A Last Holdout on Divorce, Philippines Tiptoes Toward Legalization

“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.


Roman Catholics marching against divorce and abortion in Manila last month.Credit Ted Aljibe/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

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.

A Last Holdout on Divorce, Philippines Tiptoes Toward Legalization
A Last Holdout on Divorce, Philippines Tiptoes Toward Legalization

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.”


Pantaleon Alvarez, the House speaker, is a co-author of the divorce bill. To justify leaving his wife in 2016, he claimed to be a member of a polygamous tribe.Credit Rolex Dela Pena/European Pressphoto Agency

Senator Risa Hontiveros, chairwoman of the Committee on Women, Children, Family Relations and Gender Equality, says she is meeting with women’s rights and children’s advocacy groups, and is looking for ways the Senate could consider the bill, given the concerns of conservative politicians and many in the broader public.

The measure’s supporters plan to lobby the Senate to at least give it a chance, and they take heart that some controversial bills in the past, like the one on reproductive health, have passed despite conservative opposition.

“My primary concern is the sanctity of marriage,” Senator Panfilo Lacson said in a statement to local press. “Needless to say, I don’t want marriage and separation to be a ‘dime a dozen’ affair.”

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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. To justify leaving his wife of nearly 30 years for a girlfriend in 2016, Mr. Alvarez claimed to be a member of the polygamous Manobo tribe. The claim surprised some Manobo leaders, who said polygamy was an outdated system, as well as his wife, Emelita Alvarez, who said she was previously unaware of his conversion from Catholicism to Manobo beliefs.

Indigenous groups are not bound by the current laws on marriage, and Muslims, who make up about 11 percent of the population, are allowed to divorce in accordance with Shariah law.

Annulments are one of the few ways of escaping a marriage, short of death, but they are far from simple matters. Mr. Duterte’s marriage is a case in point.

In 1998, his wife petitioned the courts to nullify their 25-year marriage. She cited his public infidelities as the reason, but to comply with the terms of an annulment, Mr. Duterte submitted to an assessment by a psychologist. The annulment was granted two years later, after Mr. Duterte was found to be “psychologically incapacitated to handle essential marital obligations” and to have “gross indifference to others’ needs and feelings,” among other traits.


Ms. Visbal and her son Zyrel, 13, in their home in Pattaya, Thailand. Her husband is not involved in their son’s life but retains equal custody.Credit Lauren DeCicca for The New York Times

Annulments are expensive, adversarial and difficult to obtain. They require proof that the issues that caused the end of a marriage, like psychological incapacity, existed before the wedding. The process can take months, often years, and eat up thousands of dollars in lawyers’ and psychologists’ fees, accumulating to as much as three times the average annual income in the Philippines. Even then the outcome is by no means assured.

The requirements for an annulment do not reflect the usual course of an unraveling marriage. “It takes a long time because they have to concoct stories,” said Elizabeth Pangalangan, a law professor at the University of the Philippines in Diliman, noting that in most marriages the problems arise during the marriage, not before it. “If it were true, it would be easier to prove.”

Even when annulments are granted, they may be challenged by the government and reversed in court. The arduous process means that few people seek annulments, with only about 10,000 filed each year.

Most people simply move on to unions outside the protection of the law. That is what happened with Novelliza Velez Castro, 33, whose Japanese husband abandoned her within months of their 2008 wedding in the Philippines, leaving her pregnant and alone.

After searching for him with no success, Ms. Castro met someone else, who is raising the husband’s child as his own. This month she gave birth to their baby. Ms. Castro, who now works as a caregiver in Nagoya, Japan, wants her partner in the Philippines to join her and the children so they can raise their family together, but she has no legal basis to bring him over on a spousal visa. And because she remains married to the Japanese man under Philippine law, her newborn is considered illegitimate.

That brings very real ramifications, since such children are entitled to only half the inheritance of those born to married parents. Even if the mother and father live together, the mother retains sole legal authority — the father cannot gain custody of the child.

“Sometimes my daughter asks me, ‘Won’t we ever have a normal family?’” Ms. Castro said.

When she heard news of the divorce bill moving through Congress, “I was so happy,” Ms. Castro said. “I just want us to be together.”

Ms. Cayetano, the congresswoman, said, “We are not trying to introduce divorce. We are legalizing the status of marriages that are dead or abusive already.”

For Lennie Visbal, her unbreakable marriage isn’t just a bureaucratic annoyance, it is also keeping her from finding love. “I don’t want to involve anyone in my situation,” she said. She is watching the progress of the divorce bill closely. “If I should meet someone,” she said, “I want to be free.”

A version of this article appears in print on March 25, 2018, on Page A4 of the New York edition with the headline: For Filipinos Seeking Divorce, a Bill Offers Hope. Order Reprints|Today’s Paper|Subscribe

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