STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Divorce is illegal in only two places in the world - Vatican City and the Philippines. And in the Philippines, resistance may be fading. Here's Michael Sullivan.
MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: After nine years of marriage to a philandering husband and suffocating in-laws, Alpa Go threw in the towel. She wanted out for herself and her two children.
ALPA GO: (Through interpreter) I just wanted to cut ties with him. If I ever achieve my goals, I don't want to do it carrying his name. And if I acquire properties in the future, I don't want to have to share it with him.
SULLIVAN: But with divorce illegal, except for the 5 percent of the population that's Muslim, the best she could hope for was an annulment which dissolves the marriage. But they're expensive and out of reach for many here. And the results - often arbitrary. Alpa Go spent about $5,000 trying to get hers. She failed.
GO: (Through interpreter) I filed it on the grounds of psychological incapacity, but they said it wasn't enough.
SULLIVAN: Later, some friends told her why - that the judge wasn't a fan of annulments. So Alpa Go gave up. Lawyer Clara Padilla, the executive director of EnGendeRights, has heard stories like this one and far worse about women routinely denied annulments by conservative judges.
CLARA PADILLA: Women, even if they're in an abusive relationship where their husbands would batter them, even if their husbands are drunkards or alcoholic or engage in extramarital affairs, their wives are unable to dissolve the marriages.
SULLIVAN: But a bipartisan divorce bill passed by the Philippines House in March is giving women like Alpa Go hope. No divorce bill has ever made it this far in the predominantly Roman Catholic Philippines. Sociologist Jayeel Cornelio of Ateneo University calls it...
JAYEEL CORNELIO: Unprecedented.
SULLIVAN: Cornelio, reached via Skype, notes that recent polls show more than half of Filipinos are in favor of divorce. He says the passage of a reproductive health bill a few years ago signaled the beginning of the end of the church's dominance in people's lives.
CORNELIO: The influence of the Catholic Church when it comes to, one, politics matters, and two, private moral affairs, is becoming weaker and weaker.
SULLIVAN: On a Sunday morning, I went to see Auxillary Catholic Bishop Broderick Pabillo in his office, where a Bible study class was being held next door. Pabillo is adamant that allowing divorce will weaken Philippine society.
BRODERICK PABILLO: According to our Philippine Constitution now, you're supposed to protect the family and to strengthen the family. And divorce will not help our people at all.
SULLIVAN: Not even women who've been abandoned or a battered woman who just wants out?
PABILLO: She can be legally separated from the man. So we have also a way out.
SULLIVAN: Legally separated but still married to the batterer.
PABILLO: We cannot make a policy for certain cases whereas the whole society would suffer in the long run.
SULLIVAN: And the church still has a powerful ally in the Philippine Senate, which must also pass the bill for it to become law.
VICENTE SOTTO III: Unfortunately for those who are proposing it, I don't believe in it. As far as I'm concerned, it's not a priority.
SULLIVAN: That's Senate majority leader Vicente Sotto III, a staunch opponent of divorce, as are many others in the Senate. But he says that doesn't mean he won't allow a vote.
SOTTO: I am not going to stymie the bill because I am not in favor of divorce. That doesn't mean I will not do my job, I will.
SULLIVAN: Both the Senate majority leader and Bishop Pabillo put the chances of passage in the Senate at about 50-50. It would still need to be approved by President Duterte, whose own marriage was annulled. He's expressed his opposition to divorce in the past, but then he's not a fan of the Catholic Church, either. For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Manila.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOHNNY ALEGRE'S "FROM LONG AGO")
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