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In Philippines, Where Divorce Is Illegal, Women Pay the Price

In the Philippines, lack of divorce laws means hefty annulment fees, no division of assets and no child support for women whose marriages break down. But a new bill is trying to change that.

Written by Lynzy Billing Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Helaria Legaspi has been married since she was 15. She wants to divorce her husband, but it's not allowed under Philippines law.Lynzy Billing

MANILA When Amy Perez-Castillo tried to separate from her husband, she had to tell the courts she was psychologically unwell. It wasn’t true, but it was the only way she could get a legal separation in the Philippines, where divorce is against the law.

Her husband had walked out when their son was a baby. “Since the birth of my son, I have been the only financial contributor to his life,” Perez-Castillo says.

But it took 10 years of court proceedings before the successful TV and radio host, actress and now mother of three was granted an annulment.

“My first lawyer suggested I go through psychological evaluation, but I did not want to because of how it would affect my career, and more importantly, I needed to be classed as ‘normal’ to get custody of my son,” she says.

“Three years into the process, I was denied annulment by the supreme court. When I tried again for annulment, I had to admit to psychological incapacity.”

Apart from having to admit to something that wasn’t true, she says the process cost her dearly. “It’s hard to say how much I paid in the end, maybe more than half a million pesos [USD $10,000].”

The Philippines is the only place in the world, outside the Vatican City, where divorce is illegal. But a bill working its way through the House of Representatives could change that.

On February 21, The Act of Absolute Divorce and Dissolution of Marriage passed committee stage, and will be debated in Congress’s next plenary session.

The bill consolidates several divorce bills filed before, all seeking to allow the dissolution of marriage and address the concerns of couples in failed marriages. This version represents a landmark: By getting through committee stage, it has progressed farther than any previous attempt at legalizing divorce.

If passed, the bill would provide official separation for couples with irreconcilable differences in cases of abuse or where the couple is already de facto separated. Perhaps most importantly for women, it provides guidelines for the division of assets, financial support for the children of divorced parents, and payment of damages to “the innocent spouse.”

Ending a Marriage Without Divorce

For the 40 million married couples currently living together in the Philippines, filing for an annulment or legal separation is a lengthy process that can drag on for years, often with unsuccessful results. Today, options to end marriages are available, but they differ from divorce in important ways.

In an annulment, the couple must prove that either or both of them are psychologically incapacitated. Infidelity, physical or mental abuse, and irreconcilable differences are not taken into account in an annulment proceeding, and physical violence is not considered a sufficient reason to annul a marriage.

Legal separation allows parties to live apart, but does not legally end a marital union and therefore does not permit remarriage.

A voided marriage is considered invalid from the beginning. Reasons for voiding a marriage can include either party having an incurable sexually transmitted disease or cases of mistaken identity.

Parties can file for divorce in only one case: if they are among the estimated 5 percent of the population that is Muslim and is governed by the Code of Muslim Personal Laws.

Too Poor to Separate

Women are worst affected by the lack of divorce legislation. Representing 49.4 percent of the population but only 34 percent of the workforce, according to statistics provided to News Deeply by the Philippine Statistical Authority, they are rarely the breadwinners in a family.

The majority rely on their husbands financially, and most are reluctant to file for an annulment or legal separation because of the practical and financial implications – separated women often find they can’t support their families.

“Some women are afraid to separate from their husbands, especially if they have children who are still in need of financial support and are dependent on him,” says Clarissa Castro, an attorney specializing in family law cases.

“Worse, if they have no conjugal assets to partition, the woman will definitely be at a loss once the marriage is severed, because the obligation to give support also ends,” she says.

Helaria Legaspi, 58, married when she was just 15. Three years ago, she went to the local council to get an annulment after finding out that her husband was having an affair. But she soon discovered she would not be able to pay.

“It was just too expensive for me to even dream of. There was no way that I could afford it, so I never went back,” Legaspi says.

Helaria Legaspi says she can’t afford to formally split from her husband, who she discovered was having an affair. (Lynzy Billing)

“I have heard of annulment scams: lawyers quoting $10,000 for an all-inclusive annulment package granted by the court. But the documents are forged and they leave women in financial ruin. I thought I would be scammed, so I thought better to just leave it.

“We are poor, and the options available to us are anti-poor, we cannot afford them.”

If passed, the bill before parliament would provide state lawyers for those who can’t afford the costs associated with a divorce.

Opting Out of Marriage

In a typical year, civil courts will grant about 10,000 annulments, the office of the Solicitor General told News Deeply.

The Philippine Statistical Authority said that 6,304 petitions were filed to end marriages in Manila in the first nine months of 2017, a 23 percent decrease on the year before, with women filing slightly more than half of the petitions.

But there has also been a 20 percent decrease in reported marriages, they say, with younger generations opting for cohabitation instead of an expensive celebration that they cannot afford, followed by a relationship arrangement that can’t be left if it breaks down.

A Work in Progress?

In an overwhelmingly Catholic country, the church wields enormous influence and is clear on its view that marriage is a contract and a sacrament.

“Divorce is a deterrent to working on differences,” said a pastoral statement issued by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, reiterating its position against the divorce bill. “Marriage is and ought to be a work in progress.”

But for many women, the divorce bill is long overdue, and the current options available to them are inadequate. Three in five Filipinos are in favor of introducing divorce legislation.

“Filipino women require a quick and affordable process,” Perez-Castillo says. “The costs of an annulment must be addressed, and the government needs to do more to support single mothers.”

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