Legislators must end Philippines’ child sex shame


July 19, 2021

By Shay Cullen

Sex with a 12-year-old remains legal with ‘consent’ in a country where many pedophiles have gone unpunished

The greatest shame of the Philippines is the fact that it is legal under the 1930 Penal Code for a 50-year-old man to have sex with a pre-pubescent 12-year-old child and get away with it if the man can convince a court that the child “gave consent.”

Soon that will change and justice will be done for thousands of child victims. At present many children, under pressure from parents and abusers, are forced to stay silent when sexually abused or to say to government officials or in court that “He is my boyfriend,” or that “I loved him.” The judge, with grave misgivings, will have no option but to dismiss the charge of rape, the child apparently having given consent.

Some parents force their children to live with an older man who pays them. If the child later escapes and gets help to bring a charge of abduction and rape to court, she will be strictly cross-examined by the defense lawyer out to discredit her and “prove” she gave consent. She will have to answer questions such as “Why did you willingly go to that house?” and “Why did you stay with the accused and only after months make a complaint?” and so on.

However, almost no one nowadays would agree that a 12-year-old or even a 16-year-old can give full consent to a sexual relationship with an older man, and few judges would acquit the accused.

After many years of campaigning by child rights groups, the Republic Act 7610 (RA 7610), otherwise known as the Special Protection of Children Against Abuse, Exploitation and Discrimination Act, was passed on June 17, 1992.

Street dwellers including children queue for free food distributed by the Society of the Divine Word in Manila. The pandemic has brought an increase in the sexual abuse of children in the Philippines. (Photo: AFP)
Street dwellers including children queue for free food distributed by the Society of the Divine Word in Manila. The pandemic has brought an increase in the sexual abuse of children in the Philippines. (Photo: AFP)

However, the age of consent in the Penal Code remained unchanged. After more than 90 years, this section of the Penal Code is to be challenged and changed. The proposed new law setting the age of consent at 16 is now stuck in the Senate. Sex with children is common in the Philippines. Every few minutes, a child or woman is raped, researchers say.

The Philippines had no child protection law until 1992 after the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child was passed in 1989. I was invited as a delegate for Philippine NGOs to the convention-drafting conference in Helsinki the previous year. The official age of a child was set by the convention as below 18 years of age, as it is in the Philippine law today. The UN convention then made it mandatory for all nations to pass their own child protection laws. The Philippines passed RA 7610 three years later in 1992.

Yet the age of consent remained at 12. It is vital to raise this age to protect children from being forced to say they gave consent to sexual abuse. The new law setting 16 as the age of consent must be passed without further delay. Ninety-one years of impunity for child abusers is long enough. It sends a wrong message that it is legally and morally OK to sexually abuse a child. This must be changed in the culture and awareness of the Filipino people.

When passed, any act or attempted act of sexual abuse against a child will be statutory rape to be penalized with life in prison. Everyone must campaign and advocate for its swift completion and passing.Subscribe to your daily free newsletter from UCA News

Child sexual abuse, including online sexual abuse and exploitation of children, is on the increase due to the pandemic.

On July 13, Francis Bermido, the president of the Preda Foundation who has 21 years’ experience in child protection, gave a speech to an online hearing organized by the president of the UN General Assembly in support of the preparatory process towards the high-level plenary meeting to review the Global Plan of Action to Combat Trafficking in Persons.

He told the participants — mostly ambassadors to the UN, academics and civil society leaders — that “pimps and traffickers have moved away from sex bars and instead arrange the sale of children online and bring them to a resort or private apartment where they are raped and exploited.”

He also told delegates how sexually abused children are helped to heal and win court cases against their abusers.

“The primary therapeutic tool employed by Preda is called emotional release therapy. It allows the victims to freely express their pent-up pain and anger and enables them to tell their story with credibility. This makes possible the quest for justice for victims,” Bermido said.

“All too often in society, victims are told to forgive their abusers and just move on. Victims do not get help and abusers and traffickers continue to abuse many more children. At Preda children are taught that justice comes before forgiveness. This means bringing perpetrators to trial and making them accountable for their crimes. Every year, the children assisted by Preda win on average 15 convictions — a significant feat given the tedious judicial process in the Philippines.”

The present RA 7610 is a strong law to protect children and almost all cases of child sex abuse are tried under this law. The victim has only to tell the court clearly what happened and that the man sexually abused her and she did not want it to happen. To tell, in addition, that she was scared or threatened or unable to get free of him is more than sufficient for a conviction. Convictions are coming more frequently as just judges are believing the child more than the denial or weak alibi of the abuser.

However, the low age of consent still gives abusers a way out if they can force the child to say she gave consent. That will change with the new law. May the legislators act quickly and pass this law before the present Congress adjourns. If that happens, the process must start all over again. Everybody must write letters to members of the Senate committee to finish drafting the law right away.

Father Shay Cullen is an Irish missionary priest of the Missionary Society of St. Columban who has worked in the Philippines since 1969. In 1974, he founded the Preda Foundation, a charitable organization dedicated to protecting the rights of women and children and campaigning for freedom from sex slavery and human trafficking. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.