Why the passage of the divorce bill will help Filipino women

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The absolute divorce bill hopes to protect all women stuck in loveless, abusive, and dysfunctional marriages, and provide an accessible way out. Illustration by FRANCES ERIDIO

Sydney, Australia (CNN Philippines Life) — The day that Maritina* decided she wanted to leave her husband, she knew she wanted a clean break. They were married for a little more than a decade, and in that time she had discovered his text messages to other women, uncovered lies, and found mounts of credit card debt he left in her name. Maritina wanted to be free. “I knew if there ever was a time to leave him, it was then,” she says of that moment. “If I left him then, I could still salvage and rebuild the rest of my life.”

In the Philippines, the only country in the world besides the Vatican City where divorce is prohibited, there are only two options for separation. One is legal separation, and the other is a declaration of nullity or a legal annulment.

Atty. Jaye de la Cruz Bekema, Chief Legislative Officer of Senator Risa Hontiveros who helped draft one of the divorce bills, says: “Legal separation is a separation of physical union and assets, but the parties are considered to be still married to each other and thus cannot remarry.” A declaration of nullity, on the other hand, requires the separation meets specific grounds. Most of the time, she says, it is based on Article 36 of the Family Code, “which is quite a high bar,” says Bekema, as it requires that a psychological incapacity existed at the time of celebration of the marriage.

Maritina couldn’t opt for the legal separation, because it would mean that she and her husband would technically stay married. She decided to file for an annulment. “With an annulment, everything is severed because technically, if you’re granted an annulment, your marriage never happened at all,” she shares.

First, Maritina hired a lawyer, and this cost her around ₱100,000. She filed on the grounds of psychological incapacity, and for that, she needed psychology tests and a doctor. This cost her an additional ₱200,000. “This is why they say annulment is only for the rich,” she says. “You need to be able to afford the bills. Think of those people that can't afford to free themselves from an abusive marriage, those who are stuck with their spouse because there is no other recourse.” She adds that reasons like infidelity or physical battery are not considered grounds for a declaration of nullity. “But if the guy can’t get it up for ‘marital relations,’ that is a valid excuse as long as it is incurable,” she notes.

Then comes the process of the annulment, which includes going through your entire history of marriage, highlighting only the challenges for court. "There’s no time or place to dwell on anything good.”

The judge’s ruling took a few months after the trial, and the whole process took about two years.. While the process for her was reasonably straightforward, others with children or spouses who contest will probably have to deal with a longer more complicated process.

“What is terrifying is the idea that you won’t get your annulment,” says Maritina, which is a reality that occurs in the Philippine court, as the result is dependent on the decision of the Solicitor General. “You can’t move on with your life. And no matter how sure you are or how airtight your case is, there’s still that little irrational voice inside you wondering if you’ll be able to be truly and legally free.” According to statistics from the Office of the Solicitor General in 2011, 6% of all annulments filed were denied or dismissed.

He-said, she-said

Early this year, a House committee had unanimously approved three measures to legalize divorce in the Philippines. These were House bills 100, 838, and 2263. These bills seek to rid of the need for grounds like psychological incapacity, lack of consent, or incapability to bear children, for one to file for separation.

This approval is progress for a country that has lawmakers attempting to legalize divorce since 1999. Last year, the House of Representative passed the measure on the third and final reading, but the Senate rejected it.

The bill meets strong opposition in a conservatively Catholic Philippines. Dissenters like Citizen’s Battle Against Corruption (CIBAC) Party-list Representative Bro. Eddie Villanueva argued that having divorce would make marriage “cheap.” Villanueva adds that the process is redundant because of the existence of an annulment or legal separation. “What we really need is to improve the annulment process and make it pro-poor in terms of cost and time. It may necessitate an executive action or a legislative one, but certainly not a divorce bill.” The Catholic church has also voiced out its position on the divorce bill, calling it “unconstitutional.”

Bekema argues that while costs are certainly restrictive, they are not the only reason that an annulment or a legal separation is prohibitive. The requirement of proving psychological incapacity, for example, to get an annulment, is tedious and doesn’t meet everyone’s criteria. “The need to demonstrate psychological incapacity in annulment proceedings are very often ugly, as parties present, many times, make up evidence of various forms of psychosis, narcissism, etc. Not only is this unnecessarily toxic, but it also affects the children.”

In addition, couples who go through a legal separation are still considered married, and therefore cannot remarry. The divorce bill addresses these aspects.

Bekema explains that the divorce bill will adopt the same processes as legal separation and a declaration of nullity, but that the timeline and procedure are significantly shorter. "For example, the Solicitor General who is involved in every petition for declaration of nullity will no longer be involved in divorce cases. There is also the possibility of shortened proceedings in certain circumstances.”

While it cannot be said yet how much a divorce will cost, the bill does have a provision to protect indigent litigants, stating that the court is required to waive their fees. “The bill acknowledges that many Filipino women are still financially dependent on their husbands, so the economic impact is a usual consideration,” says Bekema. “That is why our bill includes clear provisions for support.”

A peaceful uncoupling

When 22-year-old Kana Takahashi’s mother suddenly flew home from Japan five years ago, she knew that something was up. Kana and her younger sister were raised in the Philippines by an aunt. Her mom, a Filipino, and her dad, a Japanese, worked abroad.

It was her aunt who broke the news about her parents’ divorce. “She was very open to my sister and me, no sugar-coating. She explained what happened, assured us that nothing much will change, and that it was for the better. After that, we planned the arrangement and made sure that everyone was happy with it."

As a daughter of a divorced couple, Kana was present at the Senate hearing last year, making a statement in support of the passage of the divorce bill in the Philippines. She says that growing up watching her parents’ toxic relationship fester was not good for her and her sister. “They always fought and argued, even with the little things,” she says. “The environment was very toxic, and it came to a point when me and my sister didn’t want to be around them. It was affecting our emotional health. It was also affecting our family and our dynamics. Everyone was mad all the time.”

When the divorce was finalized in Japan, she was expecting things might get uglier, but she was surprised when her family instead found peace. “Leaving toxic situations really changes your perspective,” says Kana. “It made me reflect on my relationships more. That you shouldn't be afraid to cut off relationships if they’re not healthy anymore.”

Now, her parents maintain a healthy friendship, which has been helpful for everyone in the family. She says the divorce made them open up more to each other, and made them more compassionate. "We would always talk about our feelings and things that make us uncomfortable. It was better than ever, and we also became super close to our parents!”

She adds that keeping a family together means maintaining a healthy, loving environment for everyone — this includes acknowledging that when things are bad, it is okay to let go. She pleads, “If you don’t want a divorce, then don’t get one. But you shouldn’t impose your beliefs on other people. They deserve to have a choice. They deserve to be free.”

No escape

For many Filipino women, finding an escape from a husband is not an easy option, and often it can be dangerous. Violence and domestic abuse is a typical scenario, as according to a 2017 report from the Philippine Statistics Authority, one in four women have experienced spousal violence — be it physical, emotional, or sexual abuse. Without an accessible and affordable option to separate from an abusive husband, some women are left with no choice. The absolute divorce bill hopes to protect all women stuck in loveless, abusive, and dysfunctional marriages, and provide a way out.

At present, a draft committee report is being circulated among senators who are members of the Committee on Women for their signatures. Once enough signatures are achieved, the report is then sponsored in the plenary by Senator Risa Hontiveros, where it will be subjected to interpellation and amendment. After which, it will be voted on by all senators on the floor.

When Maritina received news of the approval of her annulment in 2018, she said it felt as if a weight had been lifted from her shoulders. “I felt happy. And because I was so at peace with my situation, there really wasn’t that much pain. I did everything I could to save that marriage. I was not sorry I wanted out. I didn’t want anything out of the annulment. Like Tina Turner, I just wanted to leave with my name.”

*Name has been changed upon request.