[OPINION | Dash of SAS] The fight for divorce is a family affair
The Senate hearing on the divorce bills last September 17 was historic for many reasons. Divorce bills had been filed in the past, but last Tuesday was the first time that the bills were discussed at the Senate level. At the very basic, this means that the government is finally taking the public clamor for the legalization of divorce seriously. (Watch the full Senate hearing on divorce here.)
But, more than that, it was the first time that people came out to share their painful experience of having failed marriages. A 2018 survey by the Social Weather Stations showed that 53% of Filipinos want divorce to be legalized. At the Senate hearing, 4 of them shared their stories and gave a human face to the statistics.
What does being trapped in a failed marriage look like?
For Stella Sibonga, her marital purgatory took the shape of a machete. Her husband used one to hack away at their house before turning on her.
“I grabbed the machete from him. I was afraid that he might hurt our children. I don’t know what happened next because I lost consciousness,” said Sibonga in Filipino.
Len, who asked that her last name not be mentioned, spoke about years of enduring her husband's philandering and his physical abuse of her and her children. She tried everything to keep their family intact, even proposing that her husband divide his time between their family and his mistress. “I told him you can spend 5 days with your mistress and then 2 days with us, just so our family can stay together. But he still left us.”
For Marc Anthony Antonio, turmoil was as wide and as endless as the open sea.
A former seafarer, Antonio tried to save his marriage, but failed. When they separated, he tried to ask his shipping company to discontinue the automatic sending of his salary to his estranged wife. The shipping company could not do that because she remained the legal wife. Addressing the panel at the Senate hearing, Antonio said, “Does anyone here know how it feels to work out in the middle of nowhere, give what you have earned to someone who is disrespecting you?”
Before the divorce hearing, I had the chance to meet Antonio, who shared how difficult it was for him to come out with his story. “Nagkamali ka na nga, nag-fail ka na nga as a provider, ipagsisigawan mo ba pa sa lahat?’’ (You already failed, do you need to let the whole world know?)
There aren’t many men – if any at all – who have come forward with stories of their failed marriage. Antonio pointed out that it is more difficult for men to talk about their feelings.
In Filipino, there are phrases that particularly shame men. The Tagalog phrase “naiputan sa ulo” (a bird shit on his head) is a metaphor for infidelity, but only in reference to men whose wives have been unfaithful.
A marriage is between two people, but when it crumbles, it always hurts more, namely, the husband, the wife, and their children between them.
A long-held argument against legalizing divorce is how it would hurt the children. As someone who has had her marriage annulled, I know how this taps into the deep-seated fears of all parents that they might damage and scar their children.
At the divorce hearing, for the first time, adults didn’t have to speak for the children. The children spoke for themselves.
Kana Takahashi, 22, a member of the feminist group The Maya Collective, addressed the Senate panel: “If keeping the family together means domestic violence, lack of family support, substance abuse, infidelity, health and financial incapacities, then I don’t want it.”
With the dignified certainty and quiet confidence of someone who knows what she is talking about, Takahashi added that divorce and separation are painful for everyone involved but the pain is only temporary.
Her statement, which was made into an Instaquote, has become viral.
I spoke to Takahashi over the phone after the hearing. She admitted she was very nervous about facing the Senate. “Everyone would be there: Senator Risa, the opposition, the cameras.”
But Takahashi felt it was important to let people hear from the children, whom we keep saying we want to protect. “We’re not asking the opposition to change their view. But we are asking them to see the issue from our side. Children of separated parents like me have turned out okay.” She added that, as long as the kids are raised in a loving environment, they would be alright.
“My mom was a single parent and had to go abroad to support me. My tita – my mom’s sister – raised me. They were both strong women. Strong women raise strong children,” said Takahashi.
Since Takahashi's statement went viral on social media, other single parents have reached out to thank her. Her story assured them that their kids would be alright. Other kids of single parents have also expressed their solidarity and thanked Tanakashi for expressing their own sentiments.
I’ve heard Takahashi's thoughts echoed by other children of separated parents.
At the Walk for Divorce in 2018, I met brothers Sam and Steven del Rosario, two young men in their 20s.
I’m sure that these boys had better things to do on a weekend, like hanging out with their friends or doing nothing at all, but there they were lifting tables, rearranging chairs, and hanging tarps. Before the actual event, they helped silk-screening t-shirts.
“Our mom had to work so hard to put us through school by herself. She was hardly home because she had to work so much, but somehow she always made us feel that she was there for us,” said Sam.
They tagged along to show support for their mom and other divorce advocates, but mostly it was to say the things they couldn't say: how they recognized all the sacrifices their mom had made for them and how strong she made herself to be for them.
“Have you ever told your mom this?” I asked them.
They both let out a sheepish laugh. One scratched his head, saying, “Um, we’re just not that kind of family.”
Showing up for their mom was the better way for them to show their appreciation.
The Del Rosario brothers are just two of the kids who come to pro-divorce rallies to support their parents. Like their advocate parents, the kids have gotten to know each other. Their bond is forged from the shared experience of growing up in single-parent homes. They have become something of surrogate siblings to one another or, as they say, “bratha from another matha.”
Takahashi. The Del Rosario brothers. Three of the many kids of single-parent homes who want divorce to be legalized.
The fight for divorce has become a family affair. – Rappler.com