By Macon Araneta

Sen. Win Gatchalian cited the urgency to raise the age of sexual consent as a measure against  young girls being forced into child marriages as a consequence of COVID-19.

The Philippines has the twelfth highest number of child brides in the world based on the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF ).

A child marriage is a marriage of a boy or a girl before 18, though it affects more girls, one in 25 boys marry before 18, according to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).

Meanwhile, the age of sexual consent in the Philippines is 12 years old, the lowest in Asia and the second lowest in the world.

In its Global Girlhood Report 2020 released this month, international charity organization Save the Children said that up to 2.5 million girls around the world are at risk of child marriage in the next five years because of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, including school closures and economic insecurities.

Last April, the UNFPA warned that economic hardships and disruptions to programs on gender-based violence could result in up to 13 million more child marriages in the next 10 years.

Gatchalian, who originally proposed to raise the age of sexual consent to 18 in Senate Bill number 739, said that amending the law on statutory rape will be helpful in combating sexual violence and abuse that result from child marriages.

The Senate recently approved on second reading a proposed measure to end child marriages in the country. Panels from both the House of Representatives and the Senate also approved proposals to raise the age of sexual consent to 16.

“Children should be studying to have a better future. Their dreams should not be broken because of forced marriages and early family responsibilities,”  said Gatchalian, chairman of the Senate committee on Basic Education, Arts and Culture.

Gatchalian also reiterated the importance of ensuring continued provision of child protection programs and reproductive health services to protect vulnerable girls from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The lawmaker also emphasized the importance of comprehensive sexuality education since early marriage and family matters are considered the top reasons why girls aged six to 24 are not attending school as reported by the Annual Poverty Indicators Survey in 2017.