toward protecting many Filipino children vulnerable to sexual exploitation and rape.

Urgent passage of a counterpart measure in the Senate, and enactment of the measure into law, is paramount, particularly in view of reports that the prolonged lockdown due to the pandemic has given rise to higher incidents of sexual abuse of children, particularly online.

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The approval of the House bill is significant, as the Philippines has the lowest age of sexual consent in Asia and one of the lowest in the world, after Niger’s 11 years old, according to Unicef.

That 12 years is set under the current law as the minimum age for sexual consent is “simply unacceptable,’’ said Tingog Sinirangan party list Rep. Yedda Romualdez, a principal author of the House bill, since a 12-year-old is not mature enough to give consent for sexual activity.

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House Bill No. 7836, approved with 207 yes votes and 3 against, seeks to amend Republic Act No. 8353 or the Anti-Rape Law of 1997 and the Revised Penal Code to impose stricter provisions to prevent sexual abuse of the young. Under the 23-year-old anti-rape law, anyone who has sexual contact with a minor not younger than 12 years old has no legal liability if the minor says the act was consensual.

That loophole is addressed under the approved House bill, which provides that sexual activity with a minor younger than 16 years old is statutory rape, with a penalty of life imprisonment. As well, the House bill removes consent as defense for statutory rape, removes marriage as exemption from punishment, and reduces or eliminates the penalty when the age difference of the victim and offender is minor.

The Senate committee on justice and human rights approved the counterpart bill last October but has yet to approve it in the plenary.

Unicef, which pushed for the passage of the measure, cited a study which found that one in every five children aged 13 to 17 experienced sexual violence; with more boys than girls experiencing sexual violence and with perpetrators often family members.

Unicef Philippines representative Oyunsaikhan Dendevnorov said last September that with 90 percent of Filipino children able to access the internet, two in 10 children were vulnerable to online sex trafficking and exploitation.

Sen. Risa Hontiveros has also alerted the National Bureau of Investigation on the “dramatic spike’’ in online sexual exploitation of children during the quarantine lockdown. “I have been tipped off by child’s right advocates that cases of child pornography have dramatically spiked during ECQ (enhanced community quarantine) and MECQ (modified enhanced community quarantine) — perhaps owing to greater demand by perpetrators quarantined in their homes, as well as greater supply because of deepening desperation and poverty,” she said.

Sexual exploitation is just one of the many social ills Filipino children endure due to poverty and inequality. The situation has been magnified by the hardships brought about by the pandemic and natural calamities.

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Figures contained in “Situation Analysis of Children in the Philippines,” an extensive report by Unicef in 2018, are troubling: 31.4 percent of children live below the poverty line, 33 percent are stunted (or short for their age) due to malnutrition, 21.5 percent under 5 years old are underweight. Immunization also fell sharply from 89 to 60 percent between 2013 and 2015. Access to sexual and reproductive health remains low, despite a 230-percent rise in HIV cases among the young. Moreover, 8 in 10 children experience some form of physical, psychological, sexual, or online abuse.

Some 2.85 million children aged 5 to 15 were out of school at the time of the study. That has considerably increased due to the pandemic, which forced the education sector to shift to distance learning where, with millions of public school students unable to buy gadgets or afford internet service, the inequality is heightened even more.

In the context of these daunting problems, the measure now awaiting Senate approval is a small but vital step in alleviating the plight of Filipino children. Romualdez, chair of the House committee on the welfare of children, said HB 7836 is “a step closer to the justice we have been fighting for our children victimized by heartless individuals and the gap in present laws.’’ She urged the Senate to approve the counterpart bill as a “gift for and commitment to the safety of our children,’’ rightly stressing that “no children should be left without sufficient protection especially from rape. Child rape is an ugly and painful reality that we must collectively confront and address immediately and decisively.”

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TAGS: age of sexual consent, Child abuse, child justice, Editorial, House of Representatives, Sexual Exploitation
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