By Gina Mission, Philippines

Elizabeth Merjudio, 40, has spent nearly half of her life in and out of Manila hospitals for treatment of physical injuries from her husbandís hand. She has endured cigarette burns, stabbing, lashing, punching, being locked up inside the toilet, stripped naked in public and even a shooting.

"I thought to myself, god, this is hopeless. I tried my best, even endured all the abuse, to save this marriage, to give my son the parents he deserves, but things only got worse," Elizabeth lamented.

Even if Elizabeth had the courage to leave her husband, her options are bleak. The Philippines and Malta are the only two countries today without absolute divorce. A growing awareness of the problems of domestic violence in the Philippines may change that. House Representative Manuel Ortega of the Laban Ng Masang Pilipino (Party of the President) filed legislation last March to legalize divorce here.

"Today not all marriages succeed as a permanent union," said Ortega. "An increasing number of married individuals find themselves subjected by their marriage partners to physical violence, grossly abusive conduct and other acts or offenses. This bill thus seeks to give spouses who are shackled by an irretrievably broken marriage the freedom to remarry and possibly succeed in attaining a stable and fulfilling family life."

Congress will likely approve the bill, which has passed its first reading. But it faces staunch opposition from the powerful Catholic Church, while womenís groups are lobbying hard for its passage.

Under the 1988 Family Code, Filipino couples have only three ways to change the status of their marriage: legal separation, declaration of nullity, and annulment. Legal separation allows spouses to live separately but they may not remarry. Declaration of nullity presupposes that the marriage is void from the beginning and the court declares its non-existence. Annulment legally cancels the marriage and both spouses are restored to their single status.

Couples have, albeit with difficulty, successfully used psychological incapacity as grounds for annulment and declaration of nullity. The petitioner must prove in court, through medical or clinical experts, that the other spouse suffers from psychological incapacity and that such a condition existed at the time of the marriage.

"This is not easy," said Evalyn Ursua, executive director of the Womenís Legal Bureau. Worse, the option for legal separation only pertains to separation of board and lodging. "The marriage remains intact, meaning the power relations between spouses may not change."

And for Elizabethís case, that could mean the recurrence of domestic violence. "These women," Ursua pointed out, referring to cases such as Elizabethís, "want and need a divorce law in order to start anew." 

Supporters of the divorce law also argue that divorce is already legal for part of Filipino society; its Muslim population. The 1977 Presidential Decree otherwise known as the Code of Muslim Personal Laws in the Philippines permits divorce in marriages where both spouses are Muslims or where only the male is Muslim but the marriage was solemnized in accordance with Muslim Law. Some indigenous people also practice divorce.

Rejecting divorce in the name of the Catholic Church, Ursua stated, would sustain a discriminatory situation where Muslim-Filipinos can obtain divorces while non-Muslim Filipinos cannot.

"The Philippines does not have a law on divorce, yet marriages are broken day in and day out," she said.

With divorce, Ursua added, women will have an option whether or not to stay in an abusive relationship. "If you donít want it, then donít do it, but if you need it, then at least thereís an option," she said.

Supporters argue that even Spain, where Filipino Catholicism originated, has divorce, as does Italy, home of the Vatican.

But the Catholic Bishops Conference in the Philippines (CBCP) has argued that in the interest of the principle of separation of church and state, Congress should not pass a law that violates the religious belief of the countryís dominant religion.

"In the separation of spouses, children are always the loser. In family life, the interest of children should get top priority rather than the interest of spouses," according to a CBCP statement.

Divorce is not an entirely new concept in the Philippines. Long before the Spanish colonial regime in the 16th century, absolute divorce had been widely practiced among ancestral tribes throughout the country. During the Spanish regime, legal separation was allowed. In 1917, the Philippine Legislature under the Americans repealed this law and allowed divorce only on the grounds of adultery on the wifeís part and concubinage on the husbandís.

>From 1941, the Japanese colonizers expanded the grounds for divorce to include: attempt against oneís life by a spouse; bigamous marriage; loathsome disease contracted by one spouse; incurable insanity; criminal conviction for not less than six years; repeated physical violence; intentional desertion for at least one year; intentional absence from the conjugal home for at least six years; and slander by deed or a gross insult by spouse. But by 1950 the Civil Code of the Philippines allowed only legal separation. The 1988 Family Code further tightened the laws against divorce.

Gina Mission, who lives in the Philippines, writes for CyberDyaryo, an on-line newsmagazine for civil society. She has been writing about women's issues for several years.