Legalising divorce in the Philippines

Catholic faithful carry signs as they join a "march for life" at a park in Manila early on 24 February, 2018. (Ted Aljibe / AFP Photo)

Marriage is a life-defining moment for a young woman. For Melody Alan, that moment came when she was 21, fresh out of college and in love. However, for Alan and hundreds of women like her in the Philippines, youthful dreams of matrimonial bliss faded into a waking nightmare without end or escape, as the nation’s legal system left her trapped for years in an abusive relationship with her partner.

Today, the Manila resident is a strident voice in the country’s ongoing struggle to legalise divorce, serving as secretary-general for the Divorce Advocates of the Philippines (DAP), the only such organisation devoted to divorce rights registered with the Philippines Securities and Exchange Commission. Pro-divorce advocates have made significant headway in the debate, with a Bill to introduce the practice passing its third reading in the House of Representatives on 19 March.

However, legislative and social reform have met with concerted opposition from interest groups in the ASEAN member state, notably pro-family groups such as the Catholic Church as well as President Rodrigo Duterte, who has spoken out against the proposed Bill. The Philippines, with a population estimated to comprise 80.6 percent Roman Catholics in 2010, is the only country in the world aside from Vatican City which has yet to legalise divorce.

Regulatory framework

While divorce is legally banned in the Southeast Asian nation, Filipinos in unhappy marriages have historically had two alternative avenues for action: annulment and legal separation. Annulment is the invalidation of a marriage due to reasons ranging from fraud and mistaken identity to impotence or psychological incapacity, while separation arrangements allow spouses to live apart, while remaining married in name.

Annulment proceedings can take years to conclude, with steep financial costs, but they have the benefit of finality: both parties in an annulment go their separate ways, with no relationship extant between them. Indeed, the marital contract is treated as never having existed. However, for those whose marriages fell apart with time, this recourse is at best a fiction, and at worst a disrespectful eulogy to happier times.

“Yes, there is annulment, but it is a lie, tedious, expensive, and an ordeal for children who must go through the process as well. We are pursuing this advocacy because we want to be legally free to start a new beginning, while recording the true reasons of why a marriage should end,” says Alan.

In contrast, legal separation is the court-sanctioned dissolution of marital obligations and property relations between two partners, though the marital bond itself remains. Grounds for separation proceedings include repeated physical abuse, drug addiction or abandonment on the part of a spouse. Separation is a common recourse in the Philippines: Alan herself has been separated from her husband since 2010. Unlike annulment, however, the practice precludes the possibility of future marriage, while perpetuating a legal relationship between two alienated partners.

Source: Rule on Legal Separation,15 March, 2003

Fighting for change

In this light, the passage of House Bill 7303, titled “An Act Instituting Absolute Divorce and Dissolution of Marriage in the Philippines,” through the House of Representatives gives new hope to Filipinos, particularly women, unable to afford the costs of annulment or seeking more closure than that conveyed by legal separation.

In terms of costs, the upper limit for annulment proceedings can range up to one million pesos (US$19,060), which House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez was reported to have paid to end his first marriage. This compares to the average annual family income in the Philippines of 267,000 pesos (US$5,092), according to the 2015 Family Income and Expenditure Survey.

“The climate for divorce legalisation has gotten more supportive in recent years, particularly with the 2012 filing of House Bill 7303. In addition, the legislature is now seeing and hearing more facts on the issue as a growing number of victims come out and share their experiences,” says Alan.

However, the measure has met with stiff resistance from interest groups both within and without the Congress of the Philippines, of which the House of Representatives forms the lower chamber. For a bill to become law, it must pass in the Senate as well as the lower House; however, no counterpart divorce bill exists in the upper chamber as yet.

On 19 March, presidential spokesperson Harry Roque stated that Duterte was opposed to House Bill 7303, citing divorce’s detrimental effects on the children of separated couples, as well as spouses seeking legal action against former partners. Subsequently, in May, Senate President Vicente Sotto III confirmed it was unlikely that the Senate would act to legalise the practice, taking his lead from Duterte.

“Let’s be practical. The President is not in favour. The House passed a divorce law. Even if the Senate passes a divorce law, the President might veto it, and most probably will veto. Someone may bring it to Supreme Court and declare it unconstitutional. [But] if you look at the Constitution, I think it is very clear that family is important and you cannot legislate divorce,” he said in a television interview.

The views of Duterte and Sotto come despite a 2017 Social Weather Survey which found that 53 percent of Filipinos supported the legalisation of divorce, with 30 percent strongly in agreement and 23 percent in support. Pro-divorce sentiment was highest in Metro Manila, the seat of government and one of three defined metropolitan areas in the country, with 61 percent supporting legalisation, including 35 percent strongly in agreement.

As the divorce debate continues in the Philippines, it remains to be seen whether its leaders can persist in disregarding the feelings of the majority of its citizens on the matter, amid reports of weakening influence on the part of the Catholic Church on political and moral matters in the country. However, given that the family is enshrined in Article 15 of the 1987 Constitution as the foundation of the nation, it is certain that the issue will continue to divide its people.