In this photo taken on December 2, 2020, Donna Valdez, 15, -- whose name AFP has changed to protect her identity -- carries her child at a health centre in Manila. - AFP

MANILA: Manila teenager Rose Alvarez was 13 when she started having sex with a man who was more than twice her age. That would be statutory rape in most countries, but not in the Philippines. The Catholic-majority country has one of the lowest ages of consent in the world, allowing adults to legally have sex with children as young as 12 if they agree.

Child rights activists have lobbied for decades to increase the age-enshrined in the penal code since 1930 -- but faced resistance from what they describe as a "culture of patriarchy" in a country where abortion and divorce are illegal. Congress now looks set to approve a bill to raise the age to 16.

Campaigners say the legislation would help protect youngsters in a nation that has become a global hotspot for online child sex abuse and where more than 500 teenagers get pregnant and give birth every day. "This is a victory for Filipino children," Patrizia Benvenuti, UNICEF's chief of child protection in the Philippines, said recently as the proposed legislation moved closer to a final vote. "Pegging 12 as the age of consent is really not consistent with scientific studies on brain development."

Alvarez, who got pregnant when she was 14, says she now realizes she had been too young for a sexual relationship and the demands of motherhood. "I was still a child then, I didn't know anything about sex," Alvarez, now 16, told AFP at a clinic run by the Likhaan Center for Women's Health in Navotas, one of the poorest areas of Manila.

"I was telling him to use a condom… but he removed it. He didn't want to use it," said Alvarez, whose name has been changed to protect her identity. Alvarez-who until the age of 12 thought it was possible to get pregnant from kissing-said she was drunk the first time she slept with the man, who was about 29 when they met on Facebook. "When I woke up I was shocked to see blood in my underwear and it hurt a lot," she recalled. "I was too intoxicated to know what was happening."

'Victim blaming'
Child rape and sexual abuse are rampant in the Philippines, according to official data. A woman or child is raped nearly every hour, Senator Risa Hontiveros said in a document to the Senate, citing figures from the Center for Women's Resources. Seven out of 10 victims are children and the vast majority are girls, she said. A government-backed nationwide study in 2015 showed one in five children aged 13-17 experienced sexual violence, while one in 25 were raped during childhood, UNICEF said.

But prosecuting adult perpetrators in rape cases involving children as young as 12 has been difficult because they can argue the sex was consensual, said Rowena Legaspi, executive director of the Children's Legal Rights and Development Center. "Imagine a 12-year-old… that girl is still a minor," Legaspi told AFP. "How could she have consented?"

The proposed bill would make it automatically illegal and carry a penalty of life imprisonment, though it would not punish young couples close in age. It is expected to be approved by the Senate in the coming months before going to President Rodrigo Duterte to be signed into law.

Activists say increasing the age of consent will deter sexual predators. But they caution more needs to be done to combat sexual violence against children and one of the highest rates of teenage pregnancy in Southeast Asia. All children should have access to age-appropriate sex education "from an early age" as well as information and services to make sex safer and avoid unplanned pregnancies, said Carlos Conde of Human Rights Watch.

Sexist and "victim blaming" attitudes among prosecutors and judges also needed to be changed, and cases needed to move faster, said Legaspi. It currently take years for a rape case to reach court, by which time the victim may be an adult-and in some cases, the accused has died. "We have so many laws that protect children but the problem is the implementation," said Legaspi. "You only change the law but the system is still there."

I want to have fun
Not everyone favors increasing the age of consent. A social worker dealing with adolescents in impoverished areas of Manila told AFP it could push relationships between children and adults underground, making it more difficult to assist youngsters in need. Donna Valdez, 15, says it should be left to the couple to decide if they are ready to have sex. She was 13 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 bill he could be charged with rape.

Valdez had no regrets becoming a mother so young, she told AFP as her 10-month-old son wriggled in her lap at the health center. "We're happy that we're blessed with a child," said Valdez, not her real name. But Alvarez says she misses her old life. "I want to go out with friends again, I want to have fun," she said. "I'm jobless, my parents are also out of work. Where will we get money for my baby's needs?" Alvarez hopes to finish high school so she can work overseas-like millions of other Filipinos whose monthly remittances help support their families at home. "I'm too young to be worn out," she said. "I still have plans, I want to marry an American to have a better life." - AFP