COMMENT: A call for lawmakers to raise the age of statutory rape

·Contributor
·7 min read
little boy unhappy sad and tress alone
In Philippine laws, sexual intercourse with a child as young as 12 is not automatically considered child rape; these kids will have to go through a series of court hearings to prove the absence of consent, and that is only when their offender can be jailed.

Trigger warning: This article contains details of sexual harassment, self-harm, and suicidal thoughts that may trigger some readers.

12 years old.

If a child in the Philippines is raped and they are at the age of 12 or higher, they will be required to testify in court. Actual documented questions asked of child rape victims during court hearings compiled by Child Rights Network (CRN) and UNICEF include "Did you voluntarily spread your legs?", "Can you remember how many times he inserted his finger?", and "Can you estimate the length of it?" Others are rather more direct and, in my opinion, irrational: "Did you enjoy it?" and "Did it bring you pleasure?"

The questions are asked this way because, in Philippine laws, a 12-year-old child is already seen as capable of answering such traumatizing and horrifying questions.

Imagine you are 12 years old and you are asked these questions. What would you feel?

It is only in the Philippines where a 12-year-old is expected to give answers that would determine the fate of his or her offender.

In Philippine laws, particularly under Article 266-A of the Revised Penal Code and as maintained by the Anti-Rape Law of 1997, sexual intercourse with a child as young as 12 is not automatically considered child rape; these kids will have to go through a series of court hearings to prove the absence of consent, and that is only when their offender can be jailed.

It is only in the Philippines where a 12-year-old is expected to give answers that would determine the fate of his or her offender. Not only that – asking a kid these questions is retraumatizing them, too, as they are forced to remember very vividly painful images that they do not want to recall ever again. Needless to say, these court hearings may be very psychologically and emotionally damaging to them.

Woman's hand grabs the fence, concept of imprisonment
The age of 12 is far below international standards. In Southeast Asia alone, most countries have the age of 15 or 16 as the minimum age for sexual consent.

Essentially, a low statutory rape age slows down the processing of cases that may be filed against rapists of these kids, which may allow their offenders to get away with their crime and victimize more innocent children. This may be a factor as to why the Philippines continues to post high numbers of child rape cases. In the National Baseline Study on Violence Against Children published in 2015, it was revealed that one in five Filipino children aged 13 to 18 have experienced sexual violence. In this group, 4.2% said they were raped.

In the Philippines, the legal age to marry, vote, and enter into a contract is 18 while the legal age to drive is 17. Why is it that the legal age of sexual consent remains to be at 12, as it has always been for 91 years by now already? Why aren't we making progress in increasing this age? Why do Philippine laws continue to hold this low age of sexual consent? This is the lowest in Asia (in Southeast Asia alone, most countries have the age of 15 or 16 as the minimum age for sexual consent) and one of the lowest in the world, leaving many children in the country vulnerable to sexual abuse and exploitation.

1 in 5 Filipino children aged 13 to 18 have experienced sexual violence.

I recently wrote an in-depth special report for GMA News Online about sexual harassment that happens in Philippine high schools. Here, I personally met and interviewed some victims of sexual harassment, one of whom was raped as a minor by her teacher. They also learned that their offender had also raped a 14-year-old before but he was able to get away with it because he said it was “consensual.”

That victim-survivor told me that they became mentally unstable after being raped. They attempted to kill themselves by slitting their wrist. A psychiatrist eventually diagnosed them with three mental illnesses: bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder.

Little girl silhouette opening door into darkness, stock photo
Putting a 12-year-old kid in a series of court hearings retraumatizes them as they are forced to remember very vividly painful scenarios that they do not want to recall ever again. Needless to say, these court hearings may be very psychologically and emotionally damaging to them.

Atty. Klinton Torralba, a trial lawyer from DivinaLaw and law professor at the University of Santo Tomas, explained to me, "Victims of a crime as heinous as rape cannot be expected to act within reason or in accordance with society’s expectations. It is unreasonable to demand a standard rational reaction to an irrational experience, especially from a young victim. One cannot be expected to act as usual in an unfamiliar situation as it is impossible to predict the workings of a human mind placed under emotional stress.”

It is unreasonable to demand a standard rational reaction to an irrational experience, especially from a young victim.Atty. Klinton Torralba, trial lawyer from DivinaLaw

His explanation was enough for me to understand why any victim of sexual harassment and abuse would find it difficult to respond to such a traumatic experience – let alone a child as young as 12 years old. How can society expect them to hold themselves properly while in a court hearing, which is designed to intimidate and pressure them to recall very traumatic and painful experiences? That is, clearly, too much for a child to handle.

In December last year, the House of Representatives had already passed on third and final reading the House Bill 7836 or simply known as the End Child Rape Bill, which raises the age for determining statutory rape to 16 years old, strengthening laws against rape and sexual abuse. This amends the Anti Rape Law of 1997 and the Revised Penal Code.

While this is good, however, the Senate has yet to commence the plenary proceedings for the proposed bill.

Photo taken in Zamboanga, Philippines
Child Rights Network, UNICEF, and other children's rights organizations call on the Philippine government to prioritize the immediate passing and enactment of End Child Rape Bill that increases the legal age of sexual consent from below 12 to below 16.

I join CRN, UNICEF, and other children's rights organizations in calling on all lawmakers, especially the Senate Committee on Justice, to take an aggressive step towards increasing the age of determining statutory rape. They should immediately set a schedule to proceed with the plenary deliberations of the bill.

As CRN Convenor Romeo Dongeto said, "Every single day that the passage of this landmark law is delayed is another day of leaving Filipino children vulnerable to sexual abuse and exploitation."

We would not want to be on the wrong side of history if we fail to protect our children.

This is a very haunting thought. Just think of your 12-year-old nephew or niece, brother or sister, son or daughter. Look at them, watch them think and act, and you would realize just how young a 12-year-old actually is. Do you think they can go through not only a traumatic rape but also a series of daunting, intimidating court hearings? I bet you cannot even imagine. Imagining it alone is hard as it is already.

Our lawmakers should do better. We should do better. We would not want to be on the wrong side of history if we fail to protect our children.

Sign the petition to #EndChildRape.

Juju Z. Baluyot is a Manila-based writer who has written in-depth special reports, news features, and opinion-editorial pieces for a wide range of publications in the Philippines. The views expressed are his own.

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