Why in the World Don’t We Have Divorce in the Philippines?

This column may contain strong language, sexual content, adult humor, and other themes that may not be suitable for minors. Parental guidance is strongly advised.

We Filipinos seem to be inordinately proud of certain things.  The born-again boxing champion with the day job as a congressman who barely showed up for work yet returned to Congress as a senator.  The endless parade of stunning half-breedlasses who win all the international beauty pageants.  The world record for tweets—41 million—about a manufactured TV love team.  And the dubious honor of being, along with The Vatican, the only other state that forbids divorce.

Why that should be a source of pride is beyond me.  That it is even enshrined in the Constitution—the right to live in wedded misery with very limited and convoluted legal avenues of relief—is in itself a blatant injustice, a clear blurring of the lines between church and state because the other thing we are oh, so proud of as Filipinos is that we are oh, so Catholic, and therefore, marriage is forever.

What people seem to forget is that marriage may indeed be a religious sacrament, but in the eyes of the law, it is first and foremost a civil contract between two parties—for now, in the most backward of societies, that means a man and a woman. Hence, there is such a thing as a Civil Status: Single, Married, Widowed or Separated, with Separated referring to those whose marriages have been dissolved via the process of legal, not canonical, separation or annulment. And because divorce is still not legal, “Divorced” does not appear as a valid Civil Status.

Which strikes me as abysmally stupid and myopic, and inconsiderate of the fact that there is a larger world outside of the Philippines in which people do marry and divorce. It irks me when I have to fill out forms in this country and there is no box to tick that indicates my actual status—DIVORCED (and happily so, by the way). While obtaining my divorce was a long and draining process, (not because of lack of grounds or legal impediments, but because of an intransigent and contentious ex who deliberately delayed proceedings) it has definitely been one of the best things I have ever done for myself and my children. It’s easy to be rather blithe about it now, but the five years it took to get divorced were pretty hellish.

The reasoning often cited by critics of divorce that making divorce legal would somehow erode the institution of marriage, hence the almost insurmountable—and costly—hurdles one must overcome to get a mere legal separation or annulment.  Perhaps that is true to a certain degree, but what is also true is that most people get married with the best intentions, wishing it to endure as a happy, fruitful, and mutually beneficial union for as long as it reasonably can.  In fact, marriage is probably the clearest example of the triumph of hope over reality.

In the Philippines, however, the longevity of a marriage can sometimes be the clearest example of the triumph of chauvinism over common sense. Let’s face it, making a marriage last is no easy feat, even if the bright-eyed socialites featured in glossy magazines appear to make it so. With the help of God, of course.  But there are those marriages that last way beyond their shelf life, not because of the power of love or prayer, but because of legal impediments making it next to impossible to dissolve such a union. And nine out of 10 times, these prolonged, unhappy marriages tend to put the wives at a greater disadvantage than the husbands.

While extricating oneself from a marriage that has ceased to be happy, rewarding, or mutually beneficial, not to mention emotionally, psychologically, and physically safe, shouldn’t be as effortless as, say, blowing a candle on a birthday cake, but it shouldn’t be so excruciatingly and demoralizingly difficult. Ending a marriage is just as fraught as entering into one, perhaps even more so.  One enters a marriage filled with hope and love and dreams of a happily ever after; one ends a marriage filled with despair and trepidation and fears of an unsure future.

So it comes as welcome news that a member of Congress, Rep. Edcel Lagman, recently filed a bill to allow absolute divorce in the Philippines, which he termed “the merciful liberation of the hapless wife from a long-dead marriage.”

The congressman’s intentions are sincere. After all, he was the principal author of the landmark Reproductive Health Law, which was finally passed, albeit watered down, during the Aquino administration. Its passing was a major victory for women in this country, who remain oppressed, disempowered, and disadvantaged despite the Philippines’ apparently impressive ranking in the Global Gender Gap Index.

At least one man in Congress has the balls to champion “prowoman legislation.” According a report in the Inquirer:

“Traditionally, in a marriage relation, the husband is more ascendant than the wife. It is the woman who is usually brutalized and it is the man who philanders and gets away with it.

Under these foreboding and unequal circumstances, a wife needs an absolute divorce more than the husband.

In divorce proceedings, the wife as the innocent spouse, needs a court-decreed alimony and support for the child or children under her custody.

Absolute divorce is not only a women’s issue. It is a poor women’s issue.  Poor women cannot afford the current exorbitant expense for legal separation or annulment of marriage.”

House Bill 116 includes as grounds for absolute divorce the realities that beset many marriages, such as irremediable breakdown, spousal abuse, marital infidelity, and psychological incapacity. As Edcel Lagman remarked, “Most marriages are supposed to be solemnized in heaven, the reality is that many marriages plummet into hell.”

Thanks to this bill, hell need not last forever, either.

B. Wiser is the author of Making Love in Spanish, a novel published earlier this year by Anvil Publishing and available in National Book Store and Powerbooks, as well as online. When not assuming her Sasha Fierce alter-ego, she takes on the role of serious journalist and media consultant. 

For comments and questions, e-mail b.wiser.ph@gmail.com.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of the author in her private capacity and do not in any way represent the views of Preen.ph, or any other entity of the Inquirer Group of Companies.


Art by Trish Rivera

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Jacque De Borja: Jacque De Borja is an introvert pretending to be an extrovert, who gets insanely emotional about things—especially if they’re about dogs, women’s rights, and Terrace House.