House bill raising age of sexual consent to 16 hurdles final reading

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, December 1) — The House of Representatives approved on third and final reading a bill seeking to provide children with stronger protection against rape by raising the age of sexual consent from 12 to 16 years old.

A total of 207 lawmakers voted for House Bill 7836 on Tuesday. Only three voted against it.

Under the country's Anti-Rape Law signed in 1997, a sexual intercourse is only automatically considered as statutory rape if the victim is under 12 years old — the lowest in Southeast Asia. While the law criminalizes sex with minors under age 18, it only does so if consent is not present or if the act involves force, threat, or intimidation.

The measure also seeks to broaden the definition of rape to include certain acts of perversion not included in the 23-year-old law. The absence or lack of physical overt act of resistance shall not be construed as consent.

Under the bill, rape is likewise committed when the victim is 16 years of age or over and has a disability that renders him or her unable to fully understand the consequences of any sexual activity.

It also holds liable those guilty of committing "grooming," when such results in acts of rape, as defined by the presented amendments. Grooming pertains to psychological actions made by an adult to lessen a minor's fears as a prelude to sexual abuse.

According to Gabriela Rep. Arlene Brosas, the issue of consent is among the reasons a lot of perpetrators of sexual assault "aren't prosecuted properly."

Children's rights advocates have also noted that the current statutory rape age is inconsistent with scientific studies of brain development as well as physical and emotional maturity.

"Various studies have proven that the rational part of a person's brain – the parts that respond to situations with sound judgment – will not fully develop until age 25," the Child Rights Network said.

The group cited 2015 to 2017 data from the Department of Social Welfare and Development which showed most of the victims of rape and child incest were between the ages of 14 to below 18.

The bill also attempts to repeal the "forgiveness clause," which extinguishes criminal liability upon the presence of forgiveness or subsequent marriage between the rapist and the victim.

A close-in-age exemption, meanwhile, is included in the provisions to protect from criminal prosecution partners whose age difference is minor, and whose sexual activity is consensual, non-abusive and non-exploitative.

"The passage of these anti-rape law amendments is a historical victory to the Filipino women's long-standing campaign for legislative reforms on sexual violence," Brosas said. "This is also a huge step towards the persecution of powerful and wealthy abusers and raising the consciousness of the Filipino people."

A similar bill has been approved at the committee level at the Senate. Proponents of the measure have stressed the urgency of its passage, citing an increase in rape cases amid the pandemic, as many people are isolated with their abusers at home due to lockdown measures.