OPINION: Divorce and the status quo

Manila (Philippine Daily Inquirer/ANN) - A lawyer-friend once remarked that divorce in the Philippines is a matter of great concern only to the middle class, since it hardly matters to the very rich and to the very poor.

Rich couples who want to bring an end to their marital union could very well split up and leave the dirty details to their lawyers. They can certainly afford the long and expensive process of seeking a declaration of nullity both from the Church and from the courts. Or they can move abroad and seek a divorce there. Otherwise, they can simply brazen out their separated status, their still-existing union becoming relevant only if the matter of inheritance or division of assets arises upon the death of one spouse.

Having nothing to divide or dispute, impoverished couples have little motivation to go through the expense and inconvenience of a legal process. Couples shack up with little fuss, and end their co-habitation with little or no fanfare. Having no social status to protect, they beget children with little thought to their legitimacy or illegitimacy.

Ironically, it¿s when they seek to enroll their children in school that the matter of a birth certificate and parentage arises. If it¿s a Catholic school, the matter of the parents¿ marriage (or lack of it) or the child¿s legitimacy might even be brought up.

It¿s only to the middle-class, caught up in matters of legality, morality and propriety that divorce matters, it seems. Marriage is still very much a social contract, and it¿s important that when a marriage ends, its end is marked with a clear legal mandate, a thorough division of the fruits of the marriage, and clear-cut arrangements with regard to child custody, child support and perhaps alimony.

But in the Philippines, it seems that our officials prefer that things remain murky and indeterminate, with the official status of a couple and their children remaining under the shadow of legal ambiguity.

* * *

I can well understand the panic and anger of Catholic prelates who see the filing of a divorce bill close on the heels of the still-disputed RH bill as a harbinger of the apocalypse, or at least the beginning of the end of the Catholic stranglehold on Filipino society.

But in truth the RH measure has nothing to do with the bill calling for the legalization of divorce. Divorce bills have been filed in previous Congresses, but none of them have gone as far as a formal House committee hearing or received as much publicity. The current bill, filed by Gabriela partylist Representative Luz Ilagan, is believed to have been spurred by the recent plebiscite conducted in Malta in which majority of the population indicated support for a divorce law.

With the expected legalization of divorce in Malta, where 98 percent of the population is Catholic, the Philippines is now the only country in the world (with the exception of the Vatican) where divorce remains illegal. If Malta can fall in step with the rest of world, why can¿t the Philippines? And what is so special about our being the last holdout against divorce?

* * *

If married couples in the Philippines - or at least the majority of them - were constantly faithful, remained true to their vows, avoided temptation and founding second or even third families, then we could very well be proud of our anti-divorce statute.

But even as the Constitution trumpets state support for the ¿sanctity of the family," the people by their actions bring that ¿sanctity¿ to question. The number of couples seeking legal separation and declarations of nullity is rising, and census figures on the number of couples living under one roof without benefit of matrimony indicate a growing trend.

Politicians, who should be protective of their reputations and thus careful in their behavior, instead flaunt their many affairs and mistresses. Perhaps they know that instead of endangering their political careers, they are in fact burnishing their reputations as ¿macho men¿ and ¿go-getters¿ by their many amorous adventures.

No wonder observers say the chances of passage of a divorce bill in the House and Senate at this time are very poor, at best. The current system works too well to the men¿s advantage, and they aren¿t about to rock the boat. Why initiate change when the status quo is much too convenient and advantageous?

* * *

Divorce proponents may be overreaching at this time when the social landscape is being roiled by the RH bill debate. Perhaps our capacity for social reform can handle only one change at a time. But the introduction of a divorce bill now is wrong only as a matter of strategy, avoiding overloading the already-sensitive sensibilities of conservative Catholics. But the need for such a law here has long been evident, and the experiences of women caught in the no-divorce bind are no laughing matter.

A friend recalls meeting a group of rural women who brought up during the open forum their dilemma about their ¿missing¿ husbands. It seems that many of the women had long been abandoned by their men and they had no idea where their mates had gone. Despite many years¿ absence, the women said, they still could not ¿move on," and were loathe to start new relationships because of their ¿ambiguous¿ legal status.

My friend told the women that, under the law, if one¿s spouse had gone missing and had not made any contact in five years, then the missing spouse could be declared dead. ¿Let¿s all agree that from now on, all your missing husbands are dead!" my friend declared.

Now I don¿t know if that ¿declaration¿ had any legal basis, or how many went ahead and had their husbands declared dead. But when love flies out the window and leaves only bitterness and regret, it seems a shame to be forced to live among the walking dead.

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