The landmark passage of a law banning child marriage in the Philippines enacted on Thursday hopes to turn the cultural tides on whether marriage, relationships, and sex with those under the age of 18 is a cultural practice or statutory rape. While the law is viewed as a huge win, the fight still continues to raise the age of consent in the country from 12 to 16, and push the government for stricter enforcement while revising the cultural ethos in a country rife with gender inequality and long-standing practice of adult men dating or marrying young girls.
The age of consent for a child in the Philippines has been 12 for the past 90 years, one of the youngest in the world and the youngest in all of Asia. This has led to 1 and 6 girls in the Philippines marrying before the age of 18 and one child in 5 being the victim of sexual abuse.
But where is the line between consent and abuse when a minor is involved; what age sets that threshold? The Supreme Court in the Philippines recently acquitted a 27 year old man for impregnating a 12 year old child, arguing that their 2 children together were consensual and it is more damaging to break up a family unit.
With such a young age of consent, the abuse is often doubled for children not mature enough to understand their actions as someone caught engaging with a minor will inevitably lead to interrogations where the child is obligated to answer whether they consented, whether they enjoyed it or got pleasure from the act as defendants build their cases.
A bill to raise the age of consent from 12 to 16 passed the Senate with a unanimous vote, with the House of Representatives passing a similar bill. The two must be combined together now to be signed into law by President Rodrigo Duterte. They will add amendments to the 1997 Anti-Rape Act to raise the age of consent to 16 and to revise some of the laws such as removing gender bias from what constitutes rape.
While the Philippines is clearly making progress and moving in the right direction, advocates for child safety still say that enforcement is weak and that the country it’s often a playground for child sexual predators and sex tourists.
And aside from the reputation that attracts child sex predators, the culture of the Philippines is made of equal parts devout Catholicism, overwhelming emphasis on the family unit, and conservative values, creating massive pressure against anyone victimized from speaking up. A UNICEF figure shows that the global average of sexually abused or exploited children is about 12.5% but in the Philippines, known cases are at least 17%.
While many laws have been passed over the year to fight this, the cultural norms and the lack of enforcement have got to change. In 1992, a law was passed against sex with child prostitutes, the Anti-Rape Act passed in 1997, a law against owning or making child pornography was passed in 2009, and child trafficking laws were put in place in 2013. Now the child marriage law passed this week will hopefully be joined soon by the law raising the age of consent which has passed the Senate and is awaiting the president’s signature.