Filipino-Style Divorce, Anyone?

Is divorce set to become legal in the Philippines? For the sake of women trapped in failing marriages, lets hope so.

There are only two countries in the world without a divorce law: Malta and the Philippines. Both are Catholic-dominated nations governed by politicians who are afraid to antagonize the bishops who seem to be more popish than the pope in their dogmatic interpretation of the Holy Scriptures. But Malta is expected to finally enact a divorce law after its citizens recently approved the measure through a referendum. What now for the Philippines?

A divorce bill is pending in Congress, but its authors are less worried that Malta would beat the Philippines in legislating divorce than the disturbing fact that Filipino women have few and limited options to get out of failed marriages.

Under Philippines laws, there are only three remedies available to separate couples or terminate a marriage. These are legal separation, declaration of nullity and annulment. Legal separation allows couples to physically separate, but doesn’t allow them to re-marry, while a declaration of nullity makes the children in that marriage illegitimate.

The most popular option therefore used by estranged couples to end a marriage is by invoking Article 36 of the Family Code, which is sometimes referred to as the de facto divorce law in the Philippines. The provision allows a marriage to be voided if one of the parties is proven to be psychologically incapacitated to perform marital obligations. But it requires a comprehensive psychiatric evaluation, not to mention lawyer’s fees, which makes it a costly solution.

The proposed divorce law would address the limitations of these existing legal remedies by expanding the grounds of separation. Divorce is granted if these grounds are met: De facto separation from his or her spouse for at least five years at the time of the filing of the petition and reconciliation is highly improbable; Legal separation for at least two years at the time of the filing of the petition and reconciliation is highly improbable; When any of the grounds for legal separation have caused irreparable breakdown of the marriage; When one or both spouses are psychologically incapacitated to comply with the essential marital obligations; and when the spouses suffer from irreconcilable difference that have caused the irreparable breakdown of the marriage.

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The five valid grounds listed above are there to discourage and prevent no-fault divorces or Las Vegas-style divorces. The proposed divorce bill also has some interesting provisions that might be unique to the Philippines, like asking couples to seek reconciliation before petitioning for divorce, extending legal and personal assistance to poor couples who want a divorce, and prescribing a six-month period for the courts to settle divorce cases. Divorces obtained by Filipino citizens abroad will be deemed valid as well.

The intended beneficiaries of the bill aren’t rich couples who can afford expensive annulment proceedings, but poor women who are trapped in dead-end marriages. According to government figures, which should be considered conservative, an average of 22 annulment cases are filed everyday all over the country.  In 2010, the number of annulment cases was 40 percent higher than 10 years ago.

It’s crucial to note that in 2007, the Office of the Solicitor General reported that 92 percent who filed for annulment petitions were Roman Catholics. As expected, 61 percent of petitioners were females. During the same year, the police said that a woman is battered every one hour and 50 minutes in the Philippines.

Critics of the divorce bill aver that divorce is alien to Philippine culture and that it’s a bad Western legacy. They are wrong, since absolute divorce was popularly practiced among ancestral tribes in the country prior to the arrival of Spanish colonizers in the 16th century. Divorce was also available during the American period starting 1917. It was only in 1950, when the new Civil Code took effect, that divorce was disallowed in the country.

Opponents of the bill also argue that passing a divorce law would be unconstitutional since the 1987 Constitution explicitly mentions the need to protect the sanctity of marriage. But the same Constitution is silent on divorce, thereby not prohibiting its legalization.

Divorce wouldn’t necessarily destroy the foundation of the family, as has been shown by Italy and Spain, two predominantly Catholic countries with low rates of divorce. If a couple are happy, they wouldn’t file for divorce anyway. But it’s a reality that many are suffering in abusive and irreparable marriages. Why deny them the chance to regain their liberty and happiness?

The chances of legislating divorce in the Philippines is slim today since Congress has yet to finish deliberations on the equally, if not more controversial, Reproductive Health Bill. But it’s the duty of the government to protect the rights of all its citizens, whether Catholic or not. And this duty should include, among other things, the granting of the right of individuals, especially women, to end a bad marriage and seek a new life.