Apart from the Vatican, the Philippines is the only country in the world where divorce is illegal. Public pressure and a proposed bill in the country’s parliament may change that. Ana P. Santos reports from Manila.
A bill legalizing divorce in the Philippines has been approved at the committee level in the House of Representatives and is set to be heard at a plenary level. It is the first time since 2005 that a bill pushing for divorce has come this close to being passed into legislation.
Emmi de Jesus, a congresswoman from the Gabriela Women’s Party, says the divorce bill was first tabled in parliament in 2005.
“This is the first time that we have reached the committee level approval,” de Jesus told DW.
De Jesus attributes this milestone to growing public pressure.
A 2014 survey conducted by research agency Social Weather Station indicated that more than 60 percent of Filipinos were in favor of legalizing divorce. In comparison, only 43 percent supported it in 2005.
“There is a higher awareness [about this issue] among the public now. People are more supportive of the rights of a person trapped in an unhappy marriage,” de Jesus said.
The Philippines, an island-nation with a 100 million-strong population, is the only country in the world apart from the Vatican that does not allow divorce. More than 80 percent of the country’s population is Catholic.
Philippine laws allow unhappy married couples to end their union through a legal separation or civil annulment. Legal separation does not allow either party to remarry while annulment is very expensive. Only the country’s Muslims — about 10 percent of the population — can exercise divorce under the Muslim family laws.
Supporters of the parliamentary divorce bill say annulment procedures can take years and are also very costly. This forces many couples to live in separation rather than seek annulment.
Additionally, physical abuse, infidelity and irreconcilable differences are not recognized as valid reasons for securing civil annulment.
The current version of the proposed divorce bill allows couples to choose between filing for an absolute divorce, a legal separation and annulment of marriage. It also guarantees a waiver of court fees for indigent divorce applicants and a speedy resolution of proceedings under certain grounds.
“The bill is responsive to the various situations of couples who want divorce,” Elizabeth Angsioco, chairperson of the Democratic Socialist Women of the Philippines and member of the divorce bill technical working group, told DW.
Supporters and opponents of the bill
“It is about time that we allow divorce in the Philippines. Many couples are already living separately and need closure to move on,” Maviv Millora, a member of Divorce Advocates of the Philippines (DAP), told DW.
DAP started out as a Facebook support group giving advice to people on how to end their marriages without going through the tediously long annulment process. The group has now moved on to lobbying and advocacy.
The country’s powerful Catholic Church, which was once a major opponent of the divorce bill, has also softened its stance on the issue, according to Congressman Edcel Lagman, one of the main authors of the divorce bill.
“The Church has no serious grounds to oppose this bill. They have their own canonical divorce proceedings,” Lagman told DW.
The divorce bill could face its biggest challenge in the Senate where no counterpart bill has been filed yet. In the Philippine bicameral system, a counterpart bill is needed for the main bill to become law.
“I’m not aware of any senator being interested [in a counterpart bill],” said Vicente Sotto III, the majority leader in the Senate.
“The prospects of the proposed divorce bill to pass the Senate are dim,” said Sotto, who is one of the senators who oppose divorce legalization.
“If President Rodrigo Duterte endorses the bill, the Senate will have to support it as well. If he doesn’t, passing it from the Senate will be a challenge,” said Lagman.