Members of Congress convene at the House of Representatives in Quezon city, metropolitan Manila, Philippines, in this May 31, 2017 file photo.  © 2020 AP Photo/Aaron Favila

The Philippines House of Representatives took an important step this week to protect children with the passage of a bill raising the age of sexual consent from 12 years, one of the lowest in the world, to 16. The proposed legislation, which must still pass the Senate to become law, will make it a crime for any adult to have sexual contact with a child under 16, but adopts an important exemption to avoid criminalizing consensual sexual activity among children who are close in age.

The House bill was passed overwhelmingly on December 1 with 207 votes in favor and 3 against. The Senate’s pending counterpart bill is also expected to pass, and President Rodrigo Duterte’s allies in Congress are confident that he will sign the law. The law would repeal harmful provisions of the country’s Revised Penal Code and the 1997 Anti-Rape Law, which allow an adult to claim sex with a child aged 12 or older was consensual.

Apart from raising the age of consent and the “close in age exemption,” the proposed law also provides equal protection for rape victims of both genders and eliminates a provision in the Revised Penal Code that extinguishes the crime of rape if the offender offered marriage.

The proposed law is important because the Philippines has the lowest age of consent in Asia and one of the lowest in the world, according to UNICEF. This inappropriately low age for statutory rape has facilitated sexual violence against children, both in person and online.

Increasing prevalence of sexually transmitted diseases among children, particularly HIV/AIDS, and high rates of pregnancy point to the need for the new law to be complemented by a stronger effort to ensure that all children receive comprehensive sexuality education in age-appropriate ways, from an early age, and have access to information, services, and supplies that make sex safer and can help avoid unplanned pregnancy.

Filipino children face tremendous challenges due to poverty, neglect, and rights-abusing government policies. The enactment of this law will be an important step forward that should be part of a broader effort to protect children’s health and safety.