The Pope’s recent Extraordinary Synod may not relax the ban on divorce that Filipinos currently face. The Philippines is the last major country in the world to prohibit divorce for the majority of its people. So what happens when they fall out of love with each other and want to marry someone else?
Thousands of couples in the Philippines are stuck in difficult or dysfunctional marriages, torn between the teachings of their Catholic faith and a legal limbo.
One recourse for those who want to part is simply to separate, move on to the next relationship and ‘live in sin’. The alternative, in a country where the Catholic Church still wields enormous influence, is to follow a drawn out, and for many a prohibitively expensive path to an annulment.
An annulment, for those who achieve one, means the marriage never happened from a legal point of view. Not only does it set spouse against spouse but also pits church canon lawyers against state prosecutors whose job it is to defend the sanctity of marriage. The usual reasons for divorce cannot be considered in civil annulment proceedings.
As the Washington Post reports: “It helps to pay a bribe to the judge, politely referred to as a professional services fee, to speed the process and guarantee a positive outcome.”
The Philippines is a poor but rapidly developing society with a large migrant workforce and many trans-national families. However, the Catholic church in the country is uniquely conservative; even as the Synod that met at the Vatican this week began the process of relaxing many social mores for Catholics around the world.
“It’s a travesty of the justice system,” said Senator Pia Cayetano, claiming that she speaks from experience and arguing that divorce is a basic human right.
But Reverend Edgardo Pangan, a canon lawyer who handles church annulments for the Diocese of San Fernando, insists that the Philippines does not want divorce. “Human rights are not absolute if they are against the plan of God.”
Couples in the Philippines wanting to end a marriage can choose between a church annulment or a civil annulment. They must establish that there was some fatal impediment to the marriage from the first day – for example, that one or each was too young to get married, was coerced into the marriage, or most commonly, that one party was psychologically ‘incapacitated’ at the time of the marriage.
The courts in the Philippines, with a population of 100 million, heard just 10,257 annulment cases in 2013, granting about 95 percent of them.
Rather than universal marital bliss, the small number is indicative of another reality: an annulment is simply too expensive for most couples.
As the Vatican acknowledged last year, studies in other countries show that divorce rates are highest among the poor, and there is little doubt among family experts that poverty contributes significantly to marital break-ups. In the Philippines, 28 percent of the population is lives on £1 or less, per day.
So for many of these couples, marriage is also too expensive. In spite of their faith a large proportion therefore live in sin, in the eyes of their church. When these partnerships fail, they simply move on to the next one.
When Malta voted to allow divorce in 2011, the Philippines was left as the only sovereign nation forbidding divorce for the majority Catholic population. Current efforts to relax the law do not have the support of the current President, Benigno Aquino III, a bachelor and practicing Catholic.
By contrast, the Philippines’ Muslim population, who account for some 11 percent of the population, are permitted to divorce.
The absence of a fair and easy-to-access divorce procedure is a particular hardship for women, said Glenda Litong, a human rights lawyer. Women are the ones most often in need of an escape from an abusive marriage, she claimed, and they are the ones most often left with the responsibility of caring for the children. Speaking to the Washington Post she said: “The court system is onerous for women. Most of these women can barely afford the bus fare to a city, much less a lawyer.”
However, politician Luzviminda Ilagan noted that battered husbands would also benefit from the introduction of a divorce law.