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The Philippines and its biggest disgrace: the treatment of women.

Nigel Morris-Cotterill

The Philippines is an astonishingly misogynistic society. It often appears as if, at every turn, the system is specifically designed to disadvantage women.

It is not for me to challenge the reasons that divorce is not permitted: that would impinge on matters of religion and I have no wish or intention of challenging anyone's religious views - so long as they don't challenge mine.

But when it comes to matters of equity and law, of fairness and abuse then I am firmly in the "I've got something to say" camp.

Across the world, Filipino men are heavily engaged in construction and shipping with many more in hospitality. Filipina women are equally spread, in healthcare and hospitality and the rather more nebulous "domestic helper" function.

Let's be clear: we should not tar all Filipinos (that's the men) with the same brush: many are married, have been married to the same woman for a long time and have been faithful. But there are enough of them who do not fit into this category for the way in which they treat women to be a national disgrace.

Take, for example, the 35 year old woman, married at 20, who has two children who she has supported single handedly since before the youngest started work. Her husband left her for a younger woman with whom he has more children. The children live with her parents; she works overseas. He provides no support at all. The Church make no comment about his failure and no comment about his second family. The State makes no effective provision to ensure he maintains them. She cannot remarry because she cannot divorce him because the law says so. Worse, when she dies, he will be entitled to most if not all of the assets she has accrued while he's been shacked up with another woman. In theory, she could apply for an annulment but it's a tortuous expensive process requiring, amongst other things, both parties to appear in Court. There is, in theory, a dispensation for those living and working overseas but it's very difficult to secure that dispensation. Also, the proceedings must be conducted by a lawyer at a cost that is prohibitive for women in her position.

Or take the 27 year old woman, married to a man who declared himself free to marry and only after some years together announced that he was going back to his wife and children. He walked off leaving her with nothing. In a civilised country, this would be simple: all she would have to do is make a simple application to the Court for a declaration that the marriage is void ab initio and at least she is free to get on with her life. But no, to obtain that relief, she must consult lawyers and the fee is far outside her means.

The fact that Church and State conspire to encourage such appalling behaviour by Filipinos at the expense of Filipinas is a national, even international disgrace.

What is all the more surprising is that there is, theoretically, a government sponsored service to assist with the process of declaring the marriage void, called "a declaration of nullity." That service is through the offices of the Public Attorneys' Office." To qualify for assistance is difficult: in the second case, the woman was turned away without understanding the reasons for rejection. The criteria for rejection or acceptance of cases are set out here: http://www.pao.gov.ph/page.php.... It is important to note that no express provision exists for assistance in the case of fraud leading to marriage.

In the second case, there would be in some countries, grounds for prosecution for rape by fraud. She was expressly told, and a certificate was issued by a government office, to say that he was free to marry. However, the PAO does not deal with matters of criminal prosecution.

I have looked. I have used several search engines and used my considerable experience of finding things on the internet and this is what I found: there are charities dealing with all manner of women's rights except getting out of a marriage, even one created by fraud and even one which has broken down more than a decade ago due to persistent adultery and moving away. This may be because any such organisation would not be granted charitable status because it might be seen as conflicting with the ban on divorce. And yet, in such a God fearing country, there are charities dedicated to assisting another class of woman victims, unmarried teenage mothers.

What my research did throw up were a number of lawyers and others offering "annulment services" for PHP20,000 approx. That's about USD380 at today's rates (xe.com). That's a full month's pay, or more, for most Filipinas working across much of Asia and in the Philippines itself, it's worse. According to Payscale.com the average annual income of a registered nurse is only PHP183,400, less than USD3,500 per annum. I could not find a process by which the woman defrauded into marriage could make her own application: in fact, everywhere I found said that she must have a lawyer prepare all the papers.

There are two questions to ask:

Is this just?
What can be done about it?

To me, as a former lawyer in a legal system where the inherent jurisdiction of the Court could be prayed in aid of the disadvantaged, especially in matters of equity, it is incredible that this level of systemic abuse exists, is perpetuated and while a generation of self-centred people flame anyone they can find over some synthetic harm, those same people don't divert their energies into to putting a stop to this sorry excuse for a legal system.

As I started by saying, I do not challenge the religious basis for rejecting divorce nor do I challenge religion in the Philippines or generally. What I do say is this: religion is being used a single-sided weapon. It should protect, and control, both men and women equally yet it allows men to get away with the most blatant sins of adultery and failure to live by their marriage vows to honour and protect and take care of the woman and, worse, actively accepts that replacement wives give birth to children out of wedlock and take no steps to disapprove of the practice.