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A Last Holdout on Divorce, Philippines Tiptoes Toward Legalization

The requirements for an annulment do not reflect the usual course of an unraveling marriage. “It takes a long time because they have to concoct stories,” said Elizabeth Pangalangan, a law professor at the University of the Philippines in Diliman, noting that in most marriages the problems arise during the marriage, not before it. “If it were true, it would be easier to prove.”

Even when annulments are granted, they may be challenged by the government and reversed in court. The arduous process means that few people seek annulments, with only about 10,000 filed each year.

Most people simply move on to unions outside the protection of the law. That is what happened with Novelliza Velez Castro, 33, whose Japanese husband abandoned her within months of their 2008 wedding in the Philippines, leaving her pregnant and alone.

After searching for him with no success, Ms. Castro met someone else, who is raising the husband’s child as his own. This month she gave birth to their baby. Ms. Castro, who now works as a caregiver in Nagoya, Japan, wants her partner in the Philippines to join her and the children so they can raise their family together, but she has no legal basis to bring him over on a spousal visa. And because she remains married to the Japanese man under Philippine law, her newborn is considered illegitimate.

That brings very real ramifications, since such children are entitled to only half the inheritance of those born to married parents. Even if the mother and father live together, the mother retains sole legal authority — the father cannot gain custody of the child.

“Sometimes my daughter asks me, ‘Won’t we ever have a normal family?’” Ms. Castro said.

When she heard news of the divorce bill moving through Congress, “I was so happy,” Ms. Castro said. “I just want us to be together.”

Ms. Cayetano, the congresswoman, said, “We are not trying to introduce divorce. We are legalizing the status of marriages that are dead or abusive already.”

For Lennie Visbal, her unbreakable marriage isn’t just a bureaucratic annoyance, it is also keeping her from finding love. “I don’t want to involve anyone in my situation,” she said. She is watching the progress of the divorce bill closely. “If I should meet someone,” she said, “I want to be free.”

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