For well-off people such as Philippine House of Representatives Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez, getting out of a bad marriage is pricey, but feasible — but for the nation’s poorest and most vulnerable citizens, it is nearly impossible.
That is because the heavily Catholic Philippines and the Vatican are the last two places on Earth where divorce is outlawed.
For the nation’s 100 million people, the only exit from a union gone wrong is an embarrassing — and labyrinthine — process that often amounts to a luxury.
However, lawmakers, including Alvarez, have launched a new legislative effort to legalize divorce, which activists believe could transform the lives of impoverished women trapped in toxic marriages.
The bill has been propelled forward by Alvarez, an ally of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.
Alvarez said in an interview that ending his first marriage cost him 1 million pesos (US$19,230 at the current exchange rate), which is more than triple what an average family in the Philippines makes in a year.
Like thousands of others, he did it through a civil procedure called annulment, whereby a judge declares a marriage invalid, generally because the spouses have a “psychological incapacity.”
It requires applicants to undergo a mental exam, testify in court and sometimes even claim that they or their spouse entered the union with a disorder, such as narcissism.
The process can take anywhere from one to 10 years to wind through the creakingly slow and overburdened Philippine court system, costing at least US$4,800.
Since 1999, lawmakers have regularly filed a bill to legalize divorce, only to see it languish in committee limbo — until now.
For the first time ever, House lawmakers are poised to approve the bill after backing it in preliminary votes.
It would then head to the Philippine Senate, where it faces opposition from conservative members.
However, the bill enjoys rare bipartisan support, which Alvarez said was a sign of the urgency of addressing broken marriages.
“It’s a badge of stupidity, because we are the only nation that does not see the problem,” the 60-year-old told reporters.
The legislation would allow divorce and exempt poor people from legal fees, listing domestic violence, attempts to engage a spouse in prostitution and irreconcilable differences among the grounds for splitting up.
Not surprisingly, the country’s powerful Catholic Church, which counts about 80 percent of the population as followers, has fiercely opposed the bill.
“It is not according to the scriptures, to the will of God and it does not help,” Manila Bishop Broderick Pabillo told reporters.
The church fought a pitched, but ultimately unsuccessful, battle in 2012 to halt a law to provide free contraceptives to poor couples and teach sex education in schools.
It has also backed an existing ban on abortion and gay marriage.
Surveys have shown that a majority of people in the country have supported legalizing divorce since 2014.
At the same time, the number filing for annulments has grown steadily over the past decade, last year hitting more than 10,000, government statistics showed.
“Filipinos have become more open. They’ve been exposed to norms from other countries,” University of the Philippines political science assistant professor Jean Franco said.
However, with Catholic clergy lobbying and protesting against the bill, its final passage is uncertain.
The country’s outspoken leader Duterte, whose own marriage was annulled, has yet to wade into the debate.
Although he spoke in favor of upholding the ban during his 23 years as mayor of southern Davao City, he is mercurial on social issues.
A long-time critic of the church, Duterte voiced support for gay marriage in 2015, only to backtrack after securing the presidency in 2016, before endorsing it yet again in December last year.
He also has plenty on his plate, with international war crimes prosecutors launching a preliminary probe into his deadly war on drugs, which has also aroused the ire of the church.
Campaigners have said the bill could offer a lifeline to women trapped in violent marriages.
“Divorce is a woman’s issue, especially for poor women who are being abused, because it could provide them an out legally,” Democratic Socialist Women of the Philippines national chairwoman Elizabeth Angsioco told reporters.
For women like Melody Alan, who said she has endured 14 years of abuse from an unfaithful, alcoholic husband, the ban cannot be overturned soon enough.
“He strangled me, pushed me against a wall. I was crying and screaming. I couldn’t breathe,” said Alan, secretary-general of the Divorce Advocates of the Philippines.
The 44-year-old said her husband agreed to accept an annulment if she paid for it — something she could in “no way” afford while raising four kids.
In 2010, she separated from her husband, who now has two children with another woman, but they remain legally married.
“I will file for divorce to get freedom [to say] that this is who I am now,” Alan said. “I can start anew.”
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