The Missionary Position: Divorce in the Philippines
The Philippine House of Representatives

The Missionary Position: Divorce in the Philippines

 
 

An op-ed published in the International New York Times on July 28, by the writer and filmmaker Gin de Mesa Laranas, raised an important question: will the Philippines legalize divorce? It is one of only two countries where divorce remains outlawed, the other being the metropole of Catholicism, the Vatican City. As Laranas wrote, although the Constitution formally recognizes the separation between church and state, the Catholic Church “still wields considerable influence,” especially over politics, and has been vehement in its opposition to what it describes as “D.E.A.T.H” laws — divorce, euthanasia, abortion, total population control, and homosexual marriage. For the Catholic hierarchy in the Philippines, divorce is “anti-family” and “anti-life.” And those who endorse it are job-sharing with the devil.

“Being a country where divorce is not legal is an honor that every Filipino should be proud of,” Oscar Cruz, an archbishop emeritus, has stated. “Love for the family is the heart of Filipino cultural identity and cannot be destroyed by divorce.” Employing the tiresome rhetoric of the reactionary, he blamed demands for divorce on the caprice of foreigners and “globalization.” That’s not the case. For decades, Filipinos have been demanding divorce and politicians have tried to introduce the necessary legislation, albeit without success. The latest attempt came in early July when a bill (House Bill 116, commonly called the Divorce Bill) was put before Congress by Edcel Lagman, a human rights lawyer and long-serving politician from the province of Albay, in the southeast of Luzon. (It remains unknown when, or if, the bill will be debated.)

“Most marriages are supposed to be solemnized in heaven; the reality is many marriages plummet into hell — in irremediable breakdown, spousal abuse, marital infidelity, and psychological incapacity, among others, which bedevil marriages,” Lagman said, adding with a verbal flourish: “An absolute divorce is a merciful liberation of the hapless wife from a long-dead marriage.”

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The arrival of Ferdinand Magellan in 1521 began the conversion of most Filipinos to Catholicism and the stamping out of divorce, which was commonly practiced on the islands before the Spanish arrival. The colonial transfer of the islands to the United States, following the 1898 Spanish-American War, led to divorce becoming legal, but only in cases of adultery and “concubinage.” Even this partial legalization of divorce was revoked by the Civil Code of 1950, “thanks largely to the resurgent forces of the Catholic Church,” according to the journalist Lila Ramos Shahani. This prohibition was reformulated in 1987 under the Family Code of the Philippines.

Presently, Filipinos have three methods of separating from a marriage. (It should be noted that the following only applies to non-Muslim Filipinos, since divorce is legal for 11 percent of the population who are Muslim.) Article 36 of the Family Code rules that a marriage can be annulled if there are technical errors in the legal requirements — if a spouse was under the legal age of marriage, which is 18-years-old, or the marriage license was improperly filled out, for example. Annulment is also possible under Article 45, if it can be proved that either spouse was “psychologically incapacitated” from the beginning of the marriage. But as Laranas pointed out, the definition of this is so stringent that people are often forced pay a psychologist, lawyer, or judge to “manufacture” a diagnosis. This can cost upwards of $4,000, and often higher, well beyond the financial reach of most Filipinos.

The two aforementioned options do allow for a person to remarry after annulment. But the third option doesn’t. Article 55 allows for a legal, or formal, separation if it can be shown that a spouse has committed physical abuse or sexual infidelity. (Extramarital affairs are illegal in the Philippines, despite the grapevine that most men are hiding a mistress or two.) Again, Laranas noted, this option is “nearly impossible and very expensive,” and, more importantly, falls short of actual divorce because of the inability to remarry – in fact, once separated under this option a remarriage is considered bigamy and adultery, although this is a fact often overlooked. The boxer turned senator, Manny Pacquiao, asked recently: “Isn’t divorce just like an annulment?”

Clearly, it isn’t. “Two people can voluntarily choose to love, honor, and remain faithful to each other, but in the Philippines it is pretty much only through death, or the torturously long process of annulment, that they can part,” wrote the journalist Ana P. Santos last year.

Divorce and Women’s Rights

In 1889, upon hearing of a letter sent by the women of Malolos to the Spanish governor-general pleading to be allowed an education, the famed Filipino writer Jose Rizal composed an essay titled, “To my country women, the young women of Malolos.” Rizal’s opinions carry weight in the Philippines — especially since his writings have been compulsory reading for all schoolchildren for the last half-century — and in this essay he made two things clear: one, the development of the nation was dependent on the development of women, and, two, that reactionary Catholicism was irreconcilable with progress. Excuse me for quoting Rizal at length:

“Youth is a flowerbed that is to bear rich fruit and must accumulate wealth for its descendants. What offspring will be that of a woman whose kindness of character is expressed by mumbled prayers; who knows nothing by heart but awits, novenas, and the alleged miracles; whose amusement consists in playing panguingue or in the frequent confession of the same sins? What sons will she have but acolytes, priest’s servants, or cockfighters?… The mother who can only teach her child how to kneel and kiss hands must not expect sons with blood other than that of vile slaves.”

Centuries on, these two issues are at the foreground of the debate on divorce. In my relatively short life, I have come to the understanding that there are really only two ways of curing poverty and subjugation: universal education and the empowerment of women. I am glad to read that Lagman has, quite rightly, pitched the bill as a piece of “pro-women legislation.” It is not his first, however. Lagman was the principle author and a chief proponent of what is commonly called Reproductive Health Law, which was passed to much controversy in 2012. Groundbreaking, despite subsequent limits applied by the Supreme Court, it guaranteed universal and free access of most forms of modern contraceptives, provided by the state, mandated that reproductive health be taught at state schools, and recognized post-abortion care as part of reproductive healthcare. Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, described it as an “historic step forward for all women in the Philippines, empowering them to make their own decisions about their health and families and participate more fully and equally in their society.”

The Divorce Bill would also be an historic leap. “Because traditionally, in the relation between husband and wife, the husband is more assented… [The] husband philanders and gets away with it. It is the wife who needs an absolute divorce,” Lagman said. “Sometimes, [divorce] can even be morally necessary, when it’s about shielding the weaker spouse or young children from the more serious wounds caused by intimidation and violence, humiliation, and exploitation.”

In 2013, the government’s National Statistics Office carried out its latest National Demographic and Health Survey. It found that one in five women aged between 15 and 49 had experienced some form of physical violence, and one in four emotional, physical, or sexual violence from their husbands. Of course, these statistics are most likely a fraction of what is actually happening, since only 30 percent of women said they sought assistance after suffering abuse, falling to just 4 percent when pregnant. But there does appear to be an upwards trend of reporting crime to the police; from 1997 to 2013, the number of cases of violence against women reported rose by more than 500 percent. Granted, these cut across economic status, but statistics continually show that the impacts of a failed marriage or a violent spouse, and the inability to properly separate from such a relationship, often fall harder on poorer women. And one of the proposals put forward by Lagman, worthy of considerable praise, is his intention to make divorce “inexpensive and affordable.” As he pointed out, and I did earlier, the present system is so cumbersome and costly that “poor women cannot afford the [current] process.” So Lagman has suggested that it is up to the state, on occasions, to foot the bill, and under Lagman’s Divorce Bill, “court[s] may waive the payment of filing fees and other costs of litigation.”

If at First You Don’t Succeed…

The depressing fact, however, is that Lagman’s recent Divorce Bill is hardly original. As far as I am aware, there were attempts to introduce similar legislation in 1988, 1992, 1998, 1998, 2005, and 2010 — all failed. The 2010 effort took the form of the House Bill 1799. In response, then-President Benigno Aquino III, a bachelor and devout Catholic, said clearly that “divorce is a no-no.” Then, reducing the discussion to its basest form, he argued that such a law would create “something like they do in Las Vegas. The stereotype is you get married in the morning [and] you get divorced in the afternoon.” The bill was never formally rejected; in fact, it didn’t even reach a committee level to be debated and it expired with the closure of the 17th Congress.

But the recent incarnation of a perennial issue might have arrived at an opportune moment. First, an investigation by ABS-CBN, found that between 2001 and 2010, the number of annulments of marriage rose by 40 percent, from 4,520 cases to 8,283. By 2012, this had risen to 10,528. This suggests that Filipinos are demanding marital separation in increasing numbers and that public opinion is warming to the idea of actual divorce. A study by SWS found that public support for divorce for “irreconcilably separated couples” grew from 44 percent in 2005 to 60 percent in 2014.

Second, there are suggestions that the Catholic Church’s influence is waning. Following the passing of the Reproductive Health Law, which was supported by 70 percent of the population, Archbishop Oscar Cruz admitted an implication was that “the church is losing influence over its members.” This is a conclusion drawn by many commentators in the Filipino media as well.

Third, the Philippines has a new president. In her op-ed, Laranas noted that Rodrigo Duterte “is famous for disdaining dress codes, traditional diplomacy, and religious dogma. This spring, he went on an expletive-ridden rant against the Catholic Church, accusing it of hypocrisy, corruption and immorality, and of meddling in politics.” In May, he called Catholic bishops “sons of whores.” Continuing, Laranas added: “Duterte called the presidential election a ‘public referendum’ between the bishops and himself. While most candidates were busy wooing powerful religious groups, he declared being ‘open’ to legalizing same-sex marriage.” The insinuation is that Duterte might just be the president to back the Divorce Bill.

Nevertheless, such progress, as Rizal noted in the 19th century, is still up against vigorous, reactionary forces. Laranas quoted the Filipino anthropologist Michael L. Tan: “We are more Catholic than the Pope, especially this Pope.” Indeed, on a visit to the Philippines in January 2015, Pope Francis urged the country’s bishops to “take a more forgiving stance toward divorced Catholics.” But for all the dogma of Papal infallibility, Philippine bishops appeared to pay little attention to God’s mouthpiece and continued to oppose their bête noire. They also appear to be paying little attention to the realities of the “sanctity of marriage.” Aside from the fact that an unhappy or beaten wife should remain unhappy or beaten according to the Church’s current stance, this position is leading to greater numbers of Filipinos “living in sin;” it is estimated that up to 40 percent of the urban poor couples – this says nothing of the majority, rural poor – are no longer bothering to get married, simply because of financial costs and the price of entering a marriage there’s no way out of.

But it will come down to legislators to pass the bill, and they are under intense pressure from the wrath of the Catholic Church. “It’s easier for ordinary citizens to support divorce in anonymous surveys than for lawmakers to do so openly… In the past, priests have taken to their pulpits to lambast politicians,” Laranas wrote. Two examples were provided. A conference of bishops once raised the possibility of ex-communicating then-President Aquino — no reason was given in the article, but the 2010 incident was sparked by the Reproductive Health Law. And last year, when changes to the family code granted remarriage for Filipinos who had divorced foreign spouses abroad, Archbishop Ramon Arguelles admonished its supporters, saying: “Everyone should now understand that the deception is not over. The devil is at work… Those who pass this law will face the judgement of God.”

What’s more, while Lagman’s decision to file the Divorce Bill on the first day of Duterte’s presidency portrays some optimism that he might support it, the new president’s character shows otherwise. Duterte is an iconoclast and a populist, two ideological positions that seldom co-exist. An iconoclast is rarely popular, in the political majoritarian sense of the word, and a populist rarely bucks against accepted norms. That he annulled a former marriage and isn’t coy about calling priests “sons of whores” means nothing when it comes to maintaining popular support.

It might be representative of something, or perhaps nothing, but Lagman’s filing of the Divorce Bill wasn’t covered by any of the major international news publications, except the International New York Times’ op-ed. In the Philippine press, it received only a smattering of coverage. One doesn’t like to ascribe editors with too much foresight, but one could read from this that divorce in the Philippines is hardly an original issue, nor newsworthy, nor, perhaps, likely to be accepted into law. Granted, but the issue’s enduring nature gives it weight and an unlikely law is no less a necessary one. Lagman’s proposals warrant a lot more praise and attention than they are currently receiving. And, if by some miracle – pun intended – the Divorce Bill is signed into law, he can count himself as one the Philippines’ most progressive politicians of recent times, paving the way for one more historic step to be taken by women in the Philippines.

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