Marriage & Domestic Violence: A Fatal Combination in the Philippines, Where Divorce is Illegal

Maria was 16 when she first came to visit the Philippines from California and decided to remain here. Witty and talented, she became a popular movie icon. Then barely in her twenties, she plunged into an early marriage with an upcoming politician from the north. Nineteen years later, her body was found slumped on the stairwell of the 13th floor where she had fallen from the 23rd floor of the condominium unit where she was staying. She was only 38. Why?

Maria was also a mother of six whose life became an archetype of marital wretchedness. Even if she had wanted out of her marriage, it would have been impossible for her to opt for divorce: the Philippines is one of only two countries in the world where divorce is not allowed. (The other country is Malta, another Catholic stronghold, like the Philippines.)

Those in the know believe that she plunged to her death after enduring years of domestic violence from her politician husband. Before her death, she made several attempts to seek help. She placed several anonymous calls to a women’s organization hotline. “But fear always factored in and each time we would ask who she was and her circumstances,” recalls Ana Leah Sarabia of Kalakasan, a feminist group supporting women victims of abuse, “she would back off.” Sarabia’s group did their best to help her out -- but in the end, Maria dealt with her pain her way.

No Way Out

Maria’s is not an isolated case. Thousands of women suffer from domestic violence within marriage. In less than ten years, there was a big leap in the number of cases reported to police: 1,100 in 1996 shot up to over 6,500 by 2005. And those were just the reported cases of domestic violence. There are still more undocumented and unreported cases where women opt to suffer in silence for the sake of family togetherness. Violence also goes unreported due to victims’ embarrassment, not knowing how or to whom to report, or worst of all, the tragic belief that the violence was unimportant and that nothing could be done anyway. Yet these victims are wasting away from the unresolved injustice of their lives.

Of the reported cases, authorities say the primary perpetrators of violence are husbands. In 2003 the Social Weather Station, a research and survey institution in the Philippines, conducted a survey of men who admitted having physically harmed women. Thirty-nine percent had committed it against their wives; 15 percent were violent toward their girlfriends; 4 percent beat their unmarried partners. The rest of the attacks against women were committed by men unknown to them. Clearly, domestic violence or violence in the confines of intimate relationships is the most prevalent form of abuse against women in the Philippines. Combine a no-divorce policy and you get an agonizing picture of Filipino women. How they subsist and survive in this situation is hard to imagine.

On an international scale, a World Bank analysis indicates that half of the world’s women have been battered by an intimate partner. In Asia, 60% of all women have been assaulted.

The impact on children is appalling. Body Shop International estimates that 1.8 to 3.2 million children in the Philippines are exposed to domestic violence and suffer the traumatic effects for the rest of their lives. This number just escalates year after year.

Failed Attempts at Divorce

Curiously, The Philippines allowed divorce during the Spanish era, the American period and the Japanese Occupation.

Only in 1950 did a new civil code take effect, disallowing divorce under Philippine law. The 1988 Family Code adopted the same policy but it did provide for nullification of marriage on grounds of psychological incapacity.

While a few brave legislators have authored bills to legalize divorce, none of these have seen the light of day. Proposed bills regularly expire at the committee level before they can even be deliberated up in Congress.

To date, five bills have been filed in Congress, two in the Senate and three at the Lower House. Senator Rodolfo Biazon, Senator Tessie Aquino Oreta, Representative Bellaflor Angara Castillo, Representative Manuel Ortega and Representative Liza Largoza Mazaall all put bills up for a vote in their respective houses.

SB 782, Senator Biazon’s bill, sought to amend the Family Code by allowing absolute divorce and thereby granting legally separated spouses the right to remarry. The subject of scrutiny of SB 782 is the existing provision under the Family Code which allows psychological incapacity as the only grounds or basis for the nullification of a marriage. Attorney Carol Austria, a legal rights advocate notes:

“Psychological incapacity is a very limited basis but the Supreme Court describes psychological incapacity as an incurable disease. The focus must shift from psychological grounds to issues of gender inequality and freedom from unhealthy and devastating relationships. A petition for nullification of marriage is also a far cry from the usual divorce proceeding practiced worldwide.”
In formulating a national divorce law one must account for the existing indigenous community practices where proceedings are performed by mumbakis (indigenous priests) or tribal leaders. “Many marriages have been solemnized not in city halls, but in tribal communities. The important thing is to recognize what they deem as a practical and sensible divorce law in their own context,” she says.

In the end, these bills failed to advance beyond the filing stage and were not even calendared for reading because they were not considered “priority bills”.

The latest and most controversial of the divorce bills filed is House Bill 4016 authored by feminist-activist Representative Liza Largoza Maza. It emphasizes the need for a divorce law that defines unequivocally all the grounds and terms for terminating a marriage. “When a marriage is no longer viable, divorce should be an option because it could actually provide protection to battered women and their children from violence and abuse. Women must have the option of remedies that will pave for the attainment of their human development and self-fulfillment and the protection of their human rights. The existing law on petition for nullification of marriage as a provision in the family code is not enough to address this.”

Representative Largoza Maza’s bill was filed in 2005, but after tirades from the Catholic camp, nothing more has been heard of it. Meanwhile, those who oppose its passage spread the word against the bill, declaring it would destroy the sanctity of marriage, disintegrate the close-knit Filipino family and bring about all sorts of moral decay.

Paths Women Take

Stories like Maria’s and those of other celebrities with similar experiences are broadcast on national television. That should bring additional attention to divorce, but critically, such discussions are not sustained.

Most Filipinos take the side of the Catholic Church, although there has been no costly referendum. Anyone who advocates for divorce is judged immoral and without conscience. Staying married for the sake of the family is considered a sacrifice with heavenly rewards.

Plus, Filipino women tend to submit to society’s pressures. They dare not earn the ire and judgment of their community. The path usually pursued, which is still unpopular, is to separate, but this leaves women in a legal bind. It takes financial independence for a woman to make a successful getaway from an abusive partner. She must be able to sustain herself and her children to ward off the abusive husband who would try to harass her into coming back. The social stigma for a woman who breaks up her marriage is deep-seated, disconcerting and disempowering.

Those who have gone through annulment cases attest to just how painstakingly long and tedious the process is to prove the other person is “psychologically incapacitated”. Women who have gone through annulment claim that it eats up an enormous part of their resources, makes their lives a public show, and even then they wait for years for the court to grant them marital freedom. Others have waited in vain when the courts simply denied their claims.

Dinah, a private school teacher,finds her lack of choice tragic. She describes the man she has been married to for a decade as “a man in an iron mask”: every day he inflicts some form of abuse on her. She did not know this about him at the beginning. Dinah is now vulnerable to mistreatment by the very person who made an eternal promise to love her.

Of Choice and Repression

When will the government realize that a divorce law is not meant to advocate separation and broken marriage, but merely expands the choices of its citizenry? When the state offers no viable alternative to desperate, hopeless marriages it is tantamount to a human rights violation by the state.

Fortunately the authors of these divorce bills have not lost their fighting spirit. Divorce advocates are always looking for new venues where they can be heard. Maybe this time, the debate should not just be had in the halls of the Filipino congress but in a much larger venue with worldwide coverage. The United Nations, the International Court of Justice, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women and other international organizations must be persuaded to step in. Taken together, Maria’s story, Dinah’s, and all the other voices crying out in pain represent a systemic disgrace.

This is after all, a story about bondage and illegal confinement on a national scale, where women are both the willing and unwilling victims.

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