MANILA - Legalizing absolute divorce in the Philippines would allow individuals to start new lives, its main proponent in the Senate said Tuesday, as she sought to debunk the opinion that it would destroy the family as an institution.
A Senate panel has started discussions on proposed bills allowing divorce in the Philippines, a fractious issue in the predominantly Catholic nation.
Sen. Risa Hontiveros is confident that her proposed measure will finally gain acceptance as more people surface to share their stories which demonstrate that some relations are indeed beyond repair.
“Divorce assumes the marriage has been broken. It’s not divorce that breaks the marriage, it’s the abuse, the oppression or the lovelessness that preceded it,” Hontiveros said during Tuesday’s hearing.
Hontiveros said contrary to the opinion of Catholic and conservative groups, divorce is “pro-marriage, pro-family and pro-children.”
“It makes us respect marriage more by being more discerning with our choices in life. It protects children from abuse and rebuilds broken families,” she added.
In the Philippines, the only country in the world aside from the Vatican City where divorce remains illegal, one of the most popular grounds used by couples to have their marriage nullified is psychological incapacity, a lengthy and costly process.
Ma. Stella Sibonga, a divorce advocate, was forced by her mother to marry a man who got her pregnant.
Sibonga said her husband was abusive and would always remind her that he only married her because he was forced to.
“Naging 3 ang anak namin, pero ganoon pa rin ang mga pangyayari. Ang gusto niya pabayaan ko ang mga gusto niya, ‘di ko siya pwedeng pigilan,” a weeping Sibonga told the Senate panel.
(We had three children, but the situation never changed. He just wanted me to let him be.)
“Gusto ko nang tapusin ang buhay [ko]. Hindi ko alam ang gagawin ko, nagpunta ako ng dagat gusto kong magpakalunod na lang.”
(I wanted to end my life. I did not know what to do. I went to the sea and thought of drowning myself.)
In 2011, Sibonga filed for an annulment, a painful process that took 5 years to get court approval. She thought freedom was already within her reached, until she learned that the Office of the Solicitor General filed a motion for reconsideration.
The OSG, the designated “defender of the marital bond,” represents the interest of the state in protecting marriage as the basic family institution. This means it has the power to intervene in marital cases, on top of being the data repository of annulment petitions in the country.
Marco Antonio Luna, an overseas Filipino worker, meanwhile, said he sought to save his marriage even if as early as 1999, his wife already showed signs of disinterest in their relationship.
Luna eventually learned that his wife had been talking to other men, a discovery that further strained their marriage.
“If any anti-divorce advocates would tell us that we are anti-family, no, we are not. [There are] stages that we go through,” Luna said.
“We are victims. We go through the process of trying to fix the marriage despite the fact that we know that this is the injustice that’s being done to us.”
He said he also did not want to file for an annulment because of its prohibitive cost, which is why he is pushing for the legalization of divorce in the Philippines.
“Annulment is very unrealistic eh. Why go through that?” he said.
“I don’t believe in it. It is being exploited, [it has become] one of the milking cows of lawyers.”
Len Arcilla also made another case for divorce, saying it was impossible for her to reconcile with her husband who now lives with another woman, abandoning her and their two children.
Arcilla said she forgave her womanizing husband, only for him to get worse and more abusive.
“Lagi kaming nag-aaway. Nananakit siya,” Arcilla said.
She said she wanted to save her marriage to spare her children of the pain, but her efforts did not pay off.
“Pinilit pa rin niyang sumama sa kabit niya. Iniwanan niya kami. Sabi ko sa kanya kung may kabit ka, 5 araw ka sa kabit mo, dalawang araw ka sa amin, para ‘di lang makita ng anak naming hiwalay kami,” she said.
(He still chose to go with his mistress. I told him, if you'll spend five days a week with her, spend two with us so our children wouldn't notice.)
But children of separated parents like Kana Takahashi of the group Maya: The Feminist Collective, said couples are better off separated instead of letting abuse happen.
“If keeping the family together means domestic violence, lack of family support, substance abuse, infidelity, and health and financial incapacities, then I don't want it. It’s better to get a divorce than stay in a toxic family environment,” Takahashi said.
“I personally believe those who experience domestic violence should be given another chance to restart their lives from massive marriage failures.”
Under Hontiveros’ divorce bill, physical violence and "grossly abusive conduct" are considered grounds for divorce.
Divorce may also be filed when the spouses are legally separated by judicial decree for at least two years or when they have been separated “in fact” for at least five years and reconciliation is highly improbable.
Hontiveros divorce bill languished at the committee level during the previous congress.
In March 2018, the House of Representatives, under the leadership of former Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez, approved on third and final reading a bill providing for divorce and dissolution of marriage.
President Rodrigo Duterte said he would not support the bill as his daughter, Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte, "is not happy with it."