Under Philippine law, 12-year-olds can consent to sex. Activists are trying to change that

Updated 5:13 AM ET, Tue July 13, 2021

(CNN)Antonette Acupinpin was 7 when the sexual abuse started.

She had already endured years of beating and physical violence from her mother and stepfather, she said -- but then he took it a step further.
He would put a long knife near her face during the abuse, and threaten to kill her mother and brother if she reported him, she said. Terrified and ashamed, she didn't tell anyone for a year and a half -- until a school teacher saw her with a black eye and notified the police.
"I felt hopeless," said Acupinpin, now 23. "It felt like I had nowhere to go because it's my family who was hurting me. I didn't know anyone who could really help me."
She's not alone. Child sexual abuse is rampant in the Philippines, which activists say is partly driven by the country's ​law regarding the age at which ​girls can legally consent to sex. ​
At just 12 years old, it's the youngest age of consent in Asia -- and one of the youngest in the world. Opponents ​of the law say children that age are incapable of giving consent, and less likely to know how to call for help.
The law protects predators, critics say, because they can claim victims consented -- and children as young as 12 can often be coerced or threatened into silence.
Victims' advocates also argue the low age of consent contributes to ​what international rights organizations have described as high levels of sex trafficking and teenage pregnancy in the Philippines, compounded by gaps in the enforcement of existing laws.
"In the Philippines, we have about one woman or child raped every 53 minutes," said Rep. Arlene Brosas of the Gabriela Women's Party, citing 2016 data from non-profit organization Center for Women's Resources. "We believe it is much worse -- especially that child victims of sexual abuse are very prevalent."
Brosas and a number of lawmakers are now fighting to raise the age of consent to 16, which is standard in many other countries, including the majority of the United States. The movement took a significant step forward last December when their proposed bill was overwhelmingly approved by the Philippines House of Representatives.
Raising the age is just one step -- the bill includes a raft of other provisions to strengthen enforcement, improve the investigation and legal process, and provide more support and confidentiality for victims ​of sexual exploitation and abuse.
But the bill still has a long way to go before it becomes law, and time is running out. Elections are less than a year away -- at which point lawmakers will have to start over from scratch. If it doesn't pass before then, the bill's ​supporters say millions of children will remain vulnerable to exploitation -- and with reports of ​images depicting child sex abuse skyrocketing during the pandemic, the threat has never been more urgent.

A 90-year-old law

Activists in the Philippines have been pushing to change the law since the 1980s.
The age of consent is enshrined in the country's Revised Penal Code, passed in 1930. Under the penal code, rape is defined as "having carnal knowledge of a woman" through the use of force, when the woman is unconscious​, "deprived of reason" -- or "when the woman is under 12 years of age."
The age seems shockingly low by modern standards, but it reflects historical attitudes. In many places across Europe -- including Spain, which ruled the Philippines as a colony for more than 300 years until 1898 -- early laws placed the age of consent between 10 and 12 years old.
During the 19th century, some countries began raising it to between 13 and 16, according to Stephen Robertson, historian and professor at George Mason University. By the early 1900s, legislators in the US and Britain were pushing to raise the age to between 16 and 18, with other parts of the world following suit throughout the century.
But as other countries amended their laws to reflect their evolving understanding of sex and adulthood, the Philippines' age of consent stayed the same.
A billboard showing a campaign against street harassment and sexual violence toward women, in Manila, the Philippines, on June 30, 2019.
The penal code is "one of the oldest laws in the Philippines," said Selena B. Fortich, Philippines country program manager for child protection at the NGO Plan International. "It has many archaic provisions -- many do not apply and should not exist in contemporary society."
Some clauses have been amended over the years, but not the age of consent -- meaning there are now "inconsistent" legal ages, she added. "The minimum age for getting married is 18, to enter into contracts and to vote is also 18. Yet, the minimal age for sexual consent is 12."
The Philippine Commission on Women, a government agency, told CNN in a statement that it has pushed to raise the age of consent to 16 years old, and has included the recommendation in its policy briefs.
There are a few reasons the age of consent hasn't changed in the past 91 years. A major one is the lack of education and understanding among lawmakers and the general public of concepts like children's cognitive development and the ability to give informed consent, said Patrizia Benvenuti, child protection chief at UNICEF Philippines.
And though public awareness about the issue has expanded in recent years, the child rights sector is relatively new in the country and less established than other social movements, such as the campaign for women's rights.

Why some lawmakers don't want change

Some lawmakers argue there is no need to change the age of consent because the country already has laws against child abuse.
An anti-child abuse law passed in 1992 criminalized sex with children under 18 "for money, profit, or any other consideration or due to the coercion or influence of any adult, syndicate or group." Another anti-trafficking law, enacted in 2003 and expanded in 2012, prohibited the sexual exploitation and prostitution of children, as well as the creation of images depicting child sexual abuse.
However, the existing laws require young, traumatized victims and their lawyers to prove they were coerced into sexual exploitation. It's an easier task if a child is trafficked to multiple abusers -- but much more difficult when a child is abused by just one person, which is typically the case with abusive family members, said Benvenuti from UNICEF.
An amended statutory rape law ​would automatically criminalize sex with children under 16.
"Why can't we increase this age? The answer (from Congress) has always been, 'Well, because we already have laws about this,'" said Bernadette J. Madrid, executive director of the Child Protection Network Foundation and head of the Child Protection Unit at the University of the Philippines Manila's Philippine General Hospital.
All four advocates CNN interviewed agreed the failure to act suggests a lack of concern or urgency in Congress.
The age of consent "was never prioritized as much as other issues," said Fortich, from Plan International. "That's a big challenge in terms of enforcement of the law. There's a gap in terms of implementation."

Abused at home

The Philippines is the world's largest source of livestreamed child sex abuse, according to UNICEF -- but children are also being abused offline at home.
In a 2015 study involving 3,866 Filipino ​respondents aged 13 to 24, about 3.2% said they had been raped during childhood. And more than 17% ​of those aged 13 to 17 experienced sexual violence, which includes "unwanted touch" or having explicit photos or videos taken, said the study, conducted by UNICEF and the Philippine government's Council for the Welfare of Children.
The study found the abuse often took place in the home​, where perpetrators were frequently family members -- making it harder to detect and for victims to pursue justice.
Acupinpin said she had been reluctant to come forward as a child because she feared people would blame her for the abuse. "I was scared that they might say, he's my stepfather, I gave him my consent," she said.
After Acupinpin's teacher notified the police about her injuries, she was removed from her parents' care and placed in a care center for abuse survivors -- but she didn't ​initially tell anyone about the sexual abuse. "I kept it to myself because I was so scared, because his threats still lingered in my mind," she said.