By Agence France Presse and Christina I. Hermoso
For well-off people like House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez, getting out of a bad marriage in the Philippines is pricey but feasible – but for the nation’s poorest and most vulnerable citizens it is nearly impossible.
That’s because heavily Catholic Philippines and the Vatican are the last two places on Earth where divorce is outlawed.
For the nation’s 100 million people, the only exit from a union gone wrong is an embarrassing – and labyrinthine – process that often amounts to a luxury.
But lawmakers, including Alvarez, have launched a new legislative effort to legalize divorce which activists believe could transform the lives of impoverished women trapped in toxic marriages.
The bill has been propelled forward by Alvarez, an ally of President Rodrigo Duterte.
In an interview with AFP, he said ending his first marriage cost him a million pesos ($19,200), which is more than triple what an average family in the Philippines makes in a year.
Like thousands of Filipinos, he did it through a civil procedure called annulment, whereby a judge declares a marriage invalid, generally because the spouses had a “psychological incapacity.”
It requires applicants to undergo a mental exam, testify in court and sometimes even claim they or their spouse entered the union with a disorder like narcissism.
The process can take anywhere from one to 10 years to wind through the creakingly slow and overburdened Philippine court system, costing at least $4,800.
Since 1999 lawmakers have regularly filed a bill to legalize divorce, only to see it languish in committee limbo – until now.
For the first time ever, House of Representatives lawmakers are poised to approve the bill after backing it in preliminary votes. It would then head to the Senate where it faces opposition from conservative members.
Threat to strong family ties
But the pending divorce bill is seen by Philippine bishops as a threat to strong family ties.
In a pastoral statement, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) considers the passing of the divorce bill “as an easy way out for couples whose marriages may still be fixed.”
“In a context in which divorce is presented as an easy option, marriages and families are bound to break up more easily,” said CBCP president and Davao Archbishop Romulo Valles in a CBCP News post.
“We merely ask that they consider the possibility that divorce, while it may indeed provide quick legal remedies for some seemingly ‘failed marriages,’ might end up destroying even those marriages that could have been saved by dialogues or the intervention of family, friends, pastors, and counselors,” Valles said. In progressive countries like the US where divorce is legal, 4 out of 10 marriages end up in divorce.
“The social costs that go with an easy recourse to the dissolution of a marriage when couples begin to face the difficult challenges of marital love and commitment are what we ask our legislators to consider seriously,” he said.
The CBCP president said that all marriages will go through periods of difficulties and trials.
“Even couples in seemingly successful marriages would often look back and recall the countless challenges that had almost brought their relationship to a breaking point if they had not learned to transcend personal hurts through understanding and forgiveness, or sometimes through the intervention of a dialogue facilitator such as a marriage counselor,” Valles said.
The prelate also expressed concern for the children of broken families who will be affected and will most likely feel disoriented and deprived of parental care.
About 24 organizations and movements issued a statement against divorce.
“Couples who overcome trials in marriage together grow in virtue and happiness. That is why decent peoples of the world accompany couples and families toward reconciliation and healing. The children deserve a home where love, faithfulness, and forgiveness reigns,” they said.
The bill enjoys rare bipartisan support, a sign Alvarez says of the urgency of addressing broken marriages. ‘’It’s a badge of stupidity because we are the only nation that does not see the problem,’’ Alvarez, 60, told AFP.
The legislation would allow divorce and exempt poor people from legal fees, listing domestic violence, attempts to engage a spouse in prostitution and irreconcilable differences among the grounds for splitting up.
Surveys show a majority of Filipinos have supported legalizing divorce since 2014.
At the same time the number filing for annulments has grown steadily in the past decade, hitting over 10,000 in 2017, according to government statistics.
“Filipinos have become more open. They’ve been exposed to norms from other countries,’’ said Jean Franco, political science assistant professor at the University of the Philippines.