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.”


As coronavirus spreads, Chinese president admits his country facing ‘grave situation’

Updated 26 January 2020

As coronavirus spreads, Chinese president admits his country facing ‘grave situation’

  • According to state broadcaster, virus death toll in China has reached 56
  • Experts question the effectiveness of airport screenings of passengers from China

SHANGHAI: More than 2,000 people have been infected with a new coronavirus, the vast majority in China where 56 people have died from it, and the United States said it will evacuate some of its citizens from the city at the center of the outbreak.
President Xi Jinping said during a politburo meeting on Saturday that China was facing a “grave situation,” as health authorities around the world scrambled to prevent a pandemic.
The virus, believed to have originated late last year in a seafood market in the central Chinese city of Wuhan that was illegally selling wildlife, has spread to Chinese cities including Beijing and Shanghai, as well as the United States, Thailand, South Korea, Japan, Australia, France, and Canada.
On Sunday, China announced a nationwide ban on the sale of wildlife in markets, restaurants, and e-commerce platforms. Wild and often poached animals packed together in Chinese markets are blamed as incubators for viruses to evolve and jump the species barrier to humans.
Snakes, peacocks, crocodiles and other species can also be found for sale via Taobao, an e-commerce website run by Alibaba.
The US State Department said it will relocate personnel at its Wuhan consulate to the United States and will offer a limited number of seats to private US citizens on a Jan. 28 flight to San Francisco.
The World Health Organization this week stopped short of calling the outbreak a global health emergency, but some health experts question whether China can continue to contain the epidemic.
On Sunday, China confirmed 1,975 cases of patients infected with the new coronavirus as of Jan. 25, while the death toll from the virus has risen to 56, state broadcaster CCTV reported.
The outbreak has prompted widening curbs on movements within China, with Wuhan, a city of 11 million, on virtual lockdown, with transports links all-but severed except for emergency vehicles.
Health authorities in Beijing urged people not to shake hands but instead salute using a traditional cupped-hand gesture. The advice was sent in a text message that went out to mobile phone users in the city on Sunday morning.
Cancellation and mistrust
The outbreak has overshadowed the start of the Lunar New Year, which is typically a festive time of year, with public events canceled and many tourist sites shut. Many people on social media have been calling for the week-long holiday to be extended to help prevent further spread of the virus.
WeChat, China’s ubiquitous messaging app, warned that it could ban accounts spreading rumors.
China has called for transparency in managing the crisis, after a cover-up of the spread of the deadly Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2002/2003 eroded public trust, but officials in Wuhan have been criticized for their handling of the current outbreak.
“People in my hometown all suspect the real infected patients' number given by authorities,” said Violet Li, who lives in the Wuhan district where the seafood market is located.
“I go out with a mask twice a day to walk the dog — that’s the only outdoor activity,” she told Reuters by text message.
Many cinemas across China are also closed with major film premieres postponed, slashing revenues. Theaters in the country took in just 1.81 million yuan ($262,167) from tickets on Saturday, a tiny fraction of the 1.46 billion yuan on the Lunar New Year Day in 2019, according to data from movie-ticketing company Maoyan.
Cruise operators including Royal Caribbean Cruises, Costa Cruises, MSC Cruises, and Astro Ocean Cruises said that they canceled a combined 12 cruises that had been scheduled to embark from Chinese ports before February 2.
Virus spreading outside China
On Saturday, Hong Kong declared a virus emergency, scrapped celebrations and restricted links to mainland China.
Hong Kong Disneyland and the city’s Ocean Park theme park were closed on Sunday. Shanghai Disneyland, which expected 100,000 visitors daily through the Lunar New Year holidays, has already closed.
In Hong Kong, with five confirmed cases, the city’s leader Carrie Lam said on Saturday that flights and high-speed rail trips between the city and Wuhan will be halted. Schools in Hong Kong that are currently on Lunar New Year holidays will remain closed until Feb. 17.
On Saturday, Canada declared the first “presumptive” confirmed case of the virus in a resident who had returned from Wuhan. The patient, a male in his 50s, arrived in Toronto on Jan. 22 and was hospitalized the next day after developing symptoms of respiratory illness, officials said.
Australia confirmed its first four cases on Saturday, Malaysia confirmed four and France reported Europe’s first cases on Friday.
The newly identified coronavirus has created alarm because there are still many unknowns surrounding it, such as how dangerous it is and how easily it spreads between people. It can cause pneumonia, which has been deadly in some cases.
There are fears transmission could accelerate as hundreds of millions of Chinese travel during the holiday, although many have canceled their plans and airlines and railways in China are providing full refunds for tickets.
Airports around the world have stepped up screening of passengers from China, although some health officials and experts have questioned the effectiveness of such screenings.
In an illustration of how such efforts could miss cases, doctors at a Paris hospital said two of the three Chinese nationals in France who have been diagnosed with the virus had arrived in the country without showing any symptoms.
A report by infectious disease specialists at Imperial College, London on Saturday said the epidemic “represents a clear and ongoing global health threat,” adding: “It is uncertain at the current time whether it is possible to contain the continuing epidemic within China.”