MANILA – Thousands of couples stuck in failed marriages have been waiting for years for the Philippines to pass a divorce law as they are still condemned to unhappily remain married and frustrated until death do them part in the world’s only country that does not recognize the right of citizens to terminate their “sacrosanct” matrimony.
The situation is especially unbearable for Filipinos trapped in toxic relationships or victims of spousal abuse, a problem that affects one out of every four women in the country, according to official statistics for 2018.
One of those women is 46-year-old Melody Alan, who endured constant violence and mistreatment by her alcoholic and drug-addict husband for 14 years. He never provided economically for the family, which has four children in common.
“One night, there was a big incident. He kicked me down the stairs after beating me,” Melody tells EFE, her eyes downcast.
She managed to save her life thanks to the intervention of her two oldest son, who told their father to leave and encouraged her to separate from her husband once and for all.
Melody, who has been separated for 12 years, now spearheads the Divorce Pilipinas coalition, an organization campaigning for the legal recognition of divorce that counts more than 10,000 members among its ranks.
Most of its members are women who have suffered abuses from their husbands, Melody explains.
Without the option to legally dissolve their marriage, the only recourse for women like Melody is to apply for legal separation, which at least allows for an end to cohabitation and a division of common assets.
But in the eyes of the Philippine law, the abuser continues to be her husband.
The victim forever retains her spouse’s last name and still requires his signature for certain types of legal paperwork, such as the process of buying a house.
The other option is to get the marriage annulled, a cumbersome and expensive undertaking that is only available to wealthy families: the minimum cost of a judicial annulment stands at around 300,000 pesos ($5,733) – approximately equivalent to a middle-class worker’s annual average salary – and it can reach up to 1 million pesos, though the final price tag is ultimately determined by a judge.
In light of this unique situation – the Vatican City is the only other state entity on the planet that does not recognize some form of divorce – opposition Senator Risa Hontiveros has launched a new crusade in Congress to make divorce legal in the Philippines, after previous attempts made since 2005 faltered due to obstruction by Catholic and conservative lawmakers who describe it as an “anti-Philippine” policy.
“Divorce is a way out for people trapped in loveless or abusive, sometimes even violent, unions. It’s about second chances in life for love, commitment and marriage,” Sen. Hontiveros – who last month introduced the latest divorce bill to the Senate floor – told EFE.
The legislation sponsored by Hontiveros establishes domestic violence as sufficient grounds for divorce – even if it only occurred once – as well as irreconcilable differences. These two motives are currently not taken into consideration in legal separation or annulment applications.
The legalization of divorce is a measure long awaited by feminist collectives throughout the Philippines, a country that is, paradoxically, among the most egalitarian when it comes to gender inequality in Asia, as there is almost no pay gap between men and women, the latest cabinets have had considerable gender parity and there are advanced anti-harassment and discrimination laws in place.
“The ban on divorce is a stain on this record,” Hontiveros said, adding that she was confident that her bill will be approved this time around, as “more and more congressmembers are open to divorce.”
In fact, recent polls show that around 53 percent of Filipinos support this measure.
Sen. Pia Cayetano has also introduced her own divorce bill, while the House of Representatives is currently debating a different piece of legislation on the matter.
Last year, the House had passed a divorce law that was later buried by the Senate.
The main hurdle to legalizing divorce is the “overwhelming Catholic affiliation of a majority of Filipinos, more than 80 percent, and the overwhelming influence of the Catholic Church on the country,” Hontiveros said.
The Conference of Catholic Bishops has repeatedly voiced its opposition to divorce, which is viewed as a threat to the “sanctity of marriage and the family” and contrary to Christian tradition.
However, in the Philippines – the country with the most Catholics in all of Asia and the third-highest number of Catholics in the world –, divorce is allowed for members of the Muslim and indigenous minorities.
This constitutes “clear discrimination among Filipinos,” denounced Mavic Millora, of the Divorce Advocates of the Philippines group.
“After 15 years of marriage, I decided to get separated because the situation was untenable for the whole family, especially for my kids. I made efforts to be the traditional wife society expects, but I was unhappy,” she said.
Now she spends her time campaigning for the right to divorce, a passion that was sparked by a Facebook group where people like herself used the anonymity of the Internet to share the miseries of their failed marriages.
Maria Bravo, 50, also found consolation in the DAP group. She has been married for 30 years with a man who “never worked nor worried about the family’s livelihood” and sentenced her to be stuck in a toxic relationship marked by psychological and emotional abuse as well as several nervous breakdowns, which led her to separate from him 10 years ago.
“Now I can say I am happily separated because I feel free,” Maria – who during her marriage always feared relapsing into a spiral of suicidal tendencies she had suffered from as a teenager – told EFE.
After growing up within a broken family, her three college-educated daughters vow they will never get married.
This is an increasingly common stance among young people in face of the impediments to divorce, to the extent that the marriage rate has plummeted by 20 percent over the past decade.