Under Philippine law, 12-year-olds can consent to sex. Activists are trying to change that

Updated 0913 GMT (1713 HKT) July 13, 2021

(CNN)Antonette Acupinpin was 7 when the sexual abuse started.

She had already endured years of beating and physical violence from her mother and stepfather, she said -- but then he took it a step further.
He would put a long knife near her face during the abuse, and threaten to kill her mother and brother if she reported him, she said. Terrified and ashamed, she didn't tell anyone for a year and a half -- until a school teacher saw her with a black eye and notified the police.
"I felt hopeless," said Acupinpin, now 23. "It felt like I had nowhere to go because it's my family who was hurting me. I didn't know anyone who could really help me."
She's not alone. Child sexual abuse is rampant in the Philippines, which activists say is partly driven by the country's ​law regarding the age at which ​girls can legally consent to sex. ​
At just 12 years old, it's the youngest age of consent in Asia -- and one of the youngest in the world. Opponents ​of the law say children that age are incapable of giving consent, and less likely to know how to call for help.
The law protects predators, critics say, because they can claim victims consented -- and children as young as 12 can often be coerced or threatened into silence.
Victims' advocates also argue the low age of consent contributes to ​what international rights organizations have described as high levels of sex trafficking and teenage pregnancy in the Philippines, compounded by gaps in the enforcement of existing laws.
"In the Philippines, we have about one woman or child raped every 53 minutes," said Rep. Arlene Brosas of the Gabriela Women's Party, citing 2016 data from non-profit organization Center for Women's Resources. "We believe it is much worse -- especially that child victims of sexual abuse are very prevalent."
Brosas and a number of lawmakers are now fighting to raise the age of consent to 16, which is standard in many other countries, including the majority of the United States. The movement took a significant step forward last December when their proposed bill was overwhelmingly approved by the Philippines House of Representatives.
Raising the age is just one step -- the bill includes a raft of other provisions to strengthen enforcement, improve the investigation and legal process, and provide more support and confidentiality for victims ​of sexual exploitation and abuse.
But the bill still has a long way to go before it becomes law, and time is running out. Elections are less than a year away -- at which point lawmakers will have to start over from scratch. If it doesn't pass before then, the bill's ​supporters say millions of children will remain vulnerable to exploitation -- and with reports of ​images depicting child sex abuse skyrocketing during the pandemic, the threat has never been more urgent.