Undoubtedly, there are many flaws with the divorce and custody laws in the United States. But clearly there are situations in other parts of the globe that are much worse.
Take a look at the Philippines, which aside from Vatican City, is the last country in the world that lacks divorce laws.
A bill recently filed in Congress that would legalize divorce has provided a glimmer of hope to Filipino couples in failed marriages, but the consensus is that the bill has minimal chance of passing because of the opposition faced from President Benigno Aquino III, politicians, and the Catholic Church.
Divorce actually was legal in the small island country during the American colonial period and during the otherwise abhorrent time of Japanese occupation in the first half of the 20th century. But divorce was outlawed with the enactment of the 1949 Civil Code. Divorce is still legal for the country’s Muslim minority, but that only encompasses 11 percent of the population.
For couples hoping to end their marriages, there are only a couple of less-than-satisfactory options: legal separation, a declaration of a nullity of marriage, or annulment.
Separation allows couples to live apart and also provides a process to separate assets, but it does not allow them to remarry. (You can even be charged with adultery or concubinage if caught with another partner.)
The greatest flaws appear to be with how annulment is handled in the country. The process is so problematic, the majority of Filipinos don’t even bother with it.
An annulment basically means the marriage never happened. Parties are required to prove that the marriage was defective from the outset. That could be because they married under the age of 18, failed to obtain parental consent, or one partner was already married. The most common argument made when seeking annulment is that one partner was “psychologically incapacitated” at the time of the marriage.
The usual reasons for marriages ending like a spouse cheating, abuse, or just because the couple no longer gets along, are not valid.
Annulment also fails as a substitute for divorce because it isn’t a realistic option for the majority of Filipinos. The process takes years to complete and is incredibly expensive. In an article for Foreign Policy Magazine, Tom Hundey and Ana P. Santos mention a 40-year-old physician who received a civil annulment in six months for the price of 350,000 pesos. That is three times the per capita GDP in the Philippines.
According to the Washington Post, in 2013 there were only 10,257 annulment cases in the country of 100 million. That’s not indicative of many happy Filipino marriages, but of how poor the country is with 28 percent of the population classified as “extremely poor.”
The article in Foreign Policy Magazine also makes the point that annulment often leads to a scenario where two people who might have split amicably create a faux adversarial relationship in order to receive an annulment. One can imagine the strain that puts on families where children are involved.
The argument against divorce laws in the country tend to be religiously based despite the fact that a separation of church and state is outlined in the constitution.
“Human rights are not absolute if they are against the plan of God,” said Rev. Edgardo Pangan, a canon lawyer who handles church annulments for the Diocese of San Fernando, in a Washington Post story published in October.
Ironically, the church’s insistence is protecting the sanctity of marriage is arguably harming it. Mary Racelis, sociologist of Ateneo de Manila University estimated in that same Foreign Policy Magazine that 30 to 40 percent of the country’s urban poor couples never marry in the first place.
The current bill being considered is actually very conservative, but it would be a clear step forward. Nicknamed “Divorce Philippine-style,” the bill would set strict eligibility requirements. Couples would have to live separately for a minimum of five years and have no hope for reconciliation or have been legally separated for at least two years.
The bill is also practical and claims to be 30-40% cheaper than legal separation or annulment. It would also set up very important parameters for settling issues over property and financial support for the former spouse and children.
Although the issues facing this island country in Southeast Asia probably seem remote to many in the U.S., it is clear that this is a serious human rights issue. While the prospects appear dim, hopefully the current bill will find a way to gain traction and real long overdue progress in how the country treats family law will finally be made.
And while divorce should always be viewed as a last resort, the situation facing the Philippines shows why it’s so important for countries to establish fair and equitable divorce laws.
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