Philippine poor pay the price for Catholic church influenced divorce ban

A group of Filipino faithful hold a banner as they take part in a “Walk for Life” protest at a park in Manila. Heavily Catholic Philippines and the Vatican are the last two places on Earth where divorce is outlawed. (AFP)
Updated 15 March 2018

Philippine poor pay the price for Catholic church influenced divorce ban

MANILA: For well-off people like politician Pantaleon Alvarez, getting out of a bad marriage in the Philippines is pricey but feasible — but for the nation’s poorest and most vulnerable citizens it is nearly impossible.
That’s because heavily Catholic Philippines and the Vatican are the last two places on Earth where divorce is outlawed.
For the nation’s 100 million people, the only exit from a union gone wrong is an embarrassing — and labyrinthine — process that often amounts to a luxury.
But lawmakers, including Alvarez, have launched a new legislative effort to legalize divorce which activists believe could transform the lives of impoverished women trapped in toxic marriages.
The bill has been propelled forward by Alvarez, who is speaker in the lower House of Representatives and an ally of President Rodrigo Duterte.
In an interview with AFP, he said ending his first marriage cost him a million pesos ($19,200), which is more than triple what an average family in the Philippines makes in a year.
Like thousands of Filipinos, he did it through a civil procedure called annulment, whereby a judge declares a marriage invalid, generally because the spouses had a “psychological incapacity.”
It requires applicants to undergo a mental exam, testify in court and sometimes even claim they or their spouse entered the union with a disorder like narcissism.
The process can take anywhere from one to 10 years to wind through the creakingly slow and overburdened Philippine court system, costing at least $4,800.
Since 1999 lawmakers have regularly filed a bill to legalize divorce, only to see it languish in committee limbo — until now.
For the first time ever, House of Representatives lawmakers are poised to approve the bill after backing it in preliminary votes. It would then head to the Senate where it faces opposition from conservative members.
However, the bill enjoys rare bipartisan support, a sign Alvarez says of the urgency of addressing broken marriages.
“It’s a badge of stupidity because we are the only nation that does not see the problem,” Alvarez, 60, said.
The legislation would allow divorce and exempt poor people from legal fees, listing domestic violence, attempts to engage a spouse in prostitution and irreconcilable differences among the grounds for splitting up.
Not surprisingly, the country’s powerful Catholic Church, which counts about 80 percent of Filipinos as followers, has fiercely opposed the bill.
“It is not according to the scriptures, to the will of God and it does not help,” Manila bishop Broderick Pabillo said.
The church fought a pitched but ultimately unsuccessful battle in 2012 to halt a law providing free contraceptives to poor couples and teaching sex education in schools.
It has also backed an existing ban on abortion and gay marriage.
Surveys show a majority of Filipinos have supported legalizing divorce since 2014.
At the same time the number filing for annulments has grown steadily in the past decade, hitting over 10,000 in 2017, according to government statistics.
“Filipinos have become more open. They’ve been exposed to norms from other countries,” said Jean Franco, political science assistant professor at the University of the Philippines.
But with Catholic clergy lobbying and protesting against the bill, its final passage is uncertain.
The country’s outspoken leader Duterte, whose own marriage was annulled, has yet to wade into the debate.
Although he spoke in favor of upholding the ban during his 23 years as mayor of the southern city of Davao, he is mercurial on social issues.
A longtime critic of the church, Duterte voiced support for gay marriage in 2015, only to backtrack after securing the presidency in 2016, before endorsing it yet again last December.
He also has plenty on his plate, with international war crimes prosecutors launching a preliminary probe into his deadly war on drugs, which has also aroused the ire of the church.
Campaigners say the bill could offer a lifeline to women trapped in violent marriages.
“Divorce is a woman’s issue, especially for poor women who are being abused because it could provide them an out legally,” Elizabeth Angsioco, national chairwoman of the Democratic Socialist Women of the Philippines, said.
For women like Melody Alan who says she has endured 14 years of abuse from an unfaithful, alcoholic husband, the ban cannot be overturned soon enough.
“He strangled me, pushed me against a wall. I was crying and screaming. I couldn’t breathe,” Alan, secretary-general of the Divorce Advocates of the Philippines, said.
Alan, 44, said her husband agreed to accept an annulment if she paid for it — something she could in “no way” afford while raising four kids.
In 2010 she separated from her husband, who now has two children with another woman, but they remain legally married.
“I will file for divorce to get freedom (to say) that this is who I am now,” she said. “I can start anew.”


Post-Brexit talks gear up for fish fight between EU, UK

Updated 29 January 2020

Post-Brexit talks gear up for fish fight between EU, UK

  • Industry and financial services are much more important in economic terms
  • Every coastal member state wanted to catch as many fish as possible, despite dwindling stocks and scientific warnings

KILKEEL, Northern Ireland: When it comes to UK-European Union relations, there’s nothing like slapping a fish around. After all, both sides have been contesting who rules their waves practically since the United Kingdom became a member in 1973.
So it’s not so surprising that once the United Kingdom officially leaves the EU on Friday night, one of the first things the two sides will wrestle over during negotiations on their post-divorce relationship is the comparatively tiny fisheries industry.
“Perhaps in many ways, fisheries is the acid test of Brexit,” said British politician and leading Brexiteer Nigel Farage.
Industry and financial services are much more important in economic terms. But somehow fish and chips in Britain and sole meuniere on the continent stir much stronger emotions.
“For example, our car industry and chemicals industry alone are worth 20 times the value of the fishing industry.” said Chris Davies, an English Liberal Democrat member of the European Parliament who is head of the EU’s fisheries committee until he leaves on Friday.
“It is much more important, of course, to the economy in Britain as a whole that we get access for those products,” Davies said.
That doesn’t ring right in Kilkeel, Northern Ireland, and other UK ports where resentment against EU fishing policies that allow vessels from other nations in the bloc to catch stocks in rich British waters runs deep.
“This fleet has been stymied now for, what, 30, 30-plus years in terms of fish being taken off us and given to other member states. It has been a struggle,” said Alan McCulla, CEO of the local ANIFPO fishing cooperative.
“Fishermen here have lost thousands of tons of fishing opportunities valued at millions of pounds,” McCulla said.
Brexiteers have thrived for years on similar words of perceived wrongdoing by faceless bureaucrats encroaching on age-old British sovereignty. And no one has done that more effectively than Farage, who has been driving the UK toward the EU’s exit door for decades, mostly from inside the European Parliament itself — where he served as a British MEP for over two decades.
Farage knows how the briny whiff of the sea tugs at the nation’s heartstrings.
“The greatness of Britain has always been what we’ve done on the seas, whether it’s through the Royal Navy or through our merchant fleets,” Farage said in an interview with The Associated Press. “So fisheries is actually — symbolically — very, very important.”
Farage led a flotilla of fishing boats up the River Thames to Britain’s Parliament in last-ditch campaigning before the Brexit referendum on June 23, 2016. It turned out that every bit helped, as Britain stunningly decided to leave the bloc with a narrow 52 percent-48 percent margin.
Fish in waters off Britain were still abundant in the 1970s and fishing towns still thrived.
But for just about the duration of Britain’s membership, stocks of North Sea cod to English Channel sole were in decline. And for British fishermen it was easy to point fingers at foreign vessels and EU headquarters in Brussels. Every coastal member state wanted to catch as many fish as possible, despite dwindling stocks and scientific warnings.
First, the EU forced boats to stay in ports and restricted quotas, limiting access to fish. And when British fishermen then saw EU boats in their shared waters, anger came naturally.
The broad promise of Brexit always was to regain control and there is a physical sense of control when a 200-nautical mile zone is set for the UK, instead of the current 12 miles.
“The UK should determine what level of access from EU boats is allowed in. It shouldn’t be a free-for-all just because they’ve been there for years and years. The rules have changed, and we’re taking back control of our own waters,” said Brian Chambers, who owns the “Boy Paul” with his brother and mainly fishes off the coast of Ireland and the Isle of Man for crab and scallops. He voted “leave.”
Farage says Brexit could make sure boom years lie ahead for Britain’s workforce of 8,000 fishermen that nets just under €1 billion ($1.1 billion) worth of annual catches.
“If we get fisheries right, we will bring tens of thousands of jobs back to our coastal communities,” he said.
However, the EU has already made it clear negotiations won’t be that simple. Chief negotiator Michel Barnier’s office has already informed diplomats from the 27 member states that “reciprocal access to fishing waters and resources should be maintained.” That means pretty much looking for the status quo that UK fishermen hate so much.
And the EU can also play the history card.
“European vessels have been fishing in those waters forever. The Vikings would have dragged a net behind their longboats when they came over 1,000 years ago,” Davies, of the EU parliament fisheries committee, said.
“So, not surprisingly, the Dutch and the French and others are saying ‘we want this to continue, historically, it’s our right,’” he said.
Furthermore, while Britons may have their fish-rich waters, the EU has an even richer consumer market.
“British fishermen are going to have to accept that so long as they are selling 70% of all the fish they catch into the European continental market, their bargaining power is not that great,” Davies said.
Again, fishermen can already feel the squeeze. Even if they are revered and romanticized for being some of the last true hunters in Europe, many have long been squeezed out economically. As fish needed to be protected, they felt the politicians didn’t protect them. The promise of Brexit gave them a new hope, but now the realities of hard-nosed negotiations set in.
The fear is that their desire to get better ownership of their fishing grounds might just become the merest of pawns in the talks between both sides.
McCulla of the ANIFPO cooperative is trying to look at the bright side.
“I’ve no doubt that Europeans will still be able to fish in UK waters in the future,” he said. “But the important difference is that they will have to have that access under the terms of UK PLC, not under the terms of Brussels. And in the future Britannia will rule Britannia’s waves.”