‘Just Like Medicine’: A New Push for Divorce in a Nation Where It’s Illegal
Nearly 15 years ago, Mary Nepomuceno separated from her husband. She remains in limbo because divorce — and the possibility of a new marriage and a clean slate in life — is forbidden by her country’s laws.
Thousands of people like Ms. Nepomuceno are trapped in long-dead marriages in the Philippines, the only country in the world, other than the Vatican, where divorce remains illegal. They live completely separate lives from their spouses, after splitting up for reasons like abuse and incompatibility. Steep legal fees and mounds of paperwork make annulment practically impossible for many.
Partly because of their growing numbers and plight, attitudes in the country, where nearly 80 percent of the population is Catholic, have changed. Surveys show that half of Filipinos now support divorce. Even the president has signaled openness to the idea, and the Philippines is the closest it has ever been to legalizing divorce.
But the issue is far from settled. The powerful Catholic Church has deemed pro-divorce activism to be “irrational advocacy.” Conservative lawmakers remain steadfast in their opposition.
This has prompted some in the legalization camp to frame divorce as a basic human right, like access to health care or education.
“We’re saying that this is just like medicine,” said Ms. Nepomuceno, 54. “You only take this if you’re sick, but you don’t deprive those sick people of the medicine.”
The approach is a departure from the previous strategy of sharing personal stories in the hope of winning lawmakers’ sympathy. Now, activists are using science and statistics to present the long-term effects that keeping divorce illegal has on millions of abused women.
“We used to cry, we would get angry,” said A.J. Alfafara, a founder of Divorce Pilipinas Coalition, which has more than a half-million members. “It used to be a fight, like how do we get people to listen?”
In recent months, a Senate committee approved a bill on divorce for the first time in more than 30 years. The bill is now awaiting a second reading in the Senate, which lawmakers say could happen next year.
“We are feeling some kind of shifts, even in the Senate, and I hope that they will gather momentum and be strong enough to carry this bill to the finish line,” Senator Risa Hontiveros, the bill’s sponsor, said in an interview.
She added that she had been moved by her meetings with activists.
“For me, one of the most compelling themes that came from them is that this is a second chance — a second chance at life, a second chance at love, a second chance at happiness — and why should we deny people that right?” she said.
Divorce has a complicated history in the Philippines. During the Spanish colonial era, divorce was banned, but legal separation was allowed under narrow conditions. Under American occupation, it was made legal, but only on the grounds of adultery and concubinage. The Japanese, who occupied the Philippines during World War II, expanded the divorce law, allowing more grounds for people to seek divorce.
That changed after the enactment of the country’s Civil Code in 1950. But Muslim citizens, who make up 5 percent of the population, are allowed to divorce, because in 1977, Ferdinand E. Marcos, the president at the time, signed legislation allowing it.
Ms. Alfafara, a Protestant, separated from her husband in 2012. She said she had not seen her son in more than a decade, since he chose at the age of 9 to live with his father. When Ms. Alfafara, 46, who works as a virtual office assistant, wanted to buy a house, she was told she had to get her husband’s signature.
Keeping divorce illegal means that abusive husbands can retain joint custody of their children and are entitled to share in their wives’ assets. Another concern is the mental trauma suffered by millions of women trapped in abusive marriages.
Janet Guevarra, 36, spent $5,200 for her annulment — 15 times what she was making monthly in the Philippines. To save the money, she quit her job in I.T. administration and moved to Singapore to work as an aide in a nursing home. In 2022, a court rejected her petition, which she had filed three years earlier.
The judge ruled that Ms. Guevarra’s testimony that her husband “grabbed her collar, pushed and attempted to punch her during heated arguments is not enough basis to prove her claim of physical or verbal abuse.” The judge added, “Marriage, as an inviolable social institution protected by the state, cannot be dissolved at the whim of the parties.”
Haidee Sanchez, 39, said it pained her each time she had to write her husband’s last name on all official documents. She said her husband, who never provided for her family and was repeatedly unfaithful, tried to choke her when she confronted him over an affair. In 2019, she filed for an annulment, but her motion was denied in March.
The judge ruled that Ms. Sanchez had failed to prove her case “with clear and convincing proof.”
Some supporters of the legislation have advised against using the word “divorce” to describe it, saying the term has become politicized. Alternative language like “legal separation” and “annulment expansion” has been floated.
Ms. Hontiveros recalled that one of her colleagues advised her, “Don’t call it a divorce bill, call it the dissolution of marriage bill.” She followed that suggestion.
“Maybe it just gives those who are ambivalent about it or opposed to it another way to talk about it a little less uncomfortably,” she said.
Senator Pia Cayetano, a veteran lawmaker and an outspoken supporter of divorce, said her colleagues in the Senate “really recognize that there are instances where it’s practically inhumane to make a couple live together.”
“I have heard them say things to that effect, that there’s got to be a solution, and they’re happy to support something,” Senator Cayetano said.
Any bill that is passed by the Senate would also have to be cleared by the House of Representatives before going to the president, who would sign it into law. Unlike his predecessors, President Ferdinand E. Marcos Jr. has signaled that he is open to legalizing divorce, though he cautioned that it “should not be easy.”
Father Jerome Secillano, the executive secretary of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, told a local radio station last year, “It is sad to know that we have legislators who rather focus on breaking marriages and the family rather than fixing them or strengthening the marital bond.”
A decade ago, when the Philippine Congress passed legislation that gave people access to contraception, the clergy held protests and threatened to excommunicate lawmakers for supporting the bill. This time, said Edcel Lagman, a congressman who has pushed for both issues, church officials have been less vocal in its opposition.
“We’ve shown that we can beat the church, and we can do it again,” he said, flashing a smile.
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