By Getsy Tiglao
In a nation as conservative as the Philippines, advocating for a divorce law is a losing proposition. The women’s rights and party-list group Gabriela has filed – five times – a bill in Congress to legalize divorce in the country, but to no avail. Faster than you can say “Hail Mary,” the Catholic Church and its laymen mouthpieces will oppose divorce and say that it is against the sanctity of marriage.
What an astounding fact: the Philippines is the only country in the world, apart from the Vatican where the Pope lives, without a proper divorce law.
Our country may be among the most democratic in the world, but we are the most backward when it comes to giving people the right to opt out of a bad marriage. Filipinos have no qualms in chastising erring public officials, but they are docile when it comes to the Church and its power to label an act as wicked or sinful.
Legally, there are few options for unhappy Filipino couples who no longer wish to be married. There’s annulment, an expensive and lengthy proposition affordable only to the upper classes. The cost of having the courts say your marriage never existed is around P500,000, maybe more if you get the high-priced lawyers and psychologists. Legal separation is also so costly that middle-class troubled wives lose their life savings for the expenses in doing so. And to think that legal separation only ends the couple’s obligations to one another; the marital union still exists and the despairing duo cannot remarry.
If there is anyone who can push for the legalization of divorce in the country, it is President Rodrigo Duterte and his ally, Speaker of the House Pantaleon Alvarez. Both are pugnacious, reform-minded individuals who are unafraid to take on the church establishment. Needless to say, both have complicated personal histories that make them the perfect advocates for a divorce law.
Duterte’s 27-year marriage to Elizabeth Zimmerman was annulled by the court in 2000 and he is now living with his common-law wife Cielito Avanceña. Alvarez is separated from his wife Emelita and he has a girlfriend. Both politicians are quite open about their infidelities and relationships with women.
At one point, Duterte even defended his friend amid reports of the Speaker’s extramarital affairs, saying it is not an issue because Alvarez is not Catholic, and instead has a mixed Chinese-Muslim heritage. (Filipino Muslims are allowed talaq or divorce, since they are governed by the Code of Muslim Personal Laws and not the Family Code.)
Recently, Alvarez stirred up the conservative bloc by saying that in the upcoming second regular session of the 17th Congress, he will push for a bill for the dissolution of marriages. The proposed law, which will amend the Family Code, will allow couples to jointly, or individually, petition the court to dissolve their marriage.
He was quick to say that his proposal is not a divorce law. The dissolution of marriage, according to Alvarez, is for those who are trapped in unhappy couplings and the court will help them find agreement on the important issues of custody of children and division of properties. “The duty of the judge is only ministerial. He will determine if there is no intimidation, if there is free will to enter in an agreement to dissolve the marriage,” he said.
It sounds like a good, no-frills law. But leave it to the ultra conservatives, who probably still think we’re living in the medieval age, to find fault with it. Staunch Catholic and Buhay party-list Rep. Lito Atienza said Alvarez’ proposed law will destroy the institution of marriage. He added piously: “If a couple doesn’t care for each other, they split up… They’ll just talk and then if they agree on it, they separate. What happens to the contract they signed where the witness is the Lord Jesus Christ?”
Alvarez says he’s pushing for the dissolution of marriage because annulment is a painful process where accusations of psychological incapacity have become de rigueur as a ground to dissolve the union. What the Speaker has failed to note is that the existing laws on marital unions are anti-poor since only the rich people can afford the enormous cost and time-consuming process of getting an annulment or legal separation.
Apart from Alvarez’s proposal, there are two major divorce bills pending in Congress. One is House Bill 2380, the Philippines Divorce Bill, filed by Gabriela Reps. Emmi de Jesus and Arlene Brosas. Another is House Bill 116 by Albay Rep. Edsel Lagman, which provides additional grounds in the Family Code to allow for absolute divorce as well as alimony provisions.
The majority of Filipino voters support a divorce law. This is a significant input for politicians who are still undecided on whether or not to vote for the divorce bill when it is tabled anew or when Alvarez’s variant dissolution of marriage bill is filed. Past surveys have shown that support for divorce is growing, from 43 percent in 2005, to 50 percent in 2011, and 60 percent in 2014.
The reality is that not all marriages end in a happily ever after. It is inhuman to limit the legal options for people who are trapped in unhappy, or worse, abusive unions. Everyone deserves happiness, Catholics included.
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