divorce in the Philippines

[Rappler’s Best] Divorced from reality

Glenda M. Gloria

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[Rappler’s Best] Divorced from reality
It would not harm Marcos to learn a lesson on political will from the late president Noynoy Aquino, who showed how presidential power can override the Church’s as he navigated the “long and rough road” to the reproductive health law

We’re halfway through the year, and if you’re running a company, leading a government or one of its agencies, or heading a movement, you’re likely to put a mark in the calendar to remind yourself of what’s undone – and how you should maximize the little time left till the 2024 finish line.

Except when you work in government in the Philippines, where, for every three years, the last 12 months of that period are often hijacked by politics and everything that fuels it. Those who craft policies and those who implement them know this all too well: any project, any investigation, any initiative will usually give way to the tactical goal of an incumbent administration that will want to dominate the midterm elections (scheduled in May 2025), and an opposition that will aim to upset that.

Take the divorce bill.

On May 22, the House of Representatives, yet again, moved the divorce bill a step closer to becoming law by approving on third and final reading, An Act Reinstituting Absolute Divorce as an Alternative Mode for the Dissolution of Marriage, with 131 votes. Some 109 House members voted against it, indicative of how this issue continues to split elected officials down the middle.

This is not the first time that hopes are raised about getting the Philippines out of the medieval ages (if you didn’t know yet, we’re the last divorce holdout in the world – along with the Vatican). 

  • In 2018 under former president Rodrigo Duterte, the House of Representatives approved an absolute divorce bill. The “yes” votes were more significant then: 134 over 57 who voted against the bill. But the Senate sat on its counterpart bill. 
  • Despite being a womanizer and the nemesis of the anti-divorce Catholic Church, Duterte himself was against divorce. His marriage to his first wife, Elizabeth Zimmerman, was annulled after their 27-year marriage. But one of the reasons divorce has support from various groups is that the annulment process in this country not only has its own complications, it’s also been corrupted, as this investigative series shows
  • Divorce also did not stand a chance under Duterte’s predecessor, the late Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III, a bachelor and a practicing Catholic who knew he could only afford one tussle with the powerful Catholic Church under his term: the law on reproductive health, which bishops and priests had campaigned against, but which Aquino eventually managed to sign two years into his term. A bill on divorce was filed in 2011, but did not prosper.
  • Initiatives to put in place a divorce law were made as early as 1999, under the short-lived term of former president Joseph Estrada, according to this study. After the bill gathered dust in 1999, advocates in the Senate and the House tried filing again in 2001, under former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. Banking on Church support in the face of destabilization attempts against her, Arroyo naturally would not touch the divorce bill.

But the clamor persists. There’s intense interest in it from various sectors gauging from the number of Rappler contributors who want to chime in on the issue – lawyers, theologians, sociologists, women.

The Church is adamant that divorce will do more harm to families, especially children. 

Is the Philippines ready for divorce? Cornelio, Rappler’s resident sociologist, asked this question, sliced and diced the numbers over the years, and said opposition to it has significantly declined over time. But the Filipinos’ struggle between faith and everyday life is real, as this 2018 story illustrates.

The ball is now in the Senate, when Congress resumes session in July. As of May 2024, at least seven senators were in favor of a divorce bill that, for the first time in four decades, got approved at the Senate committee level in 2023.

But divorce is also caught in an election season that’s already started to heat up. Politicians file their candidacies for senatorial and various local posts by October this year. President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. will aim to take full control of the Senate as he wraps up the last half of his six-year term – and if what this would take is a bloc of support from Catholics, he may choose to fight the divorce battle another day.

It would not harm Marcos to learn a lesson on political will from the late president Noynoy Aquino, who showed how presidential power can override the Church’s as he navigated the “long and rough road” to the reproductive health law. Its approval five months before the 2013 senatorial and local polls proved the Church’s waning political influence, wrote the late Aries Rufo in 2012. – Rappler.com

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Glenda M. Gloria

Glenda Gloria co-founded Rappler in July 2011 and is currently its executive editor.