The Philippine House of Representatives recently passed a law lowering the minimum age of criminal responsibility from 15 to 12 years old. Under the bill, a child who is aged 12 or older who comes into conflict with the law will be criminally liable and be sent to prison within a youth care facility rather than receiving other social interventions.

For a country that claims to put a high value on families, our laws do not protect children. Aside from the criminal age of responsibility being 12 years old, the de facto legal age of sexual consent is also 12.* Despite there being no legal protections for children in sexual relationships at such young ages, the government mandates that in order to access contraception, a girl must be 18 years old. If she is not, she needs parental consent.

Until recently, young people concerned about HIV also needed to be 18 in order to obtain an HIV test without parental consent. But the recently strengthened HIV/AIDS law lowered the age to 15. Why did they do that? They did it because of the recognition that young people are having sex. And if the government can go ahead and recognize that young people are having sex and allow them to access HIV testing, why will they not allow them to access contraception? This HIV testing concession will help protect young people against sexually transmitted infections. Why not make the other concession to help prevent unwanted and unplanned teen pregnancies?

I write about teen pregnancy, maternal deaths, and HIV infection frequently. All three are a big problem in Palawan. In fact, a recent Palawan News article highlighted according to the Population on Commission (POPCOM), 11 Palawan municipalities are included in the MIMAROPA region’s list of 27 municipalities with the highest cases of teen pregnancy.

Among the reasons that our sexual health outcomes are so bad are that young people do not have access to comprehensive sexuality education (CSE), and they do not have access to contraceptives that would help them to engage in safer sex practices if and when they begin having sex.

The Reproductive Health Law mandates CSE in schools but the Department of Education has yet to invest funds and time in creating a curriculum.

Young people who try to access contraception are routinely shamed and turned away. When we have trained Barangay Health Workers in the past on Adolescent Sexual and Reproductive Health, we pose this scenario: What would you do if a sexually active young person came to you asking for contraception? The most common answers were: “I would reprimand her and tell her to stop”, and “I would tell her mother”. Both of these responses point to the fact that most adults do not approve of the idea of young people having sex. But whether we approve or not, people who want to have sex will have sex. If contraception is not available, they will just do it unsafely. When we followed up with those BHWs and said “So would you want that young person to get pregnant?” they all said no. But they didn’t initially realize that their actions could help lead to that outcome of the young person having a baby.

Whether we want to admit it or not, young people are having sex. Data from hospitals on teen births and stories from teachers and principals about their students who drop out all demonstrate that many young people are having sex. Yet instead of laws that would protect our children and young people, our laws make it harder for them to have any legal protections against rape and make it easier for them to contract sexually transmitted infections and have unplanned pregnancies. If the government really wants to protect children, the age of consent should be raised, and the age of accessing contraception should be lowered.

*The Age of Consent in the Philippines is 12 years old. The age of consent is the minimum age at which an individual is considered legally old enough to consent to participate in sexual activity. Individuals aged 11 or younger in the Philippines are not legally able to consent to sexual activity, and such activity may result in prosecution for statutory rape or the equivalent local law. Philippines statutory rape law is violated when an individual has consensual sexual intercourse with a person under age 12. Senators Risa Hontiveros and Win Gatchalian have been lobbying to raise the age of consent to 18 years old.

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