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Not all 'happy-ever-afters' end in a lifetime commitment. In the Philippines where divorce is not available, many couples are bound by loveless marriages. Do they have a way out?

Married life is just like a walk in the park especially if you found a partner who is ready to brave all the bad weather with you and for you—that's what most wedding vows say anyway: 'for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness or in health, to love and to cherish till death do us part'. However, in a world where love seems to be a gamble of trust and luck, there are people troubled by spouses who revealed their true colours a little too late.

In most countries, unhappy couples can immediately resort to the good old divorce, but in the Philippines, this is nothing but wishful thinking—it is, after all, the only state besides the Vatican where this process remains out of reach.

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If There's a Will, There's a Way

Divorce is not technically impossible for everyone in the Philippines, for Muslims who make up at least 6 per cent of the country's population, this procedure is allowed. That is because Muslim-Filipinos adhere to a separate legal system called Code of Muslim Personal Law. This presidential decree allows divorce as “the formal dissolution of the marriage bond … to be granted only after the exhaustion of all possible means of reconciliation between the spouses.”

So how about the Catholics who make up majority of the country? If they're patient and financially secure, they can go through the long and hauling process of annulment.

In this procedure, the couple should prove that they have at least one of the following: 

  • Impotence (the lack of ability to reproduce) 
  • Undisclosed sexually-transmitted diseases (STDs)
  • Lack of parental consent
  • Fraud or force
  • Mental incapacity

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For other couples, legal separation is also an option. Here, they can live in separate houses and divide their possessions, but the agreement does not cut the legal ties of their marriage; therefore, both parties are not allowed to remarry.

To formally declare that a marriage is null and void, a couple must prove that their wedding was never valid from the beginning. The most common route that lawyers take to prove this includes presenting data that states either one partner suffers from psychological incapacity. The gruelling process involves the aid of a clinical psychiatrist or psychologist who has to perform a series of evaluations. Most of the time, this prevents most clients from going on with the separation.

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The Bitter Truth

When it comes to annulment, the much bigger pill to swallow is that the process is not within the reach of the Philippines' lower socio-economic class. The average annulment starts at around PHP 250,000 which is hardly less than the average family income in the country for an entire year. According to a December 2021 report from the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA), about 26.14 million Filipinos live below the country's poverty threshold.

Despite spending tens and hundreds of thousands for annulment, there is still no guarantee that the courts will rule in favour of the separation. In a position paper submitted by EnGendeRights Inc. founder and executive director Atty Clara Rita Padilla before the House of Representatives last February 5, 2020, it was revealed that cases for nullity of marriage are costly and inaccessible to poor women. Without specific divorce legislation, nullity of marriage [or annulment] makes it hard for women in abusive relationships to finally break free from their husbands leading to the continued perpetuation of domestic violence.

"Nullity based on Art. 36 of the Family Code is too difficult to win even when there are clear abuses and failure to comply with the essential obligations of marriage. It is also too costly and too traumatic for abused women who suffered marital rape and other physical, emotional, and financial abuses," Padilla shares in an exclusive interview with Tatler. "It is inaccessible to poor and other people faced with financial constraints."

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[Annulment] is inaccessible to poor and other people faced with financial constraints.
Atty Clara Rita Padilla, Founder and Executive Director of EnGendeRights, Inc

People who cannot afford the services of a lawyer are stuck in abusive marriages. "This is why we have been pushing for divorce law for almost three decades now. With divorce law, there could be a provision to allow divorce after [say], two years of separation and there would be alimony for the ex-wife. Divorce would make it accessible to more people, especially the poor. In abusive relationships, a divorce is very important for closure and the safety and security of abused women," Padilla explains. 

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Is Divorce Pro Women?

In the same paper, Padilla disclosed that as a result of the absence of divorce law, many women still cohabit with their current partners even after they suffered years of physical, verbal, psychological, and sexual abuses. 

There are two prevalent reasons why it is not only logistically difficult for women to seek an annulment or legal separation, but emotionally draining as well. While they may make up half the country's population, only 46 per cent of them are working compared to 76 per cent of men. That means many wives rely on their partners for financial support. This devastating situation is also coupled with pervasive social stigma surrounding ending a marriage, which is particularly strong for women to "hold the family together."

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In her 27 years of law service, Padilla has witnessed a lot of women whose heart-wrenching stories made it impossible for witnesses to leave the court with dry eyes.

"Divorce is pro-women because it will provide freedom to all the countless abused women who are imprisoned in their failed marriages that oftentimes lead to perpetuated abuses, further placing the women and their children, if any, at grave risk. There have been many cases of parricide-suicide where the abusive husband kills his wife, oftentimes even the children, and then commit suicide. Here you would see the longstanding failure of Philippine law to provide access to divorce," says Padilla.

"In one of my cases, it wasn’t just my female client who cried when she testified in court, even the hearing sign language interpreter and judge were all in tears.  I remember saying to myself that this is simply too traumatic for my client to relive and no one should undergo further torture just to be able to free themselves from an abusive marriage."

For Padilla, the country's stand in divorce has nothing to do with religion anymore. "Personally, I do not think it is religion [the Philippines being predominantly Catholic] rather the lack of political will of legislators in the past congresses. This 18th Congress, I witnessed the strong political will of legislators having been a panellist at congressional hearings." 

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Happy Ever After

In the Philippines, a country wrought with conservative values ... marriage and togetherness of the family are put on a pedestal. While these experiences provide solace, love, and mutual support, it is only apt for members of the society to look out for one another and provide choices for those who sought their own 'happy-ever-afters', but instead opened the pages of their lives' greatest hardship.

"Marriage is a contractual obligation to provide love, respect, and support. The parties must have recourse to divorce when there is no love, respect, and support in the marriage. Divorce is for those who need it, nobody is forcing others to avail of divorce when they do not want it. But for those who want and badly need a divorce, the law must provide this option to them. It is their right," Padilla concludes.

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