The Philippines is the only country in the world where divorce is still illegal.
While groups such as Divorce Pilipinas Coalition (DPC) and Hiwalaya have eagerly fought for the passing of the proposed Absolute Divorce Bill, many remain skeptical about it. Meanwhile, those in troubled marriages remain hopeful.
In a country where morals are deeply rooted in religious beliefs, how far is the Philippines from approving a law that once existed in the first place?
Divorce remains to be a controversial topic in the Philippines, and its legalization has long been both supported and contested, with opposing arguments rooted mostly in religion and faith.
Historically, divorce is nothing new in the Philippines, as the Divorce Act of 1917 already existed to replace Spanish civil laws. It allowed divorce on the ground of “criminal conviction for adultery or concubinage” until it was supplanted with the enactment of the Civil Code of the Philippines, which only allowed legal separation.
Authors of the divorce bill, including Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman, have sought its passage since 2019 through the filing of House Bill 100. However, the most recent progress on the proposal is the approval of “a substitute bill instituting absolute divorce” by the House Committee on Population and Family Relations in August 2021.
Moreover, oppositions continue to contribute to the bill’s delay, especially with President Rodrigo Duterte’s disapproval.
To this, family lawyer Atty. Oliver Sacedon comments, “the divorce bill has had an easy run in the lower house but gets stopped on its track at the Senate. The biggest stumbling blocks are the Catholic Church and the senators that back the Church’s stance.”
Family lawyer Atty. Analyn Buan echoes Sacedon’s explanation. According to her, the “most pressing” factor that the bill has to address is “the religious aspect, the still conservative nature of Filipinos.” Meanwhile, legal factors include the 1987 Constitution’s provision on the sanctity of marriage.
Currently, Filipinos’ only available legal options to exit “a failed union” are through filing an annulment or a petition for legal separation or nullity of marriage. “At present, couples need to undergo the tedious process of court litigation. Hearings are a must, unlike in divorce,” Buan furthers.
Through the divorce bill, legislators like Lagman and Gabriela Rep. Arlene Brosas seek to provide a more accessible and affordable legal option to aid victims of domestic violence—especially women—and Filipinos in “abusive or dysfunctional marriages that are beyond any hopes of rehabilitation.”
“The divorce proceedings [are a] summary in nature, so [matters] will be resolved faster, resulting in an easier and more affordable process,” Sacedon affirms.
A ‘social protection measure’
While pre-existing marital laws such as legal separation and annulment remain the only options in the Philippines, both DPC and Hiwalaya assert that these laws cannot give as much justice and protection to families as divorce can.
Hiwalaya states that the Philippines needs divorce to avoid “unhappy marriages” where children are oftentimes forced to “live under the conditions of a passive and tense atmosphere.” The organization also points out that divorce is different compared to legal separation and annulment as the latter two are “much more convoluted and inaccessible,” and cites that the cost of annulment reaches around P180,000 to P300,000.
DPC Secretary-General and Executive Administrator Paul Roxas echoes Hiwalaya’s sentiment on protecting children and furthers that divorce is essential as it is a “primary social protection at the family level,” whereas a more inclusive law is needed to protect Filipinos of all sectors of society, citing that the Family Code of the Philippines does not entirely protect those who are victims of spousal neglect and abuse.
Roxas clarifies that the divorce bill being pushed by their organization is not similar to that which is “glamorized by Hollywood.” Rather, it would only propose a “once-in-a-lifetime grant for every Filipino,” valid under all groups applying for an annulment, declaration of nullity, and legal separation. He states that this grant will ensure that divorce would not be similar to the popularized notion of “changing spouses every month,” which he believes is one of the worries of the typical conservative Filipino.
Alongside this, Sacdeon notes that the grounds would also include gender reassignment surgery, gender transition, violence against women or children, a divorce obtained abroad, and “separation in fact for at least five years at the time the petition for absolute divorce is filed.
With these, DPC believes that the divorce bill will be received well by Filipinos, as Roxas states that “people who are compassionate, humane, and respectful of others’ rights are in agreement to have the divorce [bill].” Hiwalaya, on the other hand, remains hopeful despite the lack of support from presidentiables like Vice President Leni Robredo. Their faith remains firm with Sen. Risa Hontiveros’ continuous efforts to raise awareness on the legislation, hoping that Filipinos will also realize that the law is needed by many.
Protecting the family
Religious groups, such as the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), openly express their concerns on the social impact of the divorce bill. In an official statement, the CBCP laments that the passing of the Absolute Divorce Bill may lead to a greater tendency for marriages and families “to break up more easily.” This, according to them, is a great concern as “more children will grow up disoriented and deprived of the care of both parents.”
Pastoral Formation Ministry Coordinator of the Lasallian Pastoral Office (LSPO) James Emerson Mañez echoes CBCP. After all, the divorce would affect the whole family—not only the couple involved, he points out.
“We are called to be much more reflective in the decisions we take. Kasi…hindi lang naman [‘yung couple] ang apektado doon. Remember, going back, in Catholic marriage, nagiging isa ang dalawang pamilya,” he explained.
(Because the couple is not the only ones affected. Two families become one.)
Amid the rising cases of domestic abuse, Mañez also believes that divorce would not be a concrete solution to address such matters, stating that there are also other factors that influence domestic abuse, aside from marriage.
“I believe [it] is a different issue [from] divorce. Saan ba nanggagaling ‘yung domestic abuse? Is it coming from marriage? Or, is it coming [from] other factors? Like, for example, the sanity of the person for getting married?” he questions.
(What causes domestic abuse?)
“The foundation of marriage should first [be] looked upon before going to that aspect of divorce,” he adds.
Although the Catholic Church has tried to become more accepting of legal separation, it still remains “hopeful” that married couples would not divorce. Ideally, legal separation should be the last option for couples who wish to separate, even after the intervention and guidance of the Church.
“Hangga’t maisasalba ng simbahan, isasalba nila iyan,” the LSPO Coordinator notes, emphasizing the Church’s high regard for the sanctity of marriage.
(So as long as the Church can save the marriage, they would save it.)
Hence, the Church implements various initiatives for couples to strengthen their relationship further, including Pre-Cana and Post-Cana seminars, Marriage Encounter programs, and counseling.
A balancing act
Lasallians, meanwhile, hold varied views regarding the topic. While Tina* (I, LGL) agrees that absolute divorce may reduce the sanctity of marriage due to its ease of filing, she also acknowledges that divorce is essential for the victims of domestic violence. Nevertheless, she agrees with legalizing divorce to “solve” family conflicts and “give hope” to suffering marriages.
Similarly, Maddy* (II, BS BIO-MBB) contends that absolute divorce must be legalized, especially in cases with domestic abuse. For her, couples staying in abusive marriages would do further harm to the family.
“In terms of it negatively affecting children, most people don’t realize how modeling greatly affects the way a child grows up into an adult and having a bad example of marriage, especially unhealthy ones that cannot be separated because of the non-legalization of divorce, will just keep them in a cycle of unhealthy relationships,” Maddy comments. “A bad example is always worse than no example at all.”
With the Absolute Divorce Bill still in limbo, legal separation remains the only option for failed marriages in the country. While concerned groups and those in unhappy marriages assert the need for its legislation, religious groups remain firm on their stance that divorce is not a necessary option. With such differences, Filipinos can do nothing but wait if the Absolute Divorce Bill will be passed during its final days in Congress.
Names with asterisks (*) are pseudonyms.