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    Southeast Asia
     Sep 28, 2010
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 Philippines.

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 of marriage.

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 abandonment.

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.

(Copyright 2010 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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