My friend Anna** was seven years old when her father entered their room with a knife and threatened to stab her mother. That night, Anna and her mother ran away from their home, leaving Anna’s father and her siblings behind. Eleven years later, Anna still remembers that night extremely clearly.
Anna says her mother had to run away to escape from her father since their marriage could not be dissolved legally.
Aside from the Vatican, the Philippines is the only country in the world that does not allow divorce, and church leaders intend to keep it that way. With about 80 percent of its population Roman Catholic, the nation is the bastion of the Catholic church in Asia. Philippine Catholic leaders remain firm on their stand against divorce, despite Pope Francis’s recent comment to change the tone on the issue.
In Anna’s mother’s case, the beatings started when she discovered that her husband had a mistress, a woman he had met at a beer house. Anna’s mother confronted him, and he responded by regularly punching, kicking, and throwing hot coffee at her. He would go home drunk and beat her.
Anna’s mother’s case is not an isolated one. The Philippines’s National Statistics Office (NSO), through the 2008 National Demographic and Health Survey (NDHS), found that one in seven married women experienced physical violence from their husbands. They also experienced other forms of abuse including sexual, emotional, and economic violence.
In 2012, the number of cases of violence against women (VAW) reported to the Philippine National Police (PNP) increased by 23.3% from 2011. The number grew from 12,948 cases to 15,969. The 2012 report was so far the highest number of reported VAW cases since 1997.
Representative Luzviminda Ilagan is a member of the Philippine Congress, representing Gabriela, a women’s group. She believes that domestic violence alone is a strong enough reason to push for a divorce law in the country, and she says she will be refiling the divorce bill in the current congress.
“Divorce, when introduced into our laws, will provide an alternative for couples in irreparable marriages,” says Ilagan. “The extent of domestic violence and abuse in the Philippines is one of the main reasons in pushing for divorce in the Philippines.”
Ilagan believes the bill will bring about change in the way Philippine society views women in general. She says the low regard for women and children makes them highly vulnerable to abuse. She believes the bill will empower women.
James Imbong, legal counsel of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), says that pushing for a divorce law in the country is unconstitutional. In his explanation, he quotes article 15, section 2 of the Philippine Constitution that states: Marriage, as an inviolable social institution, is the foundation of the family and shall be protected by the State.
“To ‘protect’ means to prevent anything from destroying something. That is not even a legal definition and you do not have to be a lawyer to understand what that means,” Imbong says.
Ilagan says divorce will not destroy marriages and family bonds.
“It will not weaken marriages and families in the Philippines. We cannot deny the existence of abusive and irreparable marriages,” she says. “And we cannot deny the fact that couples have and will get separated with or without a divorce law.”
Currently, the existing law allows for annulment, declaration of nullity of marriage, and legal separation, but not divorce.
But Anna’s mother, like many other Filipino women, will not file for legal separation or an annulment because it’s a long, time-consuming, and expensive process.
She says she might as well spend the money on food.
Ilagan maintains that the existing law on dissolving marriages is not enough. “These options have their respective limitations and loopholes and are insufficient responses to the needs of couples in unhappy and irreparable marriages and/or abusive relationships,” says Ilagan. “Legal separation does not allow couples to remarry, while annulment abolishes the marriage and does not recognize that the marriage ever existed.”
For Anna, the separation of her parents brought distress and confusion to her life as a child. Her siblings didn’t take the separation easily either. They rebelled against their parents and did not finish their studies.
Imbong argues that divorce strips children away from their parents and deprives them of good parental upbringing.
“A child is called a child precisely because he/she needs the help of adults to mold him/her into a mature person fit to be called an adult and ultimately become a productive citizen,” says Imbong.
Meanwhile, Ilagan says that the divorce bill will clear questions about conjugal property and children’s legitimacy. She says that it will also contain details on child support mechanisms after a marriage has been severed.
When asked about her feelings on divorce, Anna remains indifferent. “For me, marriage doesn’t really matter, and neither does divorce,” she says.
**Anna’s complete name was not used to protect her and her mother. Anna is a classmate and personal friend of the writer.
This article has been been contributed via a partnership with the University of the Philippines