Divorced from reality in the Philippines
By Joel D Adriano
MANILA - Karilyn, a 30-year-old Filipina, had been married for less than two
years when her marriage turned sour. But like many Filipinos in her position,
there is slim chance for escape due to Catholic religion influenced laws aimed
at preserving the sanctity of family that make formal divorce illegal in the
Karilyn and her spouse were separated due to irreconcilable differences and she
is currently in a relationship with a United States citizen, who frequently
visits from abroad. She plans to apply for a fiancee visa to wed in the US, but
has had to wait because her petition for a legal annulment has been stuck in
the country's slow-moving courts for over two years.
There is little guarantee the annulment will be granted considering
certain family courts in Manila have 95% denial rates. She also faces a
potential six-year prison term if she resides with a new partner while
separated but still legally married. Across the country, Filipinos who have
exited failed marriages are unable to start new love lives due to fears they
could end up behind bars.
A new bill pending in congress that aims to introduce legal divorce has put the
issue in the national spotlight. The bill is expected to gain some traction
with the growing number of women legislators and human-rights oriented
party-list groups represented in congress. Its introduction also coincides with
president Benigno Aquino's celebrity actress sister's well-publicized and
bitter bid to get a legal separation from her athlete husband after five years
For over three decades, Philippine legislators have debated and ultimately
failed to introduce divorce laws. The debate has been repeatedly quashed due to
strong opposition from the influential Catholic Church and a lack of strong
advocates in the male-dominated congress. The Philippines is one of only two
global countries, the other being Malta, which bars legal divorce.
The church's influence over the divorce debate is a reflection of its political
and social power in a country that counts 85% of the population as its
devotees. The institution is widely viewed as a bastion of moral authority
among a population that has suffered from decades of abusive and corrupt
government, particularly during the rights abusing administration of the late
dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
Led by the charismatic Cardinal Jaime Sin, the church was instrumental in the
popular street movement that eventually brought down Marcos. Now, clergymen
continue to serve as a de facto moral check on corrupt politicians and abusive
security officials. This is seen in the current highly publicized crusade led
by a retired archbishop against illegal gambling rackets operated or protected
by wayward officials.
At the same time, the church has been roundly criticized for its support of
outdated policies on reproductive issues. Its promotion of large family sizes
is often blamed for the unrestrained population growth that has contributed to
chronic poverty and high unemployment in the country. The lack of effective
birth control policies has made the Philippines the 12th most populous country
in the world with over 90 million people. At current population growth rates,
the number of Filipinos is expected to balloon to 140 million by 2040.
Aquino, elected on a reformist platform in May, has sent conflicting signals
about his position on the divorce bill. He has said he is against formal
divorce, but favors the idea of remarriage. He has criticized so-called Las
Vegas-style weddings "where you get married in the morning and you get divorced
in the afternoon". Beth Angsioco, a feminist leader and chairperson of the
Democratic Socialist Women of the Philippines, has argued that his support of
remarriage could be considered a de facto endorsement of divorce.
It's unclear to advocates if Aquino is bidding to effect change while avoiding
a head-on confrontation with the church. Still a bachelor at age 50 and
perceived as deeply religious, Aquino has benefited from the image of his
recently deceased mother, Corazon Aquino, a former president who was viewed as
a model and devout Catholic. Aquino is not expected to antagonize the church
and has so far side-stepped religion-based debates on reproductive health and
sex education in schools.
Recent polls show that women favor legalizing divorce more than men. Records
posted in March by the National Statistical Coordination Board showed that a
survey done by the University of the Philippines' Population Institute found
that 40% of women would support a bill to legalize divorce in the country while
only 8% of men would.
One explanation for male opposition is the double standard implicit in a
culture that views the number of mistresses a man keeps as a reflection of his
social status and power. In her best-selling book, Etiquette for Mistresses and
what Wives can learn from them, newspaper columnist Julie Yap Daza
wrote, "It appears that mistresses have gained a degree of acceptability," and
that wives are expected to remain "demure and faithful", and endure abuses for
the sake of family.
Another reason is likely financial. While the introduction of legalized divorce
would allow for remarriages, it would also open the way for court enforced
alimony payments for children born into broken marriages, an obligation many
separated males now eschew, says a government official monitoring the divorce
bill's progress in congress.
Troubled Filipino couples currently only have legal separation or annulment as
exit options. However, legal separation does not dissolve the marriage and
neither partner is allowed to remarry by law. Separated couples could be
legally charged with adultery or concubinage if they live with another partner,
a criminal offense that could result in imprisonment. Among the grounds for
legal separation include homosexuality, repeated physical violence and
Annulment voids marriages as initially illegal for certain reasons, including
bonds consummated while one of the partners was below the age of 18 and
incestuous marriages. Marriages are also legally annulled when the consent of
one of the partners was obtained by fraud, including non-disclosure of a
previous criminal conviction, concealment of drug addiction, and undeclared
pregnancy with another partner.
It's thus no coincidence that more couples are opting to live together outside
of wedlock, a phenomenon seen in the declining number of church-officiated
marriages recorded in the Catholic Directory. More Filipinos are also choosing
to marry abroad, which leaves open a legal loophole of getting divorced abroad.
However, divorce obtained abroad between two Filipino citizens is not legally
valid or recognized in the Philippines due to the Civil Code's so-called
nationality principle, which binds all Filipinos to Philippine laws on family
rights and duties, status and legal capacities.
Under the proposed new divorce law in congress, there would be wide-ranging
grounds for breaking conjugal bonds, including if a married couple has already
been separated for five years, widely defined reasons for marital breakdowns,
psychological incapacity and irreconcilable differences.
Contrary to what the church and political conservatives may fear, legalizing
divorce might actually encourage more couples to get married. Legal divorce
will also offer more protection to the over 10 million Filipinos now living and
working abroad and the advent of social networking sites that have sparked more
intermarriage between Filipinos and foreigners.
Until then, Karilyn and thousands of others must hope against the odds that
courts will agree to annul their failed marriages to start anew.
Joel D Adriano is an independent consultant and award-winning freelance
journalist. He was a sub-editor for the business section of The Manila Times
and writes for ASEAN BizTimes, Safe Democracy and People's Tonight.