overseas Filipinos

For OFWs, distance makes broken marriages harder to fight for

Michelle Abad

This is AI generated summarization, which may have errors. For context, always refer to the full article.

For OFWs, distance makes broken marriages harder to fight for
The majority of a pro-divorce lobbying group’s members are OFWs who believe that divorce is what is best for their families

“I should be the one there with you. Your father should have been the one working abroad, not me.”

These are the thoughts that Australia-based Filipino caregiver Rhea* had while reflecting on her relationship with her children, the fruits of her failed marriage. 

Like many Filipino domestic workers and caregivers, Rhea deals with the emotional toll of taking care of children who are not her own. But as if to rub salt into the wound, her estranged husband has led her children to believe that she abandoned them.

Rhea is one of around 100,000 members of pro-divorce lobbying group Divorce for the Philippines Now. According to group convenor Cici Leuenberger-Jueco, majority of their members are overseas Filipino workers (OFWs).

The Philippines remains the only country in the world, apart from the Vatican, without divorce. The bill seeking to reinstate absolute divorce remains pending in Congress, with conservative and religious groups among the most vocal opposition to the bill.

Much has been said about the stories of battered women in irreconcilable marriages, but the distance involved in OFW families drives the wedge between the couples even deeper, leaving some of them to arrive at divorce as the only answer.

In the beginning, love

Rhea never expected things to end up this way, as her relationship began with love. Her plans were simple: continue to be an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, get a stable job, and work hard to pay back the sacrifices her mother made for her.

These plans changed when she was determined to marry Joshua* no matter the cost. He had different religious beliefs, which was a no-no in her religion. When they moved to Joshua’s hometown Davao, his family was hostile towards her, as Joshua was their breadwinner. Him being with her meant a shift in his responsibilities.

“I was ready to face the consequences because of the love I had for him. And I also saw that he loved me too,” she said.

The flaws in him began to surface, starting with Joshua’s revelation that he already had a child from a relationship in his teens. In living with Joshua’s family, Rhea also noticed her partner’s dependence on his mother when making decisions.

Rhea could still have backed out, since they were not married yet, but she chose to accept who he was – past, flaws, and all.

Rhea and Joshua married in January 2006 and relocated to Samar, where Rhea’s mother lived. But within the first years of marriage, Rhea noticed that he didn’t give much attention to her as he did before. They had their first baby in the first year, and he found a job working in the agriculture-veterinary industry in a town three hours away from their home.

In one surprise visit to his workplace, Rhea said she saw a woman leaving the boarding house where Joshua was alone. Doubts filled Rhea’s mind at that point, and persisted when they returned to Davao and lived with Joshua’s family, who still heavily depended on him. 

“Supporting his family was fine with me. But it shouldn’t have been at a point where as soon as he receives his salary, it goes straight to his mother, and what’s left with me is money to buy diapers,” she said.

Years passed, but the conditions of their marriage stayed the same. More incidents fed into Rhea’s suspicions of infidelity even after the birth of their second child. She witnessed a woman backriding on his motorcycle on an evening he returned home very late, with an excuse that work ended late. Joshua never confirmed having an affair, but Rhea believes that he did.

“I had so many reasons to leave him, to decide to let go. But I continued to give him chances,” she said.

The cost of working abroad

Rhea found an opportunity to work as a domestic worker in Saudi Arabia for two years, beginning 2016. Perhaps this would be a new beginning for their family, she thought.

“Before I left, I told his manager to let him keep his job. I had hoped that we could save our incomes together, so that I wouldn’t have to go back abroad. I only learned from my kid that he transferred jobs and went to Leyte. When I came home, he wasn’t there. And my children were basically still wearing the same clothes they had when I left,” she said.

Rhea discovered that Joshua gave the remittances she sent him to his mother, or he loaned them out to receive them back with interest. But when they went to the supposed borrowers, they were nowhere to be found. Rhea did not have any savings.

Frustrated, she tried going abroad once again, this time as a caregiver in Taiwan for another four years. She only found out when she came home that her children had a traumatic experience when she was away: Joshua had been in a “mistaken involvement” case with the New People’s Army (NPA), and the military had raided their home. 

“To save my ex-husband, my daughter shouted, ‘Papa, there are people coming.’ A soldier pointed a gun to her head and made her kneel. They did the same with her younger brother. And I was abroad in Taiwan. I didn’t hear a thing,” she said.

Both of her children were minors at the time. They survived, but were diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Rhea ended things for good with Joshua at this point. But she also dealt with what she called the “brainwashing” of her children, where her in-laws led them to believe that she went abroad to find another man and abandon her responsibilities to them. “Even if I wanted to explain to them why I left, I couldn’t defend myself because I was so far away.”

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Antoniette Cabales has a similar story to Rhea’s. Once an idealist romantic, Antoniette chose to build a life with her first boyfriend, Gordon*, whom she met in 2009. 

Gordon did not work. He told Antoniette that he couldn’t because he had no education, which led her to become the family’s breadwinner. She first went abroad to work as a domestic worker in Taiwan in 2013, the year their first child was born.

Antoniette also dealt with red flags even before getting married, saying Gordon was already unfaithful to her. But she chose to marry him upon returning home in 2016 for the sake of being with her child, who was cared for by his family. In the eyes of Gordon’s family, she was merely one of his women, and she just wanted the respect that came with being a legal wife.

While in the Philippines, Antoniette found work as a technician at a waxing salon to continue providing for her family.

“I saved enough to give him some capital for a small business. I wanted a fresh start. But all he did was spend it on alcohol and women…and then I sunk into debt,” she said.

Antoniette kept trying. They had their second child in 2017 while she continued to work. She heard from neighbors that Gordon had women backriding on the motorcycle that Antoniette’s loaned money bought.

In 2018, Antoniette resigned from her job. “I said I wanted to focus on the children. I gave him money to put up a business again. And I told him, ‘You should be the father now, and I will be the mother.’” They had their third child in 2019.

With the family having no other source of income, Gordon finally worked as a fruit vendor. But he kept his distance from Antoniette emotionally, and the cheating suspicions continued. One day in 2020, he complained about her cooking, which led to a shouting match that built up to her confronting him about the other women.

“My anger went through the roof. And that’s when he pointed a knife at me. I told him, ‘Let’s separate. I’m taking the children.’ And he told me, ‘I will kill you before you take them.’ Then I said, ‘Fine, kill me!’ And my children were watching. They were crying while watching us fight,” she said.

The fight ended with Antoniette walking out, and finding solace in her family. She posted online about Gordon’s supposed mistress, but she took it down, mindful that she could be sued for cyber libel. She couldn’t be sued, she said, because she had plans of going abroad again.

‘Are we going home to Papa?’

In 2023, Antoniette returned to Taiwan to work. She no longer coursed her remittances to him – this time to a friend who bought the things they needed, or to their teachers at school.

In May 2024, in a video call with her eldest child, she asked to speak with Gordon.

“I told him that the past was behind us, but I hoped that he would talk to me, person-to-person, for the sake of the children. I told him, ‘I will give you P20,000. Do whatever you want, if you want to date someone else, fine. But this money has to go to the children,’” she said, with her child witnessing the conversation.

Antoniette assured her children that she was always there for them, even though she and her husband agreed to separate. But like Rhea, it was Antoniette’s word against their father’s, who was there with them physically. Because she could not communicate with them often, she was no longer close to them. But their father was.

“Once, when I was home, I took the kids out to bond. But while we were out, they asked me, ‘Are we going home to Papa?’” she said.

“That hurts for me as a mother. But I remind myself that the children will grow up and look for a mother. I believe that one day, my children will realize that I never abandoned them,” she added.

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Divorce as the answer

For the two OFWs, it was clear that their relationships had gone to a point of no return. Both had exhausted every effort they could give to keep their families complete. They are still abroad, with Antoniette still in Taiwan, and Rhea now working in Australia.

Antoniette hopes to buy property of her own one day, but she knows that she cannot do that as long as she is tied down to Gordon. Custody of their children is also unclear, since they are separated in space and emotion but not on paper.

“If there were divorce, we would have a binding agreement regarding custody. I want to be able to legally have my own time with my children. I also want to have him legally obligated to support them. His excuses of not having an education will no longer fly,” she said.

She thought of filing for annulment, but did not push through with it because of fear her local barangay officials would side with Gordon, who were his fellows at church. She tried to file for a violence against women case at the barangay, but she said her record appeared to have disappeared when she followed up.

Rhea, meanwhile, did not want to pursue annulment because she couldn’t afford it.

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“I don’t want to waste money. It’s already difficult to provide for my family – why would I spend money allotted for my children’s future, for an annulment? Annulment is so complicated and seems impossible,” she said.

Pattern

According to Divorce for the Philippines Now convenor Jueco, many of the OFWs share stories like Antoniette’s and Rhea’s. Usually, even before leaving, the marriage already had problems to begin with, and being physically separated made it harder to fix things.

“The ones leaving to be OFWs usually have financial problems in the Philippines. This leads to them always fighting to begin with,” she said.

As of 2022, majority of OFWs are women, according to the Philippine Statistics Authority. The social cost of labor migration has often been linked to mothers missing out on raising their children.  

“Many OFW women have guilt. They already have so many problems – from their employers, to their contracts, to their loneliness and homesickness. Then you have to deal with your marriage breaking down, and you cannot even guide your children through it,” said Jueco.

OFWs have also been targets of divorce and annulment scams. One common modus, Jueco noted, is one where scammers convince a spouse to pay a certain fee to process a divorce in a Muslim court, as Sharia law allows for divorce in the Philippines.

The Code of Muslim Personal Laws, which is the legal basis of Muslim divorce, says its provisions on marriage and divorce only apply to marriages where both are Muslim, or where only the man is a Muslim and the marriage is solemnized under Muslim law. Otherwise, the Civil Code applies, which does not provide for divorce. 

Antoniette said she almost fell for the offers, with scammers offering to process a Muslim divorce for a price of P200,000.

“There are so many OFWs who fall for it. Sometimes, they don’t have access to news, so they get wrong information from YouTube, TikTok, or Facebook,” said Jueco.

Jueco believes that the social cost of the OFW phenomenon should not just be focused on the relationship of the mothers and their children. The public should pay attention to how marriages break apart as well.

Rhea said that every time she uses her married name, it feels like “torture.”

“It reminds me of what I went through…. I was not physically abused, but I was abused emotionally, psychologically. In effect, that hurt more. Because when you get hurt physically, you can see it heal. But for me, I don’t feel any healing.”

After spending some time to rebuild herself, Rhea also found a new, loving partner she believes God set for her to find. She is also going through the process of bringing her daughter to Australia with her, as her in-laws refuse to let go of her son.

Antoniette’s biggest mistake, she said, was marrying Gordon. “I just want to make it right.”

The House of Representatives passed the divorce bill on final reading in May. Its counterpart bill in the Senate remains up for decision in plenary. President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. had said he was open to allowing divorce, but that it should not be “easy.” 

Still, the bill remains absent from the list of his top priority bills for passage in Congress before the current batch of lawmakers adjourns in May 2025. – Rappler.com

*Names have been changed at sources’ request for privacy.
All quotes have been translated to English for brevity.

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Michelle Abad

Michelle Abad is a multimedia reporter at Rappler. She covers the rights of women and children, migrant Filipinos, and labor.