MANILA – The United Nations (UN) Children’s Fund (UNICEF) on Monday lauded the Philippine government for passing a law increasing the age of sexual consent from 12 years old to 16 years old -- making sexual activity with those below 16 to be considered statutory rape.

In a statement, UNICEF Philippines Representative Oyunsaikhan Dendevnorov congratulated the Philippine government for the “legislative milestone” after President Rodrigo Duterte signed Republic Act 116481 or the Special Protection of Children against Abuse, Exploitation, and Discrimination Act on Friday.

“The passage of this legislation is an essential step towards fulfilling children’s rights to protection from sexual violence, abuse and exploitation, regardless of their sex, orientation, and gender identity and expression,” Dendevnorov said.

The UN, she said, has previously voiced concerns over the “alarmingly low” age of sexual consent in the country.

“The age of consent was the lowest in Asia and one of the lowest in the world, leaving children in the Philippines vulnerable to abuse and exploitation,” Dendevnorov said.

She lauded both chambers of the House of Representatives for “heeding strong evidence” and creating a more robust child protection legal framework.

Aside from increasing the age of sexual consent, she said the law has also equalized the protection for victims of rape (regardless of gender) and adopted a “close in age exemption” to avoid criminalizing adolescents of similar ages for consensual sexual activity.

In addition, she said the law has also tasked public and private educational institutions to teach their staff in identifying, responding to, and reporting rape and other sexual offenses.

“The Department of Education is also asked to include in the basic education curriculum the rights of children in relation to this Act. Such lessons are asked to be age-appropriate so this can be understood by all learners,” Dendevnorov said.

The UNICEF, she said, “remains committed” to support the Philippine government in creating a safe environment for children.

“UNICEF will remain steadfast in supporting all efforts of the Philippine government, especially the key actors in the implementation of this Act, to ensure the stringent enactment of this new law as we continue our work towards the complete eradication of all forms of violence against children in the Philippines,” Dendevnorov said.

Under RA 116481, rape is committed by a person who engages in sexual activity “when the offended party is under 16 years of age or is demented.”

There will be no criminal liability when the age difference between the parties is not more than three years and is proven to be “consensual, non-abusive, and non-exploitative.”

It noted that if the victim is under 13 years of age, the exception does not apply. (PNA)