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.”


Dozens killed as Armenia-Azerbaijan fighting enters second day

Updated 20 min 24 sec ago

Dozens killed as Armenia-Azerbaijan fighting enters second day

  • Armenia and Azerbaijan long at odds over Nagorno-Karabakh
  • Clashes endanger oil and gas supplies from the region

YEREVAN/BAKU: Azerbaijani and Armenian forces battled for a second day on Monday after dozens were killed in an outbreak of heavy fighting that has raised fears of an all-out war between the longtime enemies.

Defense officials in both countries confirmed that intense clashes had continued overnight after erupting on Sunday along the frontlines of Nagorny Karabakh, an ethnic Armenian region that has broken away from Azerbaijan.

The separatists said on Monday that 15 more of their fighters had been killed, bringing the total reported death toll from both sides to 39.

With each side blaming the other for the latest fighting, world leaders have urged calm as fears rise of a full-scale conflict that could draw in regional powers Russia and Turkey.

Ex-Soviet Armenia and Azerbaijan have been locked in a territorial dispute over Nagorny Karabakh for decades, with deadly fighting flaring up earlier this year and in 2016.

The region declared its independence after a war in the early 1990s that claimed 30,000 lives but is not recognized by any country — including Armenia — and is still considered part of Azerbaijan by the international community.

The Karabakh defense ministry said on Monday 32 of its fighters had been killed in the latest clashes. Seven civilian fatalities were reported earlier, including an Azerbaijani family of five and a woman and child on the Armenian side.

An Armenian Defence Ministry image shows the destruction of Azeri military vehicles during clashes between Armenian separatists and Azerbaijan in the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh. - (AFP / Armenian Defence Ministry)

Azerbaijan has yet to announce military casualties but Armenian defense ministry spokeswoman Shushan Stepanyan claimed that “dozens of corpses of Azerbaijani soldiers” lay on territory won back overnight.

She said heavy fighting continued on Monday morning along the frontline and claimed Armenian forces had won back positions taken Sunday by Azerbaijan.

But Baku claimed further advances.

Azerbaijani forces “are striking enemy positions using rocket artillery and aviation... and have taken several strategic positions around the village of Talysh,” the defense ministry said.

“The enemy is retreating,” it added.

Armenian military officials said Azerbaijani forces were continuing to attack rebel positions using heavy artillery, while Azerbaijan’s defense ministry accused separatist forces of shelling civilian targets in the town of Terter.

Azerbaijan's forces destroy Armenian an anti-aircraft system at the contact line of the self-proclaimed Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh. Fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan broke out Sunday around the separatist region. (Armenian's Defense Ministry via AP)

Baku claimed to have killed 550 separatist troops, a report denied by Armenia.

The escalation has stirred an outpouring of patriotic fervor in both countries.

“We have been waiting for this day for so long. The fighting must not stop until we force Armenia to return our lands,” Vidadi Alekperov, a 39-year-old waiter in Baku, said.

“I’ll happily go to the battlefield.”

In Yerevan, 67-year-old Vardan Harutyunyan said Armenia had been anticipating the attack.

“The (Karabakh) question can only be resolved militarily. We are not afraid of a war,” he said.

Fighting between Muslim Azerbaijan and majority-Christian Armenia threatened to embroil regional players Russia, which is in a military alliance with Yerevan, and Turkey, which backs Baku.

Armenia accused Turkey of meddling in the conflict and sending mercenaries to the battlefield.

France, Germany, Italy, the United States, the European Union and Russia have urged a cease-fire.

Armenia and Karabakh declared martial law and military mobilization Sunday, while Azerbaijan imposed military rule and a curfew in large cities.

Talks to resolve the conflict — one of the worst to emerge from the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union — have been largely stalled since a 1994 cease-fire agreement.

Analysts said on Sunday international brokers needed to step up their efforts to prevent an even worse escalation.

France, Russia and the United States have mediated peace efforts as the “Minsk Group” but the last big push for a peace deal collapsed in 2010.