Filipinos Demand Freedom for Divorce Liberation and Justice

Philippines, a Catholic-majority nation, is the sole country outside Vatican where divorce remains illegal, putting its citizens, like Stella Sibonga, a mother-of-three, in a complex and taxing position.

Sibonga, who was forced into marriage by her parents after getting pregnant, has been battling for eleven years to terminate her unwanted union.

Her lengthy and draining pursuit to nullify her marriage began in 2012 when she appealed to a court citing her husband’s alleged “psychological incapacity”.

In 2017, after incurring $3,500 in legal expenses, her plea was granted. However, this victory was momentary as the Office of the Solicitor General, appointed to defend the institution of marriage, successfully contested the decision two years later.

Sibonga, now 45, is still awaiting the Court of Appeals’ decision on her request to reverse the ruling.

“The law is punishing us – the victims of suffering, abandonment, and abuse,” she expressed, questioning the legal complexities surrounding divorce in the Philippines.

For Sibonga, and many others, the exhaustive annulment process, which can cost upwards of $10,000, is prohibitive, particularly in a country grappling with poverty.

This has opened up opportunities for online scams promising a swift resolution without the time-consuming court appearances.

Despite being the last holdout against divorce, public sentiment in the Philippines appears to be shifting.

According to Social Weather Stations, a local polling company, support for divorce legalization for “irreconcilably separated couples” rose from 43% in 2005 to 53% in 2017, with only 32% opposition.

The anti-divorce stance of the Catholic Church, which counts 78% of the 110-million-strong population as followers, plays a significant role in shaping the Philippines’ policy landscape.

However, recent legislative successes, like the controversial birth control law in 2012 and the House of Representatives approving a divorce bill in 2018, suggest changing attitudes.

While the bill stalled in the Senate, it marked the first time a proposal for divorce legalization had reached this stage.

Lawmakers are again championing divorce legalization. Congressman Edcel Lagman, one of the bill’s authors, refuted claims of destroying marriage.

Instead, he argued that divorce for “dysfunctional marriages beyond repair” would empower women and children to escape “intolerant and abusive husbands”. The proposed law, however, will not permit a “quickie divorce”.

The lack of legal options has driven some, like a victim of a $2,400 annulment scam who wished to remain anonymous, to consider converting to Islam to attain a divorce under Muslim law.

This points to a “dire need” for new legislation, according to Family law specialist Katrina Legarda.

However, Father Jerome Secillano of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines holds a different view, believing the nation should take pride in preserving the “traditional concept of marriage”.

He argues that divorce is not the solution to domestic violence as the perpetrator will continue the abuse with their next partner.

Caught in this debate are people like Sibonga, who despite societal criticism and a long-term boyfriend, remains technically married.

With her case being a typical example of the lagging justice system in the Philippines, she has a stark message for her children: “I just don’t want them to end up like me.”