‘We are not criminals’: Philippines considers making divorce legal | Human Rights News


Manila, Philippines – Michelle Bulang left her abusive husband six years ago.

But even after all she had been through, Bulang, who lives with her four children in the province of Rizal just outside Metro Manila, was unable to divorce him.

The Philippines is the only country, other than the Vatican, where a married couple cannot legally end their marriage, even in cases of infidelity or domestic abuse.

“Every man or woman who gets into a relationship, nobody plans [to get divorced],” Bulang said, her voice breaking as tears welled in her eyes. “We jump into relationships, we love this person, we decide to be with them.”

But without a costly and difficult annulment process, which she cannot afford, Bulang has no way to end the union. “I just want to feel happiness,” she said. “What do I do?”

Now, a new bill could change everything in the deeply Catholic country. The Absolute Divorce Bill passed the House of Representatives in May, and if it passes the Senate, divorce would become legal.

The bill has gained supporters in the upper body of Congress, and while its prospects remain uncertain, supporters are more optimistic than ever that it could pass.

“It has never gone this far,” said AJ Alfafara, executive convener of the Divorce PILIPINAS Coalition. “This time around, I feel like we might just have a chance.”

President Ferdinand Marcos Jr expressed openness to legalising divorce when he came to office in 2022 and that while some cases were necessary, the process should not be easy.

In the wider population, 50 percent of Filipino adults support the legalisation of divorce and 31 percent are opposed, according to a survey conducted by the Social Weather Stations research institution in March.

Pro-divorce protesters hold a rally in front of the Senate. One woman is standing behind yellow railings and holding onto them. The protesters have placed red hearts and placards around, One says human rights while another calls for second chances.
There is more optimism surrounding the latest divorce bill than about previous attempts to lift the ban [Jam Sta Rosa/AFP]

Filipinos can file for legal separation, which allows spouses to live separately but does not legally end a marriage. They can also file for annulment, which is expensive and requires clear evidence that a marriage is invalid.

But opposition to divorce is linked to a strong, politically influential conservative Catholic lobby, including Iglesia ni Cristo, the country’s largest church, which prohibits divorce among its parishioners.

“The churches have a lot of influence over their flock,” Alfafara said. “When the head says this is what we vote … if you are Iglesia ni Cristo, you vote for them.”

Barriers to separation

Bulang recounted marrying at 26 after a difficult childhood where her parents fought and sometimes abused her.

“Nobody told me what love is. Nobody guided me,” she said. “When I was a kid, I thought marriage was like a fairy tale.”

Bulang recalls falling in love with her future husband without knowing much about him and quickly agreeing to marry.

“I thought he was the one,” she said.

But he drank frequently and beat her when they fought, she said. When angry, he would refuse to give them money to buy food. The children, now aged 18, 12, 11 and seven, learned to wait out his rage.

“They started to think that, OK, maybe the fights are a normal thing,” Bulang said. “That was the time that [I knew] this is a life I don’t like for my children.”

Bulang sought a legal separation, but in the process, she discovered that her husband had previously married another woman, meaning her marriage had never been legal in the first place.

But she is stuck because she cannot afford to go through court proceedings to prove that the marriage contract was invalid.

It generally costs as much as $4,000 to hire a lawyer to file annulment petitions, plus a lawyer’s appearance fee of about $100 per hearing date, said Janine Aranas, senior associate lawyer for Quezon City-based De Leon Arevalo Gonzales Law Offices.

Aside from the costs, courts in the Philippines are very technical and will throw out a petition to nullify a marriage if any piece of documentation is missing.

Aranas said in Bulang’s case, she would need to provide her original marriage contract and her husband’s previous contract, without which the court would probably deny the petition. Bulang is no longer in touch with her husband and would have no way of securing the contract.

“The burden of proof is on you, and it’s extremely high,” she said.

A head and shoulders photograph of Philippines' president Ferdinand Marcos Jr.
President Ferdinand Marcos Jr has expressed openness to relaxing the ban on divorce [File: Edgar Su/Reuters]

Some Filipinos take extreme measures to escape their marriages, even moving to other countries for the primary purpose of filing for divorce in courts abroad, then hoping to have the process recognised in the Philippines.

Aranas recounted working with one client whose husband would rape her and threaten her with an itak, a long, sharp knife used for butchering animals, when they fought. Still, she has been unable to nullify that woman’s marriage, and a legal separation would not protect her from her husband.

“Just imagine being in that certain relationship and then, after everything, you’re still married to that person. They still have the right to visit your kid,” Aranas said. “The trauma doesn’t end.”

About 1.6 million Filipinos were listed as annulled, separated or divorced according to the 2020 census by the Philippine Statistics Authority. Aside from divorces abroad, limited divorces are permitted among Filipino Muslims under Islamic law.

Obstacles

Still, there is robust opposition to divorce in the majority Catholic country, where many hold deep beliefs that marriage is sacred and should happen only once.

Many high-profile senators have stated their opposition to the divorce bill and some, such as Senate President Pro Tempore Jinggoy Estrada, instead support expanding access to costly annulment procedures.

“Instead of pushing for an absolute divorce law … perhaps a bill with a well-defined ground for nullifying a marriage would be a much-welcomed alternative,” Estrada said in May.

More than 40 groups came together last month to form the Super Coalition Against Divorce, which intends “to work together to prevent anti-family and anti-life laws from being passed in Congress,” the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines said in a Facebook post.

“Divorce breaks up families on a colossal scale,” said Tim Laws, a campaigner for the Alliance for the Family Foundation Philippines, Inc.

A woman praying in the Philippines. There are racks of small candles behind and in front of her
Roman Catholicism has flourished in the Philippines since Spanish colonisers introduced the religion to the country nearly 500 years ago [File: Eloisa Lopez/Reuters]

Laws, who has been married to a Filipina for more than 25 years, worries that hundreds of thousands of Filipinos could rush the courts seeking divorces should the bill pass in its current state.

Instead, members of ALFI support separation becoming free or low-cost, at least in cases of abusive marriages.

Laws backs legal separation rather than divorce because he says those who meet another partner and remarry tend to have higher rates of divorce. “In what way do they benefit,” he asked.

“[Marriage] is a lifetime commitment,” Laws said. “In all the world except the Philippines, marriage, as understood generally throughout history, has been abolished.”

The current Congress will come to an end in May 2025, and many sitting senators may be hesitant to support a divorce bill while facing re-election, Alfafara warned.

Last week, Marcos presented five priority measures his administration wants passed in Congress before its term expires. Legalising divorce was not one of them.

Still, Alfafara remains optimistic that a divorce bill will pass the Senate. The Divorce PILIPINAS Coalition has been in contact with members of Congress to a degree that has never happened before, she said.

“This is a civil policy,” Alfafara said. “It’s not a theological one.”

Bulang does not know whether she will seek to remarry should she manage to divorce her husband. “I want to feel the moment of freedom,” she said. “We are not criminals. We are all victims here.”



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