By Joseph Clyde Famularcano

Are you familiar with the hit drama series "The Broken Marriage Vow"? Did you know that in its British and Korean counterpart, the female lead filed for a divorce, a difference with the local version which featured an annulment instead? Well, it's because of the obvious reason that Filipinos don't have that kind of luxury. The Philippines, alongside the Vatican, are the sole sovereign states in the world that prohibits divorce, or at least not entirely. 

While several efforts have been made to legalize divorce, or the dissolution of marriage, it all went down the drain due to the strong opposition from conservatives and various religious groups. However, the fight to put divorce in the law of the land seems to be immortal, as a new wave of legislation unraveled to cut the rope tying two people in a union.

Divorce movement in the 19th Congress

As the 19th Congress prepares to convene, lawmakers have started filing their priority measures, with both from the Senate and the House of Representatives advocating for a divorce law, an issue that has been one of the main focus of interviews, debates and forums in the recently concluded general elections. 

Early July, Albay 1st district representative Edcel Lagman re-filed “The Absolute Divorce Bill,” which versions failed to hurdle in past sessions of Congress. With the proposed bill, the Bicolano lawmaker hopes “beleaguered and tormented wives can soon be liberated from irretrievably dysfunctional marriages or inordinately abusive marital relations.”

In the upper chamber, senators Risa Hontiveros, Robin Padilla and Raffy Tulfo have submitted their own versions of a bill for absolute divorce, with varying grounds and provisions.

Hontiveros' divorce bill provides six guiding principles. Aside from legalizing the dissolution of marriage, the measure also aims to make the proceedings accessible for all Filipinos by mandating the courts to renounce the payment of filing fees and other litigation expenses upon the presentation of evidence of indigency. To aid the petitioners and their shared children, the court will also select a counsel de oficio and designate social workers, psychologists, and psychiatrists.

The opposition leader listed five comprehensive grounds for divorce namely: five continuous years of separation or two years of legal separation; rape; the Family Code’s list of grounds for legal separation; a final decree of absolute divorce obtained abroad; and irreconcilable marital differences. Though, the senator from Akbayan stipulates that physical abuse or other egregious mistreatment need not be repeated and homosexuality cannot be used as a reason unless marital adultery is committed, regardless of SOGIE.

Meanwhile, action star-turned-senator Padilla, a converted Muslim who already had a divorce in 2007 with Liezl Sicangco, emphasized that his proposed legislation is not meant to destroy families but rather protect them. 

“Sabi nga po nila, baka raw itong panukala ang sisira sa kasal. Ay, hindi po! Itong panukalang ito ang nagbibigay proteksyon sa kasal na – masakit man sabihin – ay sira na. Wala tayong sinisirang pamilya. Pinroproteksyunan natin ang hindi magkasundo,” he said in a Facebook live, July 10.

In fact, Padilla's and Hontiveros' bills are very similar as both have many of the same elements and provisions. Unique to the former action star's proposed legislation is that having a child with another person other than one's spouse during the marriage, can be considered a ground for divorce, unless both parties are in an agreement with the situation, or the child is born via in vitro fertilization (IVF), through a similar procedure or when the wife bears a child after being a victim of rape. According to Britannica, IVF is a medical treatment wherein mature egg cells are taken out of a woman, fertilized outside the body with male sperm, and then placed back into the same or another woman's uterus for a normal pregnancy. A six-month mandatory cooling period is also placed before starting court trials.

Lastly, neophyte senator Tulfo—who hosts a public service program that investigates cases of abuse, dishonesty, exploitation, and family dispute—puts physical abuse as a ground for divorce, but asserts that evidences like police blotters, medical records, and witness statements must be provided to prove that it is happening in a marriage. Other grounds for divorce are psychological incapacity, abandonment, alcoholism, drug use, and the like. Tulfo also said that he is ready to hold a dialogue with the Catholic Church to explain his bill and gain their support.

Ending a marriage in the Philippines 

Based on a 2017 survey conducted by the Social Weather Station, a predominant number of Filipinos favors legalizing divorce. According to the survey, 53% of adults believe that "married couples, who are separated and cannot reconcile anymore should be allowed to divorce so that they can legally marry again." 30% of respondents indicated that they strongly agreed with this statement, while 23% indicated that they somewhat agreed, while 32% disagreed and 15% were unsure.

Technically, divorce is not entirely forbidden in the Philippines as couples, married under a Muslim rite can dissolve their marriage as they fall under the Code of Muslim Personal Laws and not the Family Code. Senator Padilla’s divorce in 2007 was made possible because of this provision. 

Most couples who want to end their marriage, but doesn't fall in the 5% Muslim population, implore legal remedies such as legal separation and annulment. In a legal separation, the two parties are allowed to live apart and own assets separately, but they are not permitted to remarry as their marriage is still considered valid  and subsisting. 

On the other hand, annulment is the declaration of a marriage as null and void, meaning it wasn't effective in the first place due to grounds such as lack of parental consent, insanity/psychological incapacity; fraud, force, intimidation, or undue influence; impotence; and sexually transmissible diseases. The process itself is very long, taking up to six months to four years, depending on the court's calendar; and very expensive, assuming the annulment is uncontested, between Php 200,000 and Php 500,000, however, if any side opposes the case, the fees may increase to almost a million (Duran, Duran & Schulze, 2018).

The prospect of divorce being institutionalized

The farthest a divorce bill came was in 2017, when the lower chamber, under pro-divorce Davao del Norte 1st district representative Pantaleon Alvarez' leadership, passed Lagman's Absolute Divorce Bill with a vote of 134-57, but didn't move forward in the Senate and was left to die in the committee level.

While receiving support from liberals and progressives, the cause to legalize divorce is, not surprisingly, met with strong opposition. The Council of the Laity of the Philippines condemned the resurgence of legislations regarding divorce, deeming it as an “irrational advocacy” and “will further damage the Filipino family and attack the morals and values that are inherently [Filipino].” Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri, in 2020, also expressed his opposition to divorce, at the same time pushing for a proposal recognizing “church-decreed annulments.”

While the President has expressed his openness for a law dissolving a marriage during the campaign trail, as “there are cases where divorce is called for,” he also emphasized that it should not be made an easy option. Historically, even though the Executive and the Legislative are independent branches of government, the lawmaking body mostly adheres to the wishes of the chief executive. 

Ultimately, the fate of divorce is still not clear up to this point. Opposition leader Senator Risa Hontiveros has expressed her commitment to “cross party lines” and cooperate with those from the other fence for certain bills. This will surely be a good attitude in facing the battle to institutionalize divorce, as the predominant religious inclination of Filipinos will surely make things complicated.