World’s last legal ban on divorce doesn’t keep Philippines couples together

Just because the Philippines is the last country on Earth to refuse to allow divorce for most of its citizens, that doesn’t mean Filipinos don’t fall out of love with one another.

By Tom Hundley, and Ana P. Santos October 10 at 3:30 AM

MANILA — Just because the Philippines is the last country on Earth to refuse to allow divorce for most of its citizens, that doesn’t mean Filipinos don’t fall out of love with one another.

So what to do? One recourse for those who stray is to separate, move on to the next relationship — and live in sin. The alternative, in a country where the Catholic Church still wields enormous influence, is to follow a torturously convoluted — and for many, prohibitively expensive — path to an annulment.

An annulment means a marriage never happened. It pits spouse against spouse — as divorce often does — but it also pits both against a church canon lawyer or a state prosecutor whose job it is to defend the sanctity of marriage.

Infidelity, desertion, physical or psychological abuse, irreconcilable differences or just the reality that two people simply can’t stand the sight of each other anymore — the usual reasons for divorce — cannot be considered in an annulment proceeding. It also helps to pay the judge a bribe — politely referred to as a “professional services fee” — to speed the process and guarantee a positive outcome.

“It’s a travesty of the justice system,” said Sen. Pia Cayetano, who said she speaks from experience and who has argued that divorce is a basic human right.

The church disagrees.

“Human rights are not absolute if they are against the plan of God,” said Monsignor Edgardo Pangan, a canon lawyer who handles church annulments for the Diocese of San Fernando.

The absence of modern divorce laws looms large in the Philippines, a poor but rapidly transitioning society with a large migrant workforce and many transnational families. The church will stick to its guns on this issue. And tens of thousands in the Philippines will be stuck in unhappy or unsettled domestic situations, torn between the teachings of their faith and a humiliating legal limbo.

For now, couples wanting out of a marriage can choose between a church annulment or a civil annulment; most opt for the latter. Either way, they must establish that there was some fatal impediment to the marriage from day one: that one or both were too young to get married, were coerced into the marriage, or — most common — were psychologically “incapacitated” at the time of the marriage.

But that presents its own hurdles.

Paolo Yap, 35, a graphic designer in Manila, separated from his then-wife in 2004 and stopped communicating with her entirely two years later. Three years ago, when he and his new partner decided they wanted to marry, Yap needed an annulment.

He hired a lawyer for 300,000 pesos ($6,700), but dismissed her when he realized it was going to cost at least twice that — a considerable sum in the Philippines. Next, he made a deal with a lawyer friend who agreed to take on the case in exchange for Yap’s services as a designer.

A psychologist was hired to certify “mental incapacity.” Yap was found to be “depressive” and “antisocial”; his wife was diagnosed as “narcissistic” and “histrionic.”

As the case was wending its way through the system, Yap made the startling discovery that his wife already had obtained an annulment, in a court in a remote corner of the Philippines. Yap was never notified. Even when his wife learned that Yap had started annulment proceedings, she didn’t tell him, allowing him to spend hundreds of thousands of pesos unnecessarily.

“You know, it’s only about 10,000 or 15,000 pesos to hire a hit man to kill your spouse — much less than an annulment,” he noted sardonically.

Yap was joking. After all, he had his freedom.

Last year, the courts in the Philippines, with a population of 100 million, heard just 10,257 annulment cases, granting about 95 percent of them — a minuscule number for a large country. But rather than universal marital harmony, the small number is indicative of another reality: This is a poor country, and going to court to get an annulment is simply too expensive for most of the population.

Studies in other countries show that divorce rates are highest among the poor, and there is little doubt among family experts that poverty contributes significantly to marital break-ups. In the Philippines, 28 percent of the population is classified as “extremely poor,” living on $1.25 or less per day.

For many of these Filipinos, even getting married is beyond their means. Despite their deep faith, a large percentage find themselves — in the words of the church — living in sin. Often, these unrecognized unions endure, but when they do fail, the partners simply move on to the next relationship.

Another stress on marriage in the Philippines is the economy’s dependence on remittances from a vast army of migrant workers. With the government’s encouragement, more than 10 million Filipinos work outside the country. Often these workers are forced to live apart from their spouses for years at a time. More than 70 percent of them are women.

The absence of a fair and easy-to-access divorce procedure is a particular hardship for women, said Glenda Litong, a human rights lawyer. Women are the ones most often in need of an escape from an abusive marriage; they are the ones most often left with the responsibility of caring for the children.

“But the court system is onerous for women,” Litong said. “Most of these women can barely afford bus fare to the city, much less a lawyer.”

The Philippines became the only nation generally to forbid divorce in 2011, when the tiny Mediterranean nation of Malta, in a bitterly contested referendum, voted to allow it. Philippines law does allow divorce for the country’s Muslim minority — about 11 percent of the population.

A bill that would legalize divorce for all is before the legislature, but it does not have the support of President Benigno Aquino III, a bachelor and a practicing Catholic who declared divorce a “no-no” for this island nation.

Aquino took on the church in a politically bruising battle two years ago when he signed a reproductive-health law that provides subsidized contraceptives to poor women, and analysts here say is unlikely to challenge the Catholic hierarchy again anytime soon.

The church fathers in the Philippines take particular pride in the country’s status as the last holdout. “Yes, we are proud. It simply proves we have a Catholic conscience,” said Pangan, the canon lawyer.

Noel Segovia, a senior lawyer in the Philippine Office of the Solicitor General, the state agency charged with upholding the sanctity of marriage, said it is time for the Philippines to seriously consider divorce.

“We have to be realistic,” he said. “The church says divorce disrespects the sanctity of marriage, but what about the spouses who do not show love, respect and fidelity to their spouses by their acts of marital infidelity, spousal and child abuse, or who continuously fail to comply with the marital obligations? Is that not a form of disrespect to marriage?”

Hundley is senior editor at the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Santos is the center’s 2014 Persephone Miel Fellow.