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29 May 2024 18:05
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  •   Home > News > International

    In the Philippines, divorce is banned. It has left women with few options to rid themselves of abusive partners

    In the Philippines women who are abused by their husband have an even more difficult time leaving. Divorce is not an avenue available to them.

    Warning: This story contains graphic details of domestic violence.

    Michelle Bulang still bears the faint scars from the 13 stitches in her scalp where she says her husband hit her and the burn marks on her back and legs from the time he poured boiling water all over her.

    The walls of her home are pockmarked with holes from the times her husband had come home drunk and abusive.

    The emotional harm of a decade of abuse is far deeper and harder to see.

    "Every time he beat me, he beat the kids," she told 7.30.

    "Every time I complained that he never gave me any money, he said I'm not allowed to work.

    "He said, 'You just stay inside the house because you're only my wife and you can do nothing, because you are nothing without me,'" she said.

    After years of what she describes as physical, emotional and financial abuse, it was her children's pleas that finally convinced Michelle to leave.

    "The kids were all crying like, 'Mama, this is not good," she said.

    "So the kids decided, 'Ma, we need to end this and just live together away from him. We can do this. We can live just us.'"

    Nowadays, Michelle's home is a shrine of pink – candy-coloured walls, magenta teddy bears, fuchsia hair bands and cupcake tins from her home-made pie business.

    Her humble pink palace is a home to four girls and one woman, with no sign of the man that terrified them for a decade.

    Michelle is still married to him because divorce is illegal in the Philippines.

    Now she's looking to change that. Not just for herself but for women like those her four daughters will soon become.

    "They are everything to me and I survived because of them," she said.

    "I was an abandoned child as a kid and that's the reason why I didn't want them separated from me and I didn't want them to experience what I experienced."

    'No justice here in the Philippines'

    The Philippines' divorce ban has left thousands of women trapped in marriages which are at best loveless and at worst, violent and dangerous.

    But that could be about to change as the country considers a new bill which would legalise divorce.

    Mother-of-three Stella Sibonga says it is long overdue.

    "There is no justice here in the Philippines," she told 7.30.

    "You suffer from an abusive relationship but nobody cares."

    She's spent 12 years and thousands of dollars trying to escape a marriage she was forced into when she fell pregnant at just 18.

    She fights back tears as she recalls the time her husband came home drunk and ran at her and her children with a knife.

    "He was trying to kill me and my children with a big knife and all my children, especially my second daughter — she was only six years old at the time – she was begging me, 'Please stop this.'"

    More than a decade ago Stella filed for an annulment of marriage, based on her husband's alleged psychological incapacity – one of the limited grounds for terminating a marriage in the Philippines.

    But the process is prohibitively expensive, slow and bureaucratic for most and even though Stella was initially granted the annulment, that decision was later overturned by the solicitor-general.

    She's hopeful the divorce bill that's currently before the country's House of Representatives will finally pass.

    "It's very important to me because I want to move on. I want to cut that status of my marriage and I want to cut the chains in my marriage. I've been suffering a lot," she said.

    Data shows almost one in five currently married women in the Philippines have experienced physical abuse from their husbands and more than a third of separated women have been abused.

    Church fights back

    The bill is just the latest attempt to legalise divorce in the Philippines and is the closest the country has ever been to passing such a law.

    President Ferdinand Marcos Jr has previously said he's pro-divorce, but that getting a divorce shouldn't be easy.

    Congressman Edcel Lagman is the author of the divorce bill currently before the House of Representatives, where he's sat for almost three decades.

    Mr Lagman told 7.30 he plans to retire next year, hopefully after the bill passes.

    "I am very optimistic and I think we will be able to have this law enacted before the end of the 19th congress," he said.

    "And I hope that I don't have to go back to congress in order to campaign again for the enactment of this bill.

    "I am definite this will pass."

    But he faces stiff opposition.

    The church looms large in the Philippines where around 80 per cent of the population is Catholic.

    The religion was brought to the country by Spanish colonisers in the 16th century who left behind the ban on divorce that Spain itself has long since abandoned.

    Now, the only other place in the world where it remains illegal is the Vatican – the micro state that's home to 800 or so celibate Catholic clergy and employees.

    Father Jerome Secillano from the Catholic Bishops' Conference told 7.30 the proposed law would destroy marriages and families.

    "You weaken the commitment to marriage," he said.

    "And of course you also just perpetuate the cycle of violence. You are not treating the person who is violent, you are just merely freeing the abused person from that violent situation.

    "So that guy who may be abusive is not treated at all, he will be looking for another girl who is going to be his punching bag later on."

    He argues that there are already legal avenues for unhappy couples to split including filing for legal separation, which doesn't allow parties to re-marry, or an annulment, which in effect means the marriage never existed.

    "We are not lacking in legal remedies … and we don't believe that adding another legal remedy to such an imperfect situation or union will still protect the sanctity and the dignity of marriage," he told 7.30.

    "Marriage is a lifetime union so even with its ups and downs, the good times and the bad, the sickness and healthier part, they have to live with each other as husband and wife for the rest of their lives."

    Mr Lagman refutes the claim that the bill will destroy families and marriages.

    "This is not for everybody in the Philippines, because the majority of the marriages are happy and enduring," he said.

    "These are for the less fortunate couples who, despite the fact that they say that marriage is solemnised in heaven, many marriages plummet into hell, and we have to rescue them."

    'Give them another chance at happiness'

    There are also practical implications of being unable to divorce.

    AJ Alfafara from Divorce Pilipinas Coalition said it means former partners have access to each other's assets and liability for each other's debts.

    Many women also still bear the last name of their former partner on official documentation, causing major problems if they want to buy or sell property.

    "Most of the time, they will want to have the signature of the other, of the partner or spouse," she told 7.30.

    "If you can't get that, then you cannot own a house or if he ends up having a loan without your consent, you'll also be financially obligated so you'll also be blacklisted on credit cards."

    Anita Baleda from the Philippine Commission on Women told 7.30 the divorce ban allows former partners to continue to wield power over their exes.

    "Even if they are physically separated, there are still instances where the ex-husband continues to inflict pain on the woman or continues to harass her," she said.

    She said the bill is about giving people a second chance at happiness and love.

    "If you are a victim of violence in a marriage, this could mean a lot to you," she said.

    "If you are able to secure a divorce, this will enable you to move on with your life and if you want to get another partner or get married again, you have that chance of getting married.

    "I'm encouraging people to give a chance to others who are currently in difficult and very problematic situations.

    "Give them another chance at getting married and move on with their lives and hopefully finding happiness."

    Back in her pink kitchen, cheerily rolling dough for her baking business, Michelle Bulang is finally enjoying her own second chance.

    "Before, I can't smile, I can't laugh, because I'm not allowed to smile, I'm not allowed to talk to somebody, because if I talk to somebody and come home, he would beat me," she said.

    "But now I am free, just like a bird I am free. I can smile, I can laugh whenever I want."

    She hopes one day she'll be officially free as well.

    Watch 7.30, Mondays to Thursdays 7:30pm on ABC iview and ABC TV

    © 2024 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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