The Last Country in the World Where Divorce Is Illegal

The Last Country in the World Where Divorce Is Illegal

MANILA, Philippines — On the occasion of his 84th birthday in 2011, friends of former Filipino Senator Ramon Revilla, a darkly handsome film star turned politician, unveiled an imposing 10-meter-high bronze statue in his honor.

Revilla’s films are mostly forgettable and his accomplishments as a lawmaker were marginal, but he will be long remembered in the Philippines for having sired at least 72 children by 16 different women, only one of whom was his wife. Thirty-eight of the children bear his surname.

It’s unclear what the statue is supposed to honor, but it is a fitting monument to something that is sorely lacking in the Philippines: a divorce law.

The Philippines is now the only country in the world that denies divorce to the majority of its citizens; it is the last holdout among a group of staunchly Catholic countries where the church has fought hard to enforce its views on the sanctity of marriage. Pope Francis, who visited the Philippines last week, has urged his bishops to take a more forgiving stance toward divorced Catholics, but this is a moot point in the Philippines: There is no such thing as a divorced Catholic.

A bill that would legalize divorce in the Philippines is now before the legislature, but it has little chance of becoming law without the support of President Benigno Aquino III, who is on record saying divorce is a “no-no” for this archipelago nation. Aquino, a bachelor and a practicing Catholic, said he does not want the Philippines to become like Las Vegas, where “you get married in the morning [and] you get divorced in the afternoon.”

Aquino ignored the bishops and their threats of excommunication three years ago when he signed a reproductive health law that provides subsidized contraceptives to poor women, but most analysts here believe that he has no appetite for another politically bruising battle with the Catholic hierarchy on another of its hot-button issues.

For its part, the global church has been steadily losing ground in the fight against divorce. The first big blow came in 1970 when Italy legalized divorce, despite the ferocious opposition of the Vatican. An attempt to repeal the Italian divorce law was soundly rejected in a 1974 referendum. Next came Brazil, which legalized divorce in 1977, followed by Spain (1981), Argentina (1987), Ireland (1997), and Chile (2004).

That left only the Philippines and the tiny Mediterranean island nation of Malta (and, of course, the independent but mostly celibate Vatican city-state). In 2011, Malta held a referendum on divorce. The church pulled out all stops in a particularly nasty campaign against legalization, but came up short. Soon after the referendum, the archbishop of Malta issued a rare apology for the church’s harsh attacks on pro-divorce activists.

Here in the Philippines, the Catholic hierarchy takes particular pride in the country’s status as the last holdout. One archbishop emeritus called it “an honor that every Filipino should be proud of.” Another said Filipinos should not follow the example of “de-Christianized countries.”

It wasn’t always thus. Before explorer Ferdinand Magellan claimed the Philippines for the Spanish crown and began converting the natives to Catholicism in 1521, divorce was commonly practiced by the archipelago’s traditional tribes, according to anthropologists. But four centuries of Spanish rule, carried out for the most part by Catholic religious orders, effectively stamped out the custom.

Things eased up a bit when the Americans became the new colonial masters after the 1898 Spanish-American War. A 1917 law allowed divorce, but only for adultery if committed by the wife or for “concubinage” on the part of the husband. The Japanese, during their otherwise horrific World War II occupation of the Philippines, introduced modern divorce laws, but those were canceled and the old 1917 law restored when, in 1944, U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur famously returned. Six years later, after the Philippines had been granted independence and the church had reasserted its authority, the 1917 law was revoked and divorce was banned outright.

Separation, but equal

Philippine law does allow divorce for the country’s Muslim minority — about 11 percent of the population — but for now, the only legal option available to non-Muslim couples who want out of a bad marriage is to seek either a church annulment or a civil annulment. (The church accepts legal separations, but separated persons are not allowed to remarry.)

Annulment is different from divorce in that the parties must establish that the marriage was defective from the beginning: that one or both were too young to get married (the minimum age in the Philippines is 18; for male Muslims it’s 15, for girls “puberty”); that proper parental consent was not obtained; that one of the parties was already married or had an incurable sexually transmissible disease; or — most commonly — was “psychologically incapacitated” at the time of the marriage. A church tribunal or civil judge can then declare that the marriage never happened.

The usual problems that cause the breakdown of a marriage — infidelity, physical or mental abuse, or plain old “irreconcilable differences” — don’t count in an annulment proceeding.

Sen. Pia Cayetano, who was the main sponsor of the controversial reproductive health law and who is frequently mentioned as a potential successor to Aquino, called the absence of a realistic and reasonable divorce law in the Philippines “a travesty.”

“It needs to change, definitely. Do I see it happening soon? No, it will take a while for the Philippines to separate human rights and civil rights from religious belief,” she said.

Professional services

What is most troublesome about using the annulment process as a substitute for divorce is that it forces two people who might otherwise have a reasonably civil split into manufacturing or faking an adversarial relationship with each other and with a state prosecutor — or in the case of church annulment, a “defender of the bond” — whose role in the proceeding is to defend the sanctity of the marriage by arguing that the unhappy couple stay together.

“It’s inhumane — and I speak from experience,” said Cayetano, whose own annulment was granted in 2013.

The process is not only slow and psychologically painful, but it’s also expensive. It can take years to finalize a civil annulment unless you are wealthy enough to pay the judge a substantial bribe to speed things long.

Michelle, a 40-year-old Manila physician from a well-to-do family, got her civil annulment in a mere six months. All she had to do was hire the right lawyer and pay 350,000 pesos (about $8,000), more than triple the per capita GDP in the Philippines and thus well beyond the reach of most Filipinos.

About a third of the money went to the judge as a “professional service fee.” Michelle, who asked that we not publish her last name, said her lawyer and the judge were pals from law school days, which helped smooth things considerably. She only had to appear in court once, and she was asked only one question: her name.

Michelle and her husband, also a physician, were both 30 when they married. Michelle told us she felt pressured because she was pregnant at the time. Although the marriage lasted seven years, she said that she regretted her decision almost from the beginning and that an annulment, despite the social stigma attached to it, somehow felt right.

“It’s like I am forgiven,” she said. “It’s like going to confession. It erased whatever sin I committed.”

A lawyer … or a hit man

Most people, however, find the process to be less than uplifting. Paolo Yap, 35, a graphic designer in Manila, separated from his then wife in 2004 and stopped communicating with her entirely two years later. Four years ago, when he and his new partner decided they wanted to marry, Paolo needed an annulment.

He hired a lawyer for 300,000 pesos, but let her go when he realized it was going to cost at least twice that. So he made a deal with a lawyer friend who agreed to take 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 anti-social”; his former wife “narcissistic and histrionic.”

As the case was wending its way through the system, Yap made the startling discovery that his former wife had already obtained an annulment. Her lawyer’s strategy had been to file the case with a local court in a remote corner of the Philippines that had a reputation as an annulment mill. Yap was never notified, even though the court papers seemed to suggest he was actually present, as the law requires. And even when the former 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 or 15 thousand pesos to hire a hit man to kill your spouse,” he noted sardonically. “Much less than an annulment.”

Philanderers and statesmen

In the fight to uphold the sanctity of marriage, the Catholic bishops of the Philippines can bank on solid support from an unlikely quarter: the country’s male politicians, for whom multiple mistresses and maintaining second — and even third — households is a seemingly sacred privilege and a badge of manly pride.

Former Senator Revilla, of course, is the gold standard in this department, but Joseph Estrada, who served as president from 1998 until 2001 (and, like Revilla, is a former film star), proudly sired three children by his wife and at least nine additional offspring by six other women.

Longtime ruler Ferdinand Marcos also had numerous extramarital affairs, while Fidel Ramos, Estrada’s predecessor in the Malacañang Palace, acknowledged at least one well-publicized dalliance.

The lack of a divorce option provides “a sense of comfort to male philanderers,” according to Evalyn Ursua, an attorney who specializes in annulment cases and who has advocated for the legalization of divorce. “With a [law prohibiting divorce], they know they can continue this lifestyle where they have their beautiful and loyal wife — and also the comfort and status of their mistress,” she said. “A divorce law would allow women to put an end to it.”

Despite a veneer of religious piety, philandering is deeply embedded in Philippine society, from the privileged to the poorest. “It’s the machismo thing … and wives are expected not to make a fuss about having mistresses,” said Rep. Emerenciana De Jesus, who is co-sponsoring the divorce bill. But while rich men often continue to support their wives and children for appearances’ sake, poor women generally find themselves abandoned and left to care for their children on their own. There are laws that require gainfully employed fathers to support their biological children, but they are so rarely enforced that most people don’t know they exist.

A poverty of options for the poor

In a typical year, civil courts in the Philippines will grant about 10,000 annulments — a very small number for a country with a population of more than 100 million. This is not an indication of widespread marital contentment in the Philippines, but rather that annulments are only available to the well-off.

As a result, experts say, most Filipinos who find themselves in an unhappy relationship simply move on to the next one. The women, of course, are expected to deal with the children. “For these women, the survival mechanism is to find another guy to support her and her kids,” said Mary Racelis, a sociologist at the Ateneo de Manila University.

Among the very poor, there is a growing tendency toward what the government calls “unions without benefit of valid marriage,” or what the church calls “living in sin.” Precise statistics are not available, but Racelis estimates that only 30 to 40 percent of the urban poor now bother to get married in the first place.

“It’s too expensive,” she said. “You’re expected to have a big celebration, and they simply can’t afford it.” That and the realization that once you enter into a marriage there’s no getting out.

The social cost is compounded by the Philippine economy’s heavy reliance on its most important export: cheap labor. An estimated 10 million Filipinos work abroad. Although men used to dominate the field, the majority are now women. They work as nannies, nurses, caregivers, maids, and shop clerks, sending home some $25 billion in 2013, according to the Philippines’ central bank, to support families back home. Unsurprisingly, the long separations are a strain on married life, and women who work overseas frequently discover that the money they faithfully send home each month is supporting hubby and his new girlfriend.

Far from turning the Philippines into another Las Vegas, as suggested by President Aquino, the divorce bill that has been put forward by De Jesus and the Gabriela Women’s Party is very conservative and, according to its authors, respectful of the “cultural sensibilities in the Philippines.” Grounds for divorce in this bill include physical violence against a spouse or child, imprisonment of a spouse for more than six years, abandonment for more than a year, sexual infidelity or perversion, bigamy, homosexuality, or drug addiction. Except in cases that involve violence against women or children, the court would not be allowed to take any action for six months after the initial filing — a kind of cooling-off period. The bill also obliges the court to “take steps toward the reconciliation of the spouses” before granting the final decree.

Most importantly, the bill provides guidelines for the division of assets, child support, and payment of damages to “the innocent spouse.”

De Jesus, the bill’s co-sponsor, says the Catholic Church remains the loudest opponent of divorce because it “is afraid of losing its cultural dominance over the majority of the country.” But she noted that under the 1987 constitution, the separation between church and state in the Philippines is supposed to be inviolable.

The church and its faithful, De Jesus argues, are entitled to their beliefs on the sanctity of marriage, but are not entitled to impose those beliefs on others who may disagree. The state, she added, shouldn’t view divorce as a damnable sin, but rather as a civil right. “The state should recognize that if you have a right to enter into a contract, you have the right to get out of it,” said De Jesus.

The church begs to differ. “[Proponents of divorce] see marriage as a contract. For us, it is a sacrament,” said the Rev. Edgardo Pangan, a canon lawyer who specializes in annulments. “We cannot compromise with the laws of God.”

Who’s your daddy?

One result of the church’s opposition to divorce and its opposition to virtually every form of contraceptive has been millions of “illegitimate” children. No one knows the number, but one study suggests that about 30 percent of births in the Philippines go unregistered, often because of the stigma of illegitimacy.

Former Senator Revilla, who has probably contributed more to this problem than anyone, has at least acknowledged and tried to do something about it. He is the father of the so-called Revilla Bill, which allows children born out of wedlock to legally use their father’s surname so long as both biological parents give their consent.

“These children must be spared from the stigma attached to being ‘illegitimate,’ and their parents’ faults must not be passed on to them,” he said in 2004. “It is the state’s responsibility to shield them from unwarranted shame and discrimination.”

Revilla, who is said to be a generous provider to all his children, has also made provisions to leave behind samples of his DNA so that any claims of paternity that arise after his death can be verified.


Some portions of this article were previously reported in the Washington Post.