MANILA: Teenager Rose Alvarez was 13 when she started having sex with a man more than twice her age. That would be legal rape in most countries, but not in the Philippines.
The Catholic majority country has one of the lowest minimum consent ages in the world and allows adults to legally have sex with children as young as 12 if they agree.
Child rights activists have campaigned for ages for decades – enshrined in the penal code since 1930 – but met opposition to what they call the “culture of patriarchy” in a country where abortion and divorce are illegal.
Congress is now due to pass a bill to raise the age to 16 years.
Activists say the legislation would help protect teenagers in a country that has become a global hotspot for online sex abuse, where more than 500 teenagers become pregnant and give birth every day.
“This is a victory for Filipino children,” said Patrizia Benvenuti, UNICEF chief child protection officer in the Philippines, recently as the proposed legislation neared a final vote.
“Setting the age of consent to be 12 is really inconsistent with scientific studies of brain development.”
Alvarez, who got pregnant when she was 14, says she now realized she was too young for a sexual relationship and the demands of motherhood.
“I was a kid back then, I didn’t know anything about sex,” Alvarez, now 16, told AFP at a clinic at the Likhaan Center for Women’s Health in Navotas, one of the poorest areas of Manila.
“I told him to use a condom … but he removed it. He didn’t want to use it,” said Alvarez, whose name was changed to protect her identity.
Alvarez – who until the age of 12 thought it was possible to get pregnant through kissing – said she was drunk the first time she slept with the man, who was around 29 when they met met on Facebook.
“When I woke up, I was shocked to see blood in my underwear and it hurt a lot,” she recalls. “I was too drunk to know what was going on.”
According to official sources, rape and sexual abuse of children are widespread in the Philippines.
A woman or child is raped almost every hour, Senator Risa Hontiveros said in a document to the Senate, citing figures from the Center for Women’s Resources.
Seven out of ten victims are children and the vast majority are girls, she said.
A government-sponsored nationwide study from 2015 showed that one in five children ages 13-17 experienced sexual violence, while one in 25 was raped in childhood, UNICEF said.
But prosecuting adult abusers in rape cases involving children as young as 12 has been difficult because they can argue that the sex was consensual, said Rowena Legaspi, executive director of the Center for Legal Rights and Child Development.
“Imagine a 12-year-old … this girl is still a minor,” Legaspi told AFP. “How could she have agreed?”
The proposed law would automatically make it illegal and punish it with life imprisonment, although it would not punish young couples in old age.
It is expected to be approved by the Senate in the coming months before going to President Rodrigo Duterte to sign the law.
Activists say increasing the age of consent will deter sexual predators.
However, they warn that more needs to be done to combat sexual violence against children and one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in Southeast Asia.
All children should have access to age-appropriate sex education, information and services “from an early age” to help make sex safer and prevent unplanned pregnancies, said Carlos Conde of Human Rights Watch.
Sexist and “victim-blaming” attitudes among prosecutors and judges also need to be changed, and cases need to move faster, Legaspi said.
Currently, it takes years for a rape case to come to court, then the victim can be an adult – and in some cases the accused has died.
“We have so many laws protecting children, but the problem is implementation,” Legaspi said.
“You just change the law, but the system is still there.”
Not everyone is in favor of increasing the age of consent.
A social worker working with youth in impoverished areas of Manila told AFP news agency it could drive relationships between children and adults underground, making it harder to help needy youth.
Donna Valdez, 15, says it should be up to the couple to decide if they’re ready to have sex.
She was 13 years old when she met her current boyfriend, who is 10 years older than her, on Facebook.
After chatting online for two months, they slept together. Soon she was pregnant.
The couple live together and under the proposed law he could be charged with rape.
Valdez has not regretted becoming a mother so young, she told AFP as her ten-month-old son writhed on her lap at the health center.
“We are happy that we are blessed with a child,” said Valdez, not her real name.
But Alvarez says she missed her old life.
“I want to go out with friends again, I want to have fun,” she told AFP.
“I’m unemployed, my parents are also unemployed. Where do we get money for my baby’s needs?”
Alvarez hopes to finish high school so she can work abroad – like millions of other Filipinos whose monthly remittances help support their families back home.
“I’m too young to be exhausted,” she said.
“I still have plans, I want to marry an American so that I can have a better life.”