Jodie Louise Dayrit

From your favorite drama series to your local neighborhood chismis, the Philippines has a long history of stories about marriages torn asunder that usually entertain many.

For the people involved and affected, however, they represent a poignant reality that not all “I do’s” end in a happily ever after, which makes separation a necessary step towards individual well-being.

Alarmingly, the Philippines remains the lone country in the world that prohibits divorce, aside from the ecclesiastical sovereign Vatican City. A glimmer of hope emerged on May 22 when the House of Representatives passed the divorce bill. But the Senate, where prominent conservative figures like Senators Joel Villanueva and Juan Miguel Zubiri voice opposition, represents the next hurdle, casting uncertainty on the divorce bill’s ultimate fate.

There is a laundry list of reasons, such as infidelity, domestic violence, substance abuse, and dysfunctional family dynamics, among others. The most recent data from the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) revealed that 3.2% of women in 2022 experienced physical violence, with their husbands and intimate partners identified as the leading perpetrators.

Why, then, does the Philippines cling so tenaciously to its anti-divorce stance? The answer lies not only in the nation’s conservative identity but also in its historically entrenched patriarchal social structure.

The concept of patriarchy emerged when the colonizers arrived in the Philippines. From babaylans, or female spiritual leaders, who were held in high regard and enjoyed equal status within a bilateral kinship system, these societal concepts were soon overthrown after the colonizers restructured the Philippines’ indigenous society.

The significant influence of the church’s patriarchal legacy and over 300 years of Spanish colonization transformed Philippine society into a patriarchal stronghold, affecting all aspects of family life, political equality, and employment opportunities. Although women, stereotyped as timid and weak, fought for better treatment, the lowly characterization of Filipinas persisted beyond Spanish colonization and continues to influence perceptions to this day.

While men are expected to lead and provide for the household, a patriarchal Filipino society expects women to keep the family together. This creates a harmful narrative that a woman must endure all pain for the sake of keeping the family complete and harmonious—depriving them of the autonomy to leave unhappy and abusive marriages. 

Men often resist change that will challenge their authority. Societally conceived as dominant and oppressive, men perceive women fighting for equality as a direct threat and historically established “anti-feminist” movements. Sociologists Michael Kimmel and Raewyn Connell’s study on hegemonic masculinity—a concept that being a “real man” means being powerful and dominant—also shows that men in patriarchal societies resist changes that threaten their “masculine” identity and societal privileges. This resistance explains why men oppose the idea of their wives divorcing them, as it undermines their authority and control over their partners. 

Then, why not annul?

Women are held in a constant chokehold with the lack of protection in the country’s patriarchal legal system, and annulment wouldn’t solve this insufficiency.

Data from the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) shows that around  21.9 million women, or 55.27%, are participating in the labor force as of December 2023—lower than men’s participation rate of 76.97% or 30.2 million. 

Most Filipinos, especially women, would never escape from unhappy marriages through annulment for one, it is expensive; two, it is lengthy; and three, it is only limited to certain grounds.

The cost of an annulment varies widely, ranging from lawyer’s fees, court fees, professional fees, and other related costs. According to Respicio & Co. Law Firm, its average cost may range from 150,000 to 300,000 or more—a hefty expense beyond the reach of many Filipinos—and may take years to reach promulgation

In patriarchal societies, most women in marital relationships are financially dependent on their husbands, making it more difficult for them to sustain resources for a proper annulment process.   

Additionally, the grounds for an annulment in the Philippines are limited to specific criteria: lack of parental consent, insanity, fraud, force, physical and psychological incapacity, and sexually transmissible diseases. This means that women may be denied annulment in cases of infidelity, abuse, and other specific cases not recognized by Philippine law. 

A rich and powerful politician, who has all the privileges to annulment may not fully grasp the need for the bill. But for many Filipinos entombed in irreparable and long-dead marriages, divorce serves as a lifeline to safety and a new, happy chance at life. 

And perhaps, the only Disney-like happily ever after ending that the Filipinos need is a bill of liberation—something that will free them from the shackles of hopeless marriages.