Page last updated at 11:00 GMT, Saturday, 11 June 2011 12:00 UK

How to split when divorce is banned

By Kate McGeown
BBC News, Manila

San Ignacio Church, Manila
The Vatican state and the Philippines are alone in still banning divorce

With the strong influence of the Catholic faith, divorce is illegal in the Philippines. But couples who have fallen out of love find novel ways to split - including multiple annulments.

For a country which does not allow divorce, there seems to be an awful lot of people in the Philippines who have ex-wives or ex-husbands.

Wedding rings being exchanged, Manila
Wealthy couples can afford to buy expensive annulments

It is not something that is often talked about openly, but in any gathering of professional Filipinos, you can be fairly sure that at least one is onto their second or maybe even third marriage.

This is because - as in many aspects of life here - people have found ways to get around the rules.

The main way, if you have got the money to do it, is to get your marriage annulled.

It is as if someone waves a magic wand, and both the wedding and the unhappy-ever-after simply never happened.

All you need is a psychiatrist to say that there is something wrong with either you or your partner, leaving you unable to fulfil the essential obligations of marriage.

Exactly what those obligations are remains somewhat vague - a loophole that has not gone unnoticed by warring couples and their lawyers.

Plead insanity

Joey's story is typical. He works in PR in Manila's business district, and is bright, articulate and confident.

The result is a two-tier system, where rich people can marry again and poor people cannot

Yet in order for his first marriage to be annulled, he had to declare that he was psychologically incapacitated.

Now I am no expert, but Joey does not look psychologically incapacitated to me.

He has a broad smile and a ready wit - and he even manages to find our meeting place despite my appalling directions.

But a psychiatrist said he was psychologically incapacitated, and a judge agreed. Six months later, and more than $1,000 (£600) poorer, Joey was free to marry again.

It is a legal fudge that seems to work quite well.

Many celebrities have gone down the same route, sometimes more than once, but success is not guaranteed.

I have heard of cases mired in the courts for years, others which have cost $5,000 (£3,000) or even more, and some which have been refused outright.

A shanty town in Manila
Many poor Filipinos live in slums and cannot afford to buy an annulment

And it is hardly an option available to everyone.

This is a country where a third of the population live on less than a dollar a day. An annulment is simply too expensive for the vast majority of people.

The result is a two-tier system, where rich people can marry again and poor people cannot.

I have visited many of Manila's slums in the course of my job.

Almost everyone is Catholic, and almost everyone attends Sunday worship - large families filing out of the rabbit warren of precarious structures they call home and piling into the churches.

But, even here, it is not hard to find people who have circumvented the church's rules.

Many of those whose marriages have fallen apart simply move on to live with someone else.

When the bishops say that divorce is anti-Filipino and to legalise it would be to cheapen the institution of marriage, people take that message seriously

And I have met some people who say there is little incentive to get married in the first place.

One woman I found sitting in a doorway cleaning vegetables - a 22-year-old pregnant with her fourth child - looks at me with bewilderment when I ask if she's married to the man standing with his arm around her.

This is not really on the agenda for now, she says - they have too many other things to worry about.

Faith 'trap'

There are undoubtedly people who feel trapped by the lack of a divorce law - those whose first partners are long gone and who would dearly love to marry someone else, and the children born out of wedlock and into stigma because their parents cannot get married.

Roman Catholic devotee, Philippines
Couples separate rather than divorce and damage their faith

Supporters for legal divorce also point to the high number of battered wives who feel trapped, unable to leave their husbands.

A small percentage of Filipinos are already allowed to divorce - the 5% of the population who are Muslim, and also some Filipinos married to foreigners.

So why does the government not just accept that some marriages fail, like they do everywhere else - and that divorce is sometimes the only option?

Because that would be to ignore the strong feelings people have toward their faith.

The majority of people here are not just lip-service Catholics, but fasting, praying, regular-attending members of the church.

And when the bishops say that divorce is anti-Filipino, and to legalise it would be to cheapen the institution of marriage, people take that message seriously.

What really surprises me is that out of all the people I've spoken to who are separated, or have had their marriages annulled, few say the Philippines is ready for a divorce law.

Annulment should be accessible to everyone, they say - laws should be passed to make it quicker and simpler, broadening the criteria for when it can be granted, and dispensing with the need for a psychiatrist.

So, basically, divorce by another name - a uniquely Philippine solution.

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