Will Filipinos finally have legal recourse to end abusive marriages?

On May 27, Gabriela Women’s Party led divorce advocates in celebrating the passage of House Bill 9349 in Congress which seeks to reinstate absolute divorce in the country.  This partial victory, they said, was a massive step forward for women’s rights, and that the necessity for this legislation has only grown more urgent over the years.

According to the 2022 National Demographic and Health Survey, 18 percent of Filipino women with intimate partners have experienced violence. In the meantime, a staggering almost 40 percent of women aged 15 to 49 have faced controlling behaviors from their partners.

“The socio-economic challenges in the Philippines — such as low wages, joblessness, and the high costs of living including excessive rates of basic social services, worsen marital issues.  We acknowledge these issues in the divorce law we are proposing. We want legal recognition of existing social conditions without further fragmenting already broken homes,” Rep. Arlene Brosas of the Gabriela Women’s Party, said.

In the House of Representatives, 126 lawmakers voted in favor of the divorce bill, 109 against, and 20 abstained. The proposed law is now at the Senate and in the hands of the 24 senators.

A Legal and Psychological Remedy

Overseas Filipino worker Elvie Guevera used to be against divorce, but in the course of her marriage and how it eventually ended – bitterly, painfully – she realized that divorce would have been a better option if only it was available in the Philippines.

“Marriage, family, sex: these are sacred to me. Even when I was physically, emotionally and sexually abused – even when so many hurtful things were done to me, I chose to stay in my marriage. I stayed because I loved my children and I did not want them to grow up in a broken family,” Elvie said.

Still, the time came when Elvie saw that she no longer had a choice but to let go. 

“I tried to salvage the relationship, I cried and begged on behalf of our kids that he help me fix the relationship – that he would treat me better, but he did not want to change.”

In hindsight, Elvie realized that ending the relationship was for the best.

“Our marriage was important to me, but it did not have the same value to him and I suffered so much in the relationship while I was trying to save it.”

Brosas pointed out that it is easy to romanticize the Filipino family as perfect and conflict-free.

“But the reality is that political, economic, and social factors often put considerable strain on marriages. This leads to inequalities and then sometimes in many cases to violence,” Brosas said.

As of this writing, the Philippines remains the only country in the world that does not have a divorce law. This was not always so because during the period of American occupation, there was one that provided for divorce a vinculo matrimonii or absolute divorce. However, after the Philippines secured its independence from the United States, the law only allows for legal, not absolute divorce.

Amanda Garcia left her marriage 10 years ago, but is forced to use her ex-husband’s surname despite now being in what she said is a much better relationship.

“I want to invest in certain properties, but I can’t do this because I still need his signature. Under the law, I am still bound to him, as are my legal and financial decisions. This is very frustrating to the point of tears. I left him because I could never trust when it came to money. He had so many vices; he was addicted to gambling and he left me deep in debt. He owed hundreds of thousands of pesos to different people,” she said.

Amada has two children with her new partner, and one of her constant worries is how to answer her children when they ask why their parents are not married.

“I lose sleep over this. I want my partner and our children to be a ‘normal family’ under the law. We want to get married. I made a mistake in my first marriage and it’s so unfair that I cannot undo it,” she said. “I want the government to pass the divorce law so I can start fresh with my new family.”  

Escaping the past to start over

The proponents of the divorce bill said all they want is for Filipinos to have the legal means to escape harmful marriages and rebuild their lives.

“Let us give abused women and their children another chance to live in a loving and supportive family environment,” Brosas said.  “It’s outrageous how up to now, Filipinos do not have a legal means to leave and end toxic and destructive relationships. Women who experience violence and abuse at the hands of their husbands should be given the means to leave their husbands. People in general have the right to have second chances, and to raise their children in healthier, more positive home environments.”

The victory of the divorce bill in Congress took a long time.  The Gabriela Women’s Party first submitted the proposal in 2005.

Lead proponent and signatory to the bill Rep. Edcel Lagman said the divorce law will not recognize the “no-fault, quickie, drive-thru, email or notarial” divorce. The only way a divorce will be granted is if the petition is on justified and acceptable terms and that every case filed will be subjected to close review and scrutiny.

The proposed law stated the different circumstances that can be considered as grounds for divorce: acts that are against Article 55 of the Family Code with a few specific modifications; annulment of a marriage under the same law; separation that has lasted not less than five years from the time the petition for divorce was filed; psychological incapacity of either party in the marriage; when either party undergo sex reassignment surgery or has a change in gender orientation; and irreconcilable differences.   

Victims of domestic violence are among the most vocal supporters of the divorce bill. Berlean Salazar said she grew up with a father who was a wife-beater.

“I carried all the trauma into adulthood, but fate can really be cruel because I met and married a man who was just like my father. My marriage lasted only for three years, and I was only able to escape all the demeaning insults and physical abuse when I went abroad to work. I never want to see my ex again, and I never want my own mother to see as I was when I was still tied to that man – sickly thin, always with bruises all over my body and face,” she said.

“I want the Philippines to have a divorce law because I want to assert my rights and those of my children. I want to permanently remove my ex’s surname from all my records as well because having that surname even if only on paper is repugnant to me.”

In the Philippines, violence against women and children is an issue that has become intrinsically connected to the call for a divorce law. Rape remains a widespread crime as statistics revealed it to be among the most frequently occurring crimes.  From July 2022 to January 7, 2023, the number of violence against women cases was pegged at 3,762, according to the Philippine National Police.

The Philippine Commission on Women reported that sexual violence against women and children is also widespread: one in every 20 girls and women aged 15 to 49 years old, has experienced such violence at some point in their lifetime.

The 2022 National Baseline Study on Violence Against Children also stated that 17 percent of Filipinos aged 13 to 17 years old have experienced sexual violence, and 3.2 percent have been victims of forced consummated sex during their childhood. Among those who experienced sexual violence, 14.1 percent encountered it while dating. The study also revealed that 13.7 percent of incidents occurred at home, 7.8 percent in the community, 7.1 percent in the workplace, and 5.3 percent in schools.

 “All this violence directed against women makes its way into the home, into marriages,” Brosas said.

Legal separation, annulment not enough

While there is a groundswell of support for the divorce bill, there are still those who are against it, including religious groups and, unsurprisingly, men who said divorce is not the solution to faulty marriages.

There is a Facebook post written by a married man that has become the subject of ridicule as he opined that problems in a marriage should be kept between husband and wife. “To save the marriage, the woman must grit her teeth and be more patient because it’s her responsibility to keep the relationship from collapsing.”

Others pointed out there are other remedies like annulment and legal separation and those in troubled marriages should settle for these actions. Marriage, they argued, is a sacred covenant.

Atty. Virginia Viray, senior lecturer at the University of the Philippines, countered that there is a hypocrisy to so-called legal separation remedy.

“We don’t want to say that the marriage bond is broken – we want a couple to be still married when in fact the marriage is broken. Two people will still be considered married when it is in fact, they already have separate lives.” Viray added that legal separation also binds the victim forever to the offender. “She will always be his wife and in his shadow.”

Viray said: “Why should she not be allowed to remarry, and have a loving relationship with another, and have that recognized by law?   Why should she be confined to a lifetime of being single, after having suffered at the hands of an unworthy spouse, not by choice but because of other people’s religious belief?

“Freedom of religion and worship allows us to live our lives according to our own belief; it does not include any right to impose our belief on others.”

As for the other remedy – annulment – women’s right champion Atty. Clara Rita A. Padilla of the women and LGBTIQ rights group EnGendeRights pointed out that it leaves women hanging.

“It’s so hard to file nullity of marriage cases based on psychological incapacity and even harder to win them. They are also very expensive. Women made to take the stand are traumatized all over again as they have to explain and relive the abuse they suffered at the hands of their husbands.”

Padilla said some Catholic individuals and their lay organizations are among the most vehement against divorce. 

“But we wonder if they know that all the predominantly Catholic countries like Spain and Mexico have divorce laws. In fact, Spain was the third country to pass a marriage equality law.  There’s also marriage equality in Mexico, and in both countries, safe abortion is legal and allowed.

“How can we deny all Filipinos the right to divorce on the basis of religion? There are Muslim Filipinos and they have access to divorce according to the Code of Muslim and Personal Laws. There are also many Filipino agnostics and atheists. We should all keep in mind that there is also the constitutional guarantee of separation of church and state and the non-establishment of religion where it is prohibited to pass or repeal a law on the basis of an established religion,” she said.

“If you are against divorce, don’t stop others who need it and who want the law to be passed.”

Photo credit: iStock/ torwai

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