There have been signs of progress towards the legalisation of divorce in the Philippines. Will the latest bill get past Duterte and his allies in the Senate?
The lower house of Congress in the Philippines passed a bill that would legalise divorce. It is the furthest any divorce bill has reached in the Filipino government. The Divorce Bill passed with 134 votes in favour, 57 against and two abstentions. The bill now just needs to pass through the Senate and avoid a veto from President Duterte to become law.
The bill represents a lifeline to those stuck in abusive relationships
Currently in the Philippines, the only way out of a marriage is with an annulment. To secure an annulment, a judge must determine that one of the spouses has a “psychological incapacity”. Applicants must undergo a mental examination.
The entire process can take up to ten years and cost up to US$19,200. This is more than triple the average family income in the Philippines. Divorce has therefore been a luxury reserved for the rich. There is no way out of a failed or abusive marriage for poorer families.
The government has a responsibility to protect vulnerable women
In 2017, 18.5% of Filipino women experienced emotional violence in their marriage. 12.3% of women experienced physical violence from their husbands. 4.6% experienced sexual violence. Among the lower wealth classes, these figures were higher.
Women like Melody Alan need a way out before it is too late. She has suffered 14 years of abuse at the hands of her husband. She described the ordeal. “He strangled me, pushed me against a wall. I was crying and screaming. I couldn’t breathe”, she said. She is now the secretary-general at Divorce Advocates of the Philippines. In 2010, she separated from her husband, but they remain legally married.
Source: Philippine Statistics Authority
If passed, the Divorce bill will give these lower income victims a way out of their marriage. It will exempt lower-income families from legal fees. It will also make domestic violence a valid reason to file for divorce.
It is not just the poor that will benefit. The number of annulments has increased over the last ten years. In 2017, the figure reached 10,000. This indicates that more wealthy families are now seeking to end their marriages.
Will it get through the Senate?
There is no guarantee the bill will get through the Senate. The church still carries weight with lawmakers. If a senator publicly opposes the bill, they risk the backlash from the clergy. Priests are not alien to lambasting politicians within their churches. With a Catholic population of more than 86%, the church is a powerful enemy to have.
However, there have been indications in recent years that tides are changing. In 2012, the Reproductive Health Law was passed despite opposition from the church.
Then it has to avoid Duterte’s veto
Duterte had his own marriage annulled. He famously opposes the intervention of the church in politics. He has also expressed an interest in legalising same-sex marriage.
Despite this, Duterte is not in favour of divorce. His current position is more conservative. He has publicly stated that he believes divorce has a negative impact on children. He publicly stated, “you don’t have to love your wife to live together”, and “I’m not in favour of divorce.”
Senators allied to Duterte have already voiced their opposition to the bill. There is a strong opposition voting bloc forming in the Senate.
Duterte’s argument against the bill is counter-intuitive
Just because divorce is illegal does not mean marriages do not break down. The divorce does not harm the children, the breakdown of the marriage does. By prohibiting divorce, the government is not helping children. It is condemning them to live in unhappy and often abusive homes without a possibility of escape. This is far more damaging than a divorce.
Public support will mean divorce will eventually be legalised
Vetoing the bill would put Duterte at odds with public opinion. The majority of the public now favours legalising divorce. If the Senate passes the bill, it would be unlikely Duterte would veto it.
But if the bill does not pass this time, it will be a missed opportunity. Thousands of Filipino women will remain in abusive and potentially life-threatening marriages. Children will have to live in unhappy homes. The government will have failed some of the most vulnerable sections of society.
However, the public now has an appetite for legalising divorce. It will be impossible to ignore the will of the people forever. The Philippines is already on the road to legalising divorce. The fact that a divorce bill got through lower Congress demonstrates progress. Duterte and his supporters in the Senate can drag their heels. But they will one day find themselves on the losing side of this argument.