PHILIPPINE President Rodrigo R. Duterte has signed into law a measure raising the age of sexual consent to 16 from 12, which was considered the lowest in Asia and one of the laxest in the world.

Republic Act 116481, which the President signed on March 4, amends the Revised Penal Code and another law that seeks to protect children against abuse and exploitation.

Under the law, any adult who has sexual relations with a minor aged 16 and below becomes guilty of rape.

The law exempts people who have sexual relations with minors under 16 years from criminal liability as long as their age difference is not more than three years. Sexual relations must be consensual, nonabusive and nonexploitative.

The exemption does not cover victims younger than 13 years.

“Children, whether male or female, who for money, profit, or any other consideration or due to the coercion or influence of any adult, syndicate or group, indulge in sexual intercourse or lascivious conduct, are deemed to be children exploited in prostitution or other sexual abuse,” according to the law.

“This is a historic legislation that we have long owed our children,” Senator Ana Theresia “Risa” N. Hontiveros-Baraquel, the law’s principal author, said in a statement on Monday.

Civic groups advocating children’s rights said the law is a step forward in protecting children against all forms of harassment.

“It provides a glimpse of hope for children victims of horrendous and obnoxious crimes and a step forward in achieving gender equality,” Eule Rico Bonganay, secretary-general of Salinlahi Alliance for Children’s Concerns, said in a statement.

He said the government should “make the law work for children by focusing on its proper implementation as well as guaranteeing higher conviction rates.”

He added that the criminal justice system should be more accessible to children, especially the poor.

“Both local and national governments should intensify their efforts to educate the public about the law as a way to effectively prevent the commission of child rape,” he said. “We must send a strong message that child rape is a heinous crime and that there is a law punishing it.”

Authorities and child rights advocates have said more children are at risk from online sexual abuse and exploitation amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Cases of online sexual abuse and exploitation of children in the Philippines increased to 202,605 under a strict lockdown from March to May 2020, from 76,561 cases a year earlier, according to the Justice department.

In a 2015 report, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said child maltreatment has an economic cost and affects health and human capital.  Child abuse is costing countries in East Asia and the Pacific about $209 billion a year, it said.

It added that in extreme situations, violence against children results in excess use of health services and even early death. “These lead to high societal costs for the region.”

One in five children in the Philippines aged 13 to 17 years reported having experienced sexual violence, while one in 25 experienced forced consummated sex during childhood, UNICEF said in a separate report last year.

The abusers were often family members and more boys (22.1%) than girls (15.9%) were victimized, it said. — Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza

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