PHILIPPINES: Women's Groups Push for Divorce Bill

Saturday, August 21, 2010
South Eastern Asia
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Human Rights

As soon as the divorce bill was filed, it immediately generated a lot of emotional reactions from different sectors, especially the Catholic church. Unable to shy away from the debate on the divorce bill, President Benigno Simeon Aquino III recently declared that he is against divorce but is for legal separation with the option to remarry, which some sectors say is tantamount to divorce.

In the Philippines, which has a predominantly conservative Roman Catholic population, divorce is frowned at in public, although a lot of married couples have been living separately. Couples from wealthy families travel abroad to get divorced and to remarry. The Philippines is only one of two countries that do not have a divorce law yet. Gabriela said Malta, a Mediterranean island, has yet to legislate a divorce bill, too.

Women's group Gabriela and Gabriela Women's Party (GWP) are pushing for the passage of House Bill 1799, “An Act Introducing Divorce in the Philippines.” Filed recently by GWP Representatives Luzviminda Ilagan and Emmie de Jesus in Congress, they said this would give couples particularly women the option to terminate a marriage that is no longer working, is already beyond saving and already detrimental to their well-being.

Maricon Reazo, hopes that divorce bill will be passed in Congress(Photo by Anne Marxze D. Umil /
To Maricon Reazo, 46, the proposed law would help solve a huge problem. She has formed a new family but is still married to her ex-husband with whom she has a son. If there is a divorce law, she would immediately divorce her ex-husband to make her current partner her lawful husband. Reazo was a battered wife in her first marriage. She was physically abused by her first husband who became alcoholic and later a drug addict.

“For all parties concerned, nothing good could emanate from a marriage where there is no longer respect, love and affection between spouses. Most often, where marriage has taken a turn for the worse, it is the woman who suffers the brunt of it,” Jovita Montes, health services director of Gabriela, told Bulatlat.

“The absence of a law on divorce is a crucible that will help us move forward from the lowest global ranking on this matter, as globally the Philippines remains as one of just two countries that has no divorce law yet,” Ilagan said in a statement.

Too Early To Get Married

Reazo's story is representative of stories of many girls who thought they were in love, little knowing that life with the man they married would be difficult.

When Reazo was 20, she eloped with Ninoy who was then only 17. She described him as a young man with “brains” and seemed headed to a good future. “He was taking up Commerce and had only one more year in college before graduating.”

She said it was Ninoy's family who urged them to get married, while her own mother was against it, saying both Reazo and Ninoy hardly knew each other. Eventually the two got married in 1984, Ninoy's family insisted on paying for their extravagant wedding, as they were a bit well off. “We married in church complete with an entourage and a reception with a roasted cow. It was considered extravagant in a place like Abra.”

But after two years Ninoy changed. He became an alcoholic. Later he became addicted to illegal drugs. “We already have a son then, when he began to get violent.”

Like other married women, she hoped that Ninoy would change. “I wanted to save our marriage because we have a son and we already have our own house. I dreamed of a better family life in the future so I endured all his beatings, thinking that he would change.”

She said when Ninoy got drunk he would throw a bottle at them and beat her up in front of their son. For two years she endured all that.

Then one day her uncle told her to run away and live with her mother in Manila, because Ninoy would never change.

“My uncle told me one time when my son and I took shelter in their house, that I should love myself also and leave my husband.” So, with her son, she did run to her mother and arrived in Manila full of bruises and contusions.

They reported to the police what happened to her. But even when already away from Ninoy, her son was still afraid when night time came. “When it was getting dark my son would say in Ilocano, “Mother, let's hide now. Father would hurt you again.” Then he would begin to cry.

Fundamental Equality

Between January and May this year, 204 of the 294 cases of violence against women (VAW) reported to Gabriela were cases of domestic violence, Montes said. She said that aside from emotional abandonment, many of these women complained of financial neglect as they are left on their own to eke out a living for the whole family.

“Wife battery is a reality we cannot turn a blind eye to. When a woman is beaten up by her husband, she must have the freedom to leave the marriage; but at present women do not have this option because existing laws on legal separation and annulment miserably fail to address this reality,” explained Montes.

Culturally and traditionally the burden of making the marriage work and keep it intact lie on women, said Gabriela. Women are prescribed by society to sacrifice themselves to save the marriage. “But we would like to remind the state that it is its policy to ensure fundamental equality, before the law, of women and men; and where a woman is confined to a marriage where she only knows suffering, there is nothing of that equality,” Montes said.

Living Proof

This is the reason why GWP actively supports HB 1799; they called on their colleagues in Congress to make the divorce bill a living proof that it is a “progressive and forward-looking House”.
Ilagan said she believes Congress would allow for intelligent and rights-based discourse on the bill as that is consistent with House Speaker Sonny Belmonte's call for each and every representative to “overcome self-interest to raise Filipinos and the Philippines to a proud stature in the global ranking of nations”.
For Reazo, she hopes the HB 1799 wouyld soon be passed so she could make her second marriage legal. In 2005, she and her second husband got married through a pastor because she was about to give birth then to their second child. “We did that so our children can use his surname.”

The Philippines is a conservative country that thinks a divorce law will only create more broken families because a couple with problems could easily opt for divorce. Some believe that if the divorce bill is passed it will make a mockery of marriage.

But for Reazo's mother who previously opposed her daughter's early marriage because the young couple then knew little about each other, one should think hard first before jumping into marriage.

Rep. De Jesus stressed that in other Catholic countries like Spain and Italy where a divorce law is in force, it did not necessarily resulted in an increase in divorce cases filed in court.

De Jesus added that as early as on the first week after the divorce bill was filed and tackled by media, some sectors are already forwarding biased and unfounded fears. She said Gabriela has counseled a lot of married women who have been abused or battered, but who considered leaving their husbands only after years and years of repetitive and cyclical battering.

“A couple who is in a happy or satisfactory marital relationship would definitely not seek divorce just because it is legal. It is not easy to build a quality marital relationship. We at Gabriela would be the first to advice couples to work more on their relationship as this redounds to their holistic wellbeing and promotion of the rights of both partners in the relationship,” she said.

For Gabriela, the passage of a law allowing divorce is long overdue. It is necessary in a society where women remain marginalized and prone to many forms of domestic violence and abuses.