The fight to make divorce legal in the Philippines

A newlywed couple kiss at a wedding ceremony in Manila on Valentine's Day last year.

Story highlights

  • Apart from the Vatican, the Philippines is the only country without divorce laws
  • A new bill before Congress is intended to allow for legal divorce
  • It faces stiff opposition from the Catholic Church and politicians
  • Backers of the bill say only wealthy Filipinos can currently afford marriage annulments
When Rowena Festin leaves her job as a congressional aide in Quezon City, Metro Manila each day, she returns home to three children and a husband. But her marriage, like many others in the Philippines, exists in name only.
"My husband wants another person," she says. "We are living in the same house but both decided to live our own life."
Although both have long wanted to legally end their marriage, the government will not allow them to do so. The Philippines is the only country in the world, aside from Vatican City, which lacks divorce laws.
But a bill recently filed in Congress provides hope for thousands of couples trapped in failed and often abusive marriages, by legalizing divorce. It comes at a time when Catholic Church leaders from across the world are holding an "Extraordinary Synod" in Rome at the request of Pope Francis to explore the Church's position on issues such as family, marriage and divorce.
Catholic legacy
Divorce is not a new concept in the Philippines. It was legal during the American colonial period and Japanese occupation in the first half of the 20th century, but became prohibited with the enactment of the 1949 Civil Code.
Solita Monsod, professor emerita at University of the Philippines School of Economics, says religion was behind the move.
"It is because of a very powerful and conservative church hierarchy, and the dominance of very conservative segments of the catholic laity."
The lack of divorce laws in the Philippines means Rowena Festin is trapped in her marriage.
Although current laws do allow for legal separation, declaration of a nullity of marriage and annulment, none of these options address the needs of the majority of couples who are searching for freedom from each other.
Legal separation allows the couple to live apart and separate their assets, but they are not free to marry again. In fact, they face being charged with adultery or concubinage if caught with another partner.
A declaration of nullity is as if the marriage never took place, because it was bigamous, incestuous or polygamous. The court may also find other grounds to nullify the marriage's existence, such as lack of a valid marriage license or marrying below the age of 18.
For annulment, specific conditions must be met within a certain time period, and the marriage is considered valid until the time it is set aside by the courts. It may also require a detailed investigation where a psychiatrist must declare one partner psychologically incapacitated.
Costly process
With Roman Catholics accounting for 83% of the population, religion also plays a big role in the battle over the right to divorce.
The majority of catholic Filipinos prefer to marry in the church, which requires them to apply for a civil marriage license first. In order to leave that marriage legally and be able to marry in the church again, a person would have to get both a church and civil annulment.
These options not only take years to process, but are very costly. In a country where two-fifths of the population lives off less than $2 a day, it is impossible for most Filipinos to even conceive of paying the minimum of $4,000 currently required to end their marriage legally.
Teresa, who asked not to be identified by her full name, is one of the lucky ones, since she was able to afford both a church and civil annulment. She says that the current system is biased towards the rich.
"It took four years but I wanted to cut clean. But sadly, you need money to do this."
'Divorce Philippine-style
Congresswoman Luzviminda Ilagan, representative of Gabriella Women's Party, is a co-author of the new divorce bill.
"We see many famous or wealthy people getting annulments while those in lower income brackets are not able," she says.
"It's the hypocrisy -- they say we must respect the sanctity of marriage yet they grant annulments to select individuals."
Her proposed divorce bill is nicknamed "Divorce Philippine-style" because it will still have strict conditions and eligibility requirements.
Married couples must have been living separately for a minimum of five years with no hope of reconciliation to be eligible, or legally separated for at least two years.
"It's not like in Las Vegas or ... countries where there is no fault divorce," says Ilagan.
But the bill does promise to make the whole process quicker and cheaper -- up to 30-40% less costly than legal separation or annulment. It would also provide procedures for settling concerns, such as over property or financial support for the former spouse and children.
The effect of the bill, says Monsod, "would be the empowerment of women, particularly the poor.
"The grounds for annulment are very restrictive -- they do not include infidelity or spousal abuse -- and the costs are prohibitive for them."
According to the Philippines' Solicitor General's office, 9,117 petitions for annulment of marriage were filed in court in 2010, and only 133 cases filed for legal separation -- 61% of these cases were filed by women.
Monsod says the bill would also remove "the discrimination that now exists in the country on the grounds of religion: A Filipino who is Muslim is allowed to divorce; a