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Non-government organization Roots of Health (ROH) is asking for tougher measures to prevent young girls from unwanted pregnancies or becoming victims of sexual assault.

The Provincial Social Welfare and Development Office (PSWDO) has raised concern over the fact that seven live births were reported for MIMAROPA in 2019, with the youngest being 12-years-old.

The Philippines has one of the youngest ages for sexual consent in the world, meaning that adults can have sex with a child as young as 12 years old and claim in was consensual, thus avoiding criminal charges.

In a presentation with the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) held Tuesday, Joaiza Abdullah of the PSWDO’s Provincial Project Monitoring Committee cited the 2019 study by the Commission on Population Development (POPCOM) found that out of seven live births in MIMAROPA, the youngest mother was aged 12.

She stated that this is an alarming trend, especially since Palawan has consistently ranked as the province with the highest incidence of teen pregnancies in MIMAROPA.

“Nakakalungkot kasi based on the data, the cases among 10-14 years old na mga kababaihan, ‘yon ang tumataas,” she said.

Similarly, local reproductive health expert and Roots of Health chief Amina Evangelista Swanepoel said while teen pregnancy is already a problem in itself, having been called an epidemic after the 2019 POPCOM study, children getting pregnant as young as 12 years old is a different field altogether.

“Actually, POPCOM highlights this issue a lot and it should be discussed because it’s a different kind of problem than the bigger one of teen pregnancy. The general teen pregnancy issue also has to do with consent but is more related to the inability to access information and services. But for girls 10-14 that is really an issue of rape, child abuse, pedophilia, incest, etc.,” she said.

Swanepoel added that aside from urging government offices such as the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) to fully pursue child abuse cases, protection starts at home, especially with parents.

“Often, families are intimidated to press charges, or the abuser is a family member of the victim. DSWD should be more persistent in pursuing child abuse cases, especially when the family refuses to press charges or is too intimidated to do so. [We also] all on parents to discuss sexuality with their children, and teach them about ‘good touch’ versus ‘bad touch.’ Parents should encourage their children to tell them if anyone touches them inappropriately,” she added.

The question of child marriages, which is common among indigenous groups, can also be addressed by using a science-based approach, where the health of the children is put into focus. Swanepoel also called for the need to make education more accessible to these communities.

“Aside from focusing on the negative health effects on girls of early marriage and childbearing, efforts can also focus on the fact that education and future economic opportunities for girls are greatly reduced when they become young mothers. This may also help convince people to move away from child marriage,” said Swanepoel.

While Congress has already signed House Bill No. 7839, amending the 1997 Anti-Rape Law by increasing the age of sexual consent to 16, the Senate has yet to pass its own counterpart. Both bills must then pass a bicameral committee before being presented to the president for signing. This amendment has been pushed by various human rights committees and has been eyed as one of the ways to protect children from sexual violence and criminalize perpetrators.  

Similarly, Senate Bill 162, or the “Girls Not Brides Act,” seeks to prohibit marriages that happen between those below 18 years old. It also seeks to criminalize individuals who cause, arrange, or officiate child marriages. Senator Risa Hontiveros, the main author of the bill, was inspired by the plight of some Palaw’an girls who were already having children at the age of nine.