'Til divorce do us part?' PH struggles to marry religion and reality

AT A GLANCE

 

MANILA, Philippines – Death or annulment.

The Philippines continues to pride itself on being one of two nations on Earth, aside from the Vatican, that bans divorce. Here, marriages could only be ended either through the convoluted and expensive process of annulment or the death of a spouse.

Despite growing support for divorce in past years, the country continues its struggle to marry faith and freedom, religion and reality amid a high number of broken families in the predominantly Catholic nation. (READ: IN NUMBERS: The state of the nation's marital woes)

Religious groups and supporters see the measure, which passed the House of Representatives in a historic first, as evil, “anti-family”, and detrimental to the children. The Bible, after all, says, what God united let no man tear apart.

But reality paints a different picture, with advocates calling the bill pro-women and pro-freedom. Those stuck in bad marriages feel it is their only hope.

Store owner Virginia Galayugo, 43, has been married for 20 years. The union produced two daughters. She endured two decades of physical and verbal abuse out of fear of embarrassment.

She has repeatedly gone to the barangay to report her husband but admitted she could not separate from him. Her parents repeatedly told her to try to make the marriage work for the kids, and so she did.

She thought the day would never come but on March 20, she reached her tipping point. They had a fight and with it came the expected punches and cuss words – this time, with grave death threats.

She tried to stay for her children but now, even her kids want her safe, away from their father.

“Sabi niya,'Kahit makulong ako ok lang' basta mapatay lang daw ako. Saka hindi lang 'yun, 'yung mga nauna niya, kahit mother ko raw papatayin niya,” she recalled, adding that neighbors recently told her that her husband had bought a gun. 

(He said, 'It's okay if I igo to jail' as long as he'd kill me. Not only that, he earlier said he would also kill my mother.)

“Pero wala pa 'ko nakikita [na baril]. Pero 'yun na rin nasa isip ko, kung meron na siya baril, madali na lang akong ano [mapatay], kasi 'yun nga, nagbabanta na siya,” she said. (But I haven't seen any gun yet. But if he already has a gun, it will be easy for him to kill me because he already made the threat.)

Virginia has filed a complaint against her husband for violation of the anti-Violence Against Women and Children (VAWC) law. That’s the most she could do, she said, because she could not afford an annulment.

“Kung 'di ko ito gagawin, baka matuluyan niya akong patayin. Isa lang ang buhay ko, iniisip ko mga anak ko (If I don't to this, he might end up killing me. I only have one life and I'm thinking about my kids)," she said.

She said she is worried that her husband would still have a share in her properties despite not helping financially.

“Kasi inisip ko rin yung annulment pero magastos yun. Ngayon, sabi ko kung siya talaga yung kumita, kahit na umalis na lang ako na sa kanya na lahat, di ko hahabulin, pero kung tutuusin di talaga sapat [binibigay nya],” she said.

(I also thought of annulment but that's expensive. Now, I said if he were really the one who provided for everything, it would be easy for me to just leave everything to him. But in reality, what he's giving is not enough.)

In the Philippines, annulment takes time and money. Physical abuse, which Vangie suffers, is not even included among the grounds. In such process, the marriage is considered valid until declared void under the following cases:

There is also a declaration of nullity, which applies to a marriage that is void or invalid from the start because of conditions present even before the union or because certain requirements were lacking. (READ: The annulment business)

In both instances, parties can re-marry.

The third option is legal separation, which is a mere split of bed and board. A couple may legally live apart, but the marital bond remains intact. Neither of the parties can remarry.

What about social benefits?

Helper Connie Cruz*, 43, got married at 17 years old. She altered her birth certificate to make it appear she was of legal age.

She and her husband lived together until 2008, when she decided to call it quits after years of physical abuse and sexual infidelity.

In 2011, she thought of filing for an annulment not to remarry but to protect her social benefits. She said she also wanted to secure the house she built after they separated. But when she realized the cost she had to pay, she decided against it. (READ: Annulment scam)

“May nagsabi sa akin P150,000 for annulment. Ang mahal magpa-annul, parang 'di ko kaya (Somebody told me I need to pay P150,000 for annulment. It's expensive, I can't afford that)," she said.

She went to the Social Security System to ask if she could remove her husband from her list of beneficiaries. SSS, however, told her it could be done, but it's all or nothing, meaning her children should also be removed.

"Sabi ko sa mga anak ko: 'Ganito kasi anak, 'pag namatay ako, 'yung Papa mo makikinabang. 'Pag nag-asawa pa siya, nagkaanak. Pag namatay ako, 'yung benepisyo ko mapupunta sa kanya. Ayaw ko. Nambabae na siya, nanakit," she said.

(I told my children: "If I die, your father will get the benefits. Even if he already has a new wife or other children by then. I don't want it because he already cheated on and hurt me.)

With this reality, Connie surmised that until the end, she would die attached to her estranged husband.

Painful OFW realities

The story of Marilyn Dizon*, 54, hits close to home for many overseas Filipino workers. There was no abuse, no physical pain. Love just came and left after 13 years of marriage.

She got married in Iloilo at the age of 17 and had 4 children with her husband. She worked as a laundry woman while her husband worked as a construction worker. The unimaginable happened when he had a stroke, practically forcing her to go to Saudi Arabia to work as a caregiver.

There she met her pen pal Renan*, who was already 3 years separated with his wife at the time. What started as friendship through letters – in Saudi Arabia, an unmarried man and woman could not be seen together – blossomed into something deeper.

In the end, Marilyn went home and decided to call it quits with her husband. Her 4 children got mad at her, thinking she went to Saudi to look for someone new. She knows she made mistakes but said she never wanted to lose her children. 

“Kaya naman ako umalis para mabuhay silang lahat. Alam ng mga tao, di ako malanding tao, siguro nagkamali lang, nagkamali tao lang ako, pero nagiging honest lang ako sa sarili, alangan naman makisama ako sa taong wala akong pagmamahal."

(I went abroad to make sure they have a good life. People know that I am not a slut. Maybe I just made a mistake. I made a mistake, I'm just human but I'm just being honest with myself. I don't want to live with someone whom I don't love.)

“Halimbawa binalikan ko tatay nila, nakisama ako noon, pero nagkasala ako sa naramdaman ko, nagtataksil ako. Kaya siguro kasalanan ko talaga. Bahala na ang Diyos magpatawad sa akin."

(For example, I went back to their dad, I went along with it, but I felt like I was betraying myself. That's why maybe it is my fault. It's up to God to forgive me.)

Now, Marilyn and Renan have been together for 23 years. They have two children. While her ex-husband died in 2002, Renan, while long separated from his wife, is still not annulled and could not remarry.

“Sabi niya sa akin: 'Ma, kahit magkadivorce o wala, tayong dalawa, tayo na hanggang sa dulo (He told me: 'Ma, whether or not there's divorce, the two of us, we'll be together till  the end')," she said.

“'Di namin kaya saka wala siyang time mag-ayos ng annulment kasi nagpapaaral kami. Siyempre di namin kakayanin 'yung ganyang pera. Diyos ko, kinikita na ng mister ko ng dalwang taon ;yun. 'Di pa makadala ng ganyan kalaki ang papa nila sa pag-uwi rito,” she said.

(We can't afford that plus he does not have the time to fix that because we are sending our children to school. Oh God, that's the earnings of my husband for two years. He could not even bring that much whenever he comes home.)

Marilyn has been praying for the passage of the divorce bill. But she knows it will be an uphill battle in the Senate, where most members have declared their apprehension, if not opposition.

“'Di lang alam ng Senado, ng mga anti-divorce. Di nila alam sa sulok-sulok, doon mga kapitbahay, doon karamihan hiwalay. Kaya merong divorce o wala, wala sila magagawa kasi doon marami na separate, di na kinakaya,” she said.

(Those in the Senate, those who are anti-divorce just don't know. They don't know that in the corners of neighborhoods, many are separated. So whether there is divorce or not, many are separated, they can't [keep their marriage]).

Religion vs Reality, Faith vs Freedom, Church vs Politics

Over the years, public opinion shifted in favor of divorce. In 2005, only 43% of Filipinos agreed to legalizing it, while 45% disagreed. In 2017, those who agreed rose to 53% while those against it went  down to 32%. Social Weather Stations describes +21 net agreement as "moderately strong."

Yet the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) and religious groups have strongly opposed the measure, saying evil is still evil even with popular backing. CBCP said it would destroy Filipino families by providing a convenient avenue to end marriages, including those that could still be repaired. (READ: [OPINION] Divorce and the religious response)

The CBCP maintained the current legal remedies are already enough to address marital problems and appealed to pro-divorce lawmakers to reconsider their decision.

“We do not even question the fact that there are indeed failed marriages and that not all married coupled were 'joined together by God.' Thus, we have provisions for both canonical and civil annulments, which are not exactly the equivalent of divorce….The legal remedies for such difficult circumstances are not lacking in our existing laws, both civil and canonical,” the CBCP said.

But 41-year-old Alpa Go – a divorce advocate, whose annulment petition was denied – said not all religions have the same laws. She also said religion and laws should be balanced.

"For me, religion doesn't save you. It’s a personal relationship with God. The problem with us here is that the we think the Church can save us. We have laws to also follow, to give respect to. God himself even gave respect to the law. Sabi nga nya (He said) ‘Give unto Cesar what is unto Cesar, Give God what is unto God.’ So binigyan tayo ni God ng balance (So God gave us balance)," Go said.

"In our [former] church [Pentecostal] we don't have a canon like the Catholic Church, so why should we be affected with that? Catholics in other countries accept divorce, don't they? So why should we be different?" she added.

Pending bill, without Senate backing

The House-approved bill seeks to grant absolute divorce of marriages under "limited grounds and well-defined procedures," including:

Albay Representative Edcel Lagman, bill proponent, has said the State still has a continuing mandate to protect the family, and said divorce is more of an "exception" than a rule, as it is only for irremediably broken and lost marriages.

After all, he said, the measure would not erase Filipino culture and tradition.

"Filipinos are now prepared for the institution of a divorce law. I would like to assure the public, members of the Senate and the House, that despite the institution of divorce, the divorce law cannot undo centuries of purely held customs and traditions of the majority," Lagman told Rappler.

To further push his point, Lagman cited the bill's mandatory 6-month cooling-off period after the filing of a petition. This serves as a final attempt for reconciliation.

And should there be reconciliation, it would be recognized and implemented even after a petition for absolute divorce has been filed or granted.

The proposed law shall give priority to OFWs, and shall also allow for summary or expedited proceedings for the following cases:

So what happens to the kids? Under the bill, the custody of minors shall be decided by the proper court, taking into consideration that no child under 7 years old shall be separated from the mother, unless there is a compelling reason.

The legitimate and adopted children of divorced parents shall retain their legal status.

The conjugal partnership of the couple shall be dissolved and liquidated and the assets shall be equally divided between the spouses.

The measure also prohibits collusion between couples. A spouse found by the court to have used threats or colluded with the other party shall face 5-year imprisonment and a fine of P200,000.

Any parent who fails to provide required child support shall also be imposed "stiff fines and contempt of court."

Senate, Duterte: No to divorce

Now, the ball is in the Senate's court. But so far, senators are lukewarm to, if not against, the idea of a divorce bill, especially the "no-fault" kind, wherein there is no need to prove any fault of any spouse.

Majority Leader Vicente Sotto III, a known conservative who tried to block the Reproductive Health Law, said the bill has a "very slim" chance in the 17th Congress. In fact, the measure has no counterpart in the chamber.

Instead, senators are pushing for the expansion of the grounds for annulment and for a cheaper process, which could mean a uniquely Filipino kind of divorce.

While it may look similar on the surface, it is not. Divorce recognizes that marriage was valid until declared void while annulment makes a marriage void from the start, as if it never happened.

At least 4 senators have been annulled with their former spouses: Senate President Aquilino Pimentel III, and Senators Loren Legarda, Francis Escudero, and Leila de Lima. 

Pimentel said they have yet to study the concept of "dissolution of marriage." 

It might be too late. After all, senators will soon be busy for the 2019 midterm polls, as well as other legislations like the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law, the second package of the Tax Reform Law, and the 2019 budget, among others. President Rodrigo Duterte, too, is against divorce. (READ: Duterte to Alvarez: No to divorce law because Sara opposes it)

Maybe in time, growing public support and solid political will could make divorce happen in a nation that struggles to marry the ideals of religion and the realities on the ground.

As for Marilyn*, she said she would not stop fighting for the bill. After all, this is the farthest it has gone in Congress.

"Marami kaming gustong lumaban pero ganito muna kasi di pa approved sa Senate. Kaya ako, tuloy lang. Pupunta talaga ako sa Maynila para sumama [sa mga rally] (Many of us want to fight but for now, this is what we can do because it is not yet approved in the Senate. For me, I will keep on fighting. I will really go to Manila to join rallies," she said. 

Alpa, for her part, has a message to the senators.

"Perhaps our, especially the Senate and the Pres – I will not even say the President – but perhaps their families too. Sila rin naman (They, too, are) affected with their families but they can afford annulment; we can’t. Sana maipasa na 'yung divorce (Hopefully the divorce bill will be passed)." – Rappler.com

*Names are withheld to protect the persons' identities and privacy.

Camille Elemia

Camille Elemia is a multimedia reporter focusing on media, technology, and disinformation.

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