Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Welcome To Philippines, A Place Where Divorce Is Illegal & Women Suffer In Silence


Lennie Visbal last saw her husband, Joel, 13 years ago. Even then, she said, “it was like looking at a stranger.” But since divorce is not possible in the Philippines, Ms. Visbal can’t escape him.

“I’m in limbo, I cannot move,” Ms. Visbal said. “Every time, there is a reminder that I’m legally attached to him.”

The Philippines is the only country in the world, aside from Vatican City, where divorce remains illegal.


Ms. Visbal, 52, a Philippine citizen who works as a teaching assistant in Thailand, has gone back to using her maiden name socially, but on all official documents she still carries her husband’s last name. He is not involved in their son’s life and provides no financial support, but on paper retains equal custody. For official transactions, such as when their son needed a passport, Ms. Visbal turned to an intermediary to get signed permission from her husband.

Ms. Visbal is haunted by the thought that if she died, her social security benefits would go to her estranged husband and that he would also have a claim to inherit the small seaside property where she plans to retire.

“I want to pull my hair out,” Ms. Visbal said of the legal entanglements that keep her tied to a marriage that has ended in every sense except in the eyes of the state.

A move to allow full divorces for the first time in the Philippines is offering people like Ms. Visbal some hope. Under a bill approved by the House of Representatives on Monday, a wide range of reasons, including irreconcilable differences, abandonment, infidelity and abuse, would become legal grounds for ending a marriage.

The bill would need to be approved in the Senate then go to the president for review. While the Senate is required to give the measure a first reading and refer it for committee review once Congress is back in session on May 15, the conservative Senate majority leader, Vicente Sotto III, has openly opposed divorce and could delay putting the measure on the calendar.

President Rodrigo Duterte has not commented on the current measure. But during the campaign in 2016, he said he was against divorce — a stance reiterated recently by his spokesman Harry Roque. House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez, one of Mr. Duterte’s closest allies and a co-author of the bill, says he is optimistic he can bring the president around.

No bill on divorce has ever made it this far in Congress. The measure is the rare piece of legislation supported by representatives from both the majority and opposition parties in the House. A survey released this month found that 53 percent of Filipinos support legalizing divorce.

About 80 percent of Filipinos are Roman Catholic, and previous attempts to pass a divorce bill have faltered under the influence of the Catholic Church here, which vehemently opposes legislation that runs counter to its teachings.

The divorce bill comes in the wake of a bitter battle over a reproductive health law that provides modern family planning education and free birth control for the poor. It took more than 13 years to pass into law, which occurred in 2012; it then languished in appeals for several years, and has yet to be implemented fully. Politicians who supported that measure were vilified by priests or threatened with excommunication.

“It’s just exhausting to be debating with the church all the time,” said the deputy House speaker, Pia Cayetano, a practicing Catholic who advocated both reproductive health and divorce, and was denounced as an agent of the devil during Sunday Masses. “A lot of my colleagues are just too scared” to take on the church, she said.

“While divorce may indeed vindicate the rights of women, as congressmen believed,” the Rev. Jerome Secillano, the executive secretary of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, said in a statement, “it is unfortunately to the detriment of marriage and family as sacred institutions that should otherwise be protected by the state. Divorce is antimarriage and anti-family.”

Despite the bill’s passage in the House, Mr. Sotto has called its prospects in the Senate “dim.”

Yet the absence of divorce has hardly preserved the sanctity of marriage in the Philippines. Many poor Filipinos do not get married, to avoid both the cost of a wedding and the burden of not being able to divorce. Extramarital affairs are considered normal.

“Mistresses are the bread and butter of politicians,” said the House speaker, Mr. Alvarez.

Mr. Alvarez himself acknowledges having six children out of wedlock, in addition to two children with his wife.


Culled from NY Times

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