Following the legalisation of divorce in Malta in 2011, the Philippines and the Vatican are currently the only countries where divorce is not legal.
Now moves are on foot in the Philippines to legalise divorce. There has been steady growth in support for change in the Philippines for the past couple of years. Today, around 53% of the Filipino public are in favour of legalising divorce and prospect of a bill passing into law is closer than ever.
This March, the House of Representatives passed a divorce bill by a majority of 134 to 57. This result is astounding in a country that is approximately 80% Roman Catholic and where Catholic canon has historically had a huge influence on politics.
Currently in the Philippines, couples can apply for an annulment (on very limited grounds like mental incapacity) or they can “legally separate” which allows them to effect a property division, but they are otherwise stuck with each other as husband and wife for life and can’t remarry. It can also mean it’s harder to move on emotionally from the marriage.
The proposed legislation is surprisingly progressive and allows couples to apply for divorce by consent or on either party’s individual application, including irreconcilable differences. It also allows couples who have been “legally separated” for 5 years or more to apply immediately upon passage of the law.
Support for reform is largely driven by young women who have built a political movement on social media.
The push for divorce in the Philippines is a feminist cause at heart. The inability to get divorced has a disproportionate effect on Filipino women as it does men. They are more likely to be financially worse off than men if they separate and are not able to remarry, particularly if they have the primary care of children.
Women are also far more likely to be victims of domestic violence, in fact 1 in 7 Filipino women report having been victim of physical violence perpetrated by their husband. 23% report being the victim of verbal or emotional violence. Unfortunately domestic violence is not recognised as grounds for annulment in the Philippines, which means that victims must remain married to their perpetrators.
No divorce bill has ever made it this far, but there’s still some way to go for this one.
It needs to be passed by the Senate and approved by the President. President Rodrigo Duterte and Senate Leader Vincente Sotto III have been loud voices in the campaign against the legalisation of divorce. The anti-divorce campaign asserts that is “pro-marriage”, “pro-family” and “pro-children”.
A cynical reader might think that family lawyers are naturally pro-divorce because we have skin in the game, but in my view divorce and marriage are not incompatible. On the contrary, religious conviction aside, marriage and divorce are perfectly complementary.
Binding people within their relationship by disallowing divorce does not strengthen the relationship, it merely prolongs it. Where a relationship is dysfunctional, it prolongs the dysfunction. Where a relationship is abusive, it prolongs the abuse.
Some people choose to remain in unhappy marriages, sometimes for financial reasons, sometimes because they perceive it is better for the children and sometimes for religious or cultural reasons. However, it is still a choice. By actively (or passively) choosing not to separate, couples are choosing to remain together every day. The power of this choice should not be underestimated. It is a power that married couples in the Philippines may soon know.
If you have any questions about separation and/or divorce, big or small, don’t hesitate to contact us at Farrar Gesini Dunn on (03) 8376 7000.
Tom Mainwaring is a solicitor in our Melbourne Office