divorce in the Philippines

[OPINION] Is the Philippines ready for divorce?

Jayeel Cornelio

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[OPINION] Is the Philippines ready for divorce?

Guia Abogado/Rappler

'The question is not so much about public readiness for divorce as it is our collective willingness to discuss what must be upheld in our society'

A Senate committee has approved a consolidated measure that brings divorce one step closer to becoming a law. This happened on September 19.

This is no small feat. The first divorce bill was introduced in 2005. Many attempts have failed since. In 2018, House Bill 7303 was approved on the third and final reading by a vote of 134-57, but it was never deliberated in the Senate.

Thus, today’s divorce legislation — Senate Bill 2443 — has reached an unprecedented milestone. 

If passed into law, divorce becomes possible in cases of marital rape and irreparable breakdown of the marriage. The bill also legislates that no trial shall take place within 60 days from the filing of the petition, if based on irreconcilable differences. Presumably, this cooling-off period would give enough time for both parties to reflect on the finality of their decision.

I doubt, though, if the days ahead are going to be a cooling-off period for divorce. The topic itself generates impassioned reactions.

So, how ready are Filipinos for divorce?


There’s evidence to show that this might in fact be the case.

The latest data we have come from a survey administered by SWS in 2017. According to that national survey, 53% of Filipinos agreed to “legalize divorce in the country for irreconcilably separated couples.” By contrast, only 32% dissented.

What this reveals is a far cry from a survey conducted — believe it or not — almost a century ago. Thanks to Ambeth Ocampo, we know that in 1927 the news magazine Free Press polled its readers regarding their sentiment about divorce. More than 6,500 sent their responses by mail. 

This sampling design could not possibly represent all Filipinos. But the results give us a sense of what the broader sentiments may have been a century ago. Unsurprisingly, more than 5,000 votes were against divorce. The survey also asked respondents to explain their answer. One is particularly instructive: “No, [I am not in favor of divorce because] the wife is not a flower that a man drops because it has lost its beauty and sweetness for him.”

Moreover, we have evidence to show that Filipinos in recent years have become increasingly open to legalizing divorce. In 2005, just about 44% of Filipinos were in favor. But from 2011 onwards, more than half of the population have consistently expressed their support for it. 

Thus, from this vantage point, the answer is that Filipinos are indeed prepared.

The religious worldview

None of us, however, expect the process to be smooth. 

Divorce is a hot-button issue for people who take pride that ours is the last country — apart from the Vatican, of course — to be divorceless. To them it’s a badge of honor that the country remains faithful to the Catholic faith.

But this does not preclude the other legitimate views that need to be considered, however difficult they might be.

Consider this. In defense of divorce, lobbyists argue that not every marriage is made in heaven. In defense of the family, rejectors insist that divorce is too easy a way out. These viewpoints often don’t see eye to eye. One tends to be more pragmatic, the other moralistic.

Often these two perspectives are pitted against each other, as if the battle is purely between moral rectitude and the whims of the public. Or between the timeless truth of the Catholic faith and people’s sinfulness.

In the backdrop of this tension are the many cases of domestic violence and marital strife. They call into question claims about the family as the foundation of the nation or about marriage as a divine institution. Without any possibility of formal exit, people in these relationships don’t have viable options to move on and start anew. These arrangements, as the experience of many also shows, only prolong agony within the family.

It is thus very telling that even Senator Joel Villanueva, who himself rejects divorce, is the first to admit that “there are marriages, especially those that resort to violence, [that] need to end.”

What this only goes to show is that legalizing divorce in the Philippines cannot be framed as a zero-sum game.

Honest conversations

Thus we must, in this light, reframe the question. The question is not so much about public readiness for divorce as it is our collective willingness to discuss what must be upheld in our society. 

Yes, marriage is a good worth upholding. But so is the long-term welfare of spouses and children in the midst of marital breakdown. 

As Em Abuton puts it in her provocative piece, “Filipino values. Family values. But what do we really value? Life, safety, and sanity through divorce? Or that superficial image of a supposedly ideal marriage?”

Like many other difficult issues in our society, divorce needs to be discussed thoroughly in the hope of providing legitimate and viable options for people, regardless of their religious convictions and especially with regard for those in irreparable situations. 

What this means is that leaving the debate to the Senate and the experts they often invite is not enough. The public must take part in articulating the issues at stake. After all, it’s ordinary Filipinos who encounter many legal obstacles. Even annulment, the legal procedure people may avail of, is simply financially prohibitive.

And given the role of religion in shaping public opinion, the many religious spaces we inhabit are also critical, in my view. While faith communities may insist on the sanctity of marriage and family life, they must also begin probing how tenable their worldview really is in the face of domestic violence. 

Rephrasing Abuton’s questions above, I have in mind the following: What good do we protect in rejecting divorce? Whose welfare do we uphold if we make divorce a viable option? And does legalizing divorce automatically negate the sanctity of marriage?

The lessons, I believe, are clear. 

What God has put together, let no one put asunder. That may be true and worth upholding. But it is equally true that what we choose as a society to defend together, if left unchecked, may also put the rest of us asunder. – Rappler.com

Jayeel Cornelio, PhD is a sociologist of religion. He is Professor of Development Studies at the Ateneo de Manila University and concurrently Visiting Professor in the Graduate Shool of the University of St La Salle. Co-authored with Jose Mario Francisco, his latest book is People’s Christianity: Theological Sense and Sociological Significance. Follow him on Twitter @jayeel_cornelio.

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  1. ET

    Thanks to Jayeel Cornelio for his inspirational article on a dreadful topic entitled, “Is the Philippines ready for divorce?” From his research, he concluded that: “… the answer is that Filipinos are indeed prepared.” But how about our Traditional Politicians? Are they prepared for Divorce? What is the effect of Divorce to their Political Dynasties and their Politico-Economic Power which is based on the Wealth that they have amassed through Political Patronage and Corruption? If they think that Divorce will weaken their Political Dynasties and Politico-Economic Power, then these Traditional Politicians will oppose it; otherwise, they should support the Divorce Senate Bill.

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