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From decriminalizing abortion to allowing divorce—here's what women want for a better Philippines

By John Patrick Magno Ranara Published Mar 18, 2024 9:32 pm Updated Mar 19, 2024 12:46 pm

Women's rights have come a long way in the Philippines, ranking 16th in the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Index and emerging as the most gender-equal country in Asia.

However, there are still challenges that need to be addressed and still much left to do to ensure their well-being. Recent years still see women advocating for legislative solutions to issues affecting their ability to live comfortably.

PhilSTAR L!fe has sought out some inspiring women leaders and asked them what needs to be done for the Philippines to be regarded as one of the best places to be a woman.

Here are their insights:

Decriminalizing abortion

There is still a stigma surrounding abortion due to the influence of the Catholic Church in the Philippines.

While the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act was signed during Benigno Aquino III’s administration, abortion is still restricted in this country. The law, which gives access to all services regarding reproductive health, only offered post-care for people who underwent abortion.

Kristine Chan, president of the Filipino Freethinkers group who has long fought for safe abortion, told L!fe that this measure is needed to save the lives of many women.

“Every year in the Philippines, approximately 1,000 women die due to unsafe abortions. Having the right to safe abortions, we can drastically reduce this number and save countless lives,” she said. “It is a matter of personal freedom, health, and safety for women.”

“When women can make decisions about their reproductive health, their bodies, and their lives, they are better able to participate fully and equally in society,” she continued.

Having the right to choose to abort also promotes gender equality, as Chan points out, “It is about acknowledging and respecting women's autonomy, and empowering them to shape their own futures.”

Her advocacy for the decriminalization of abortion started when she became aware of the immense suffering and loss of life because of a lack of legal and safe options for women. Whether or not someone personally requires an abortion, this measure is still needed to alleviate the fear of unintended pregnancies.

“The reassurance that comes from knowing safe options are available in the event of needing an abortion is something that cannot be replaced,” she said.

There are many ways that people can advocate for safe abortion. In addition to signing the petition on and calling on lawmakers to decriminalize abortion, normalize talking openly about it with friends, family, and colleagues. Share accurate information to dispel myths and stigma.

“By sharing their personal stories and experiences, women can help to break down the stigma surrounding abortion and shed light on the urgent need for change,” Chan said.

Chan also advised her fellow advocates, especially the younger generation, to continue what they're doing.

“This fight, for women's lives and rights, is one of the most crucial battles of our time. Even if the fight is tough, let’s not give up,” she said. “Don't be afraid to speak up and stand up for what you believe in. Your voices are incredibly important—they can and will bring about change.”

Right to divorce

The right to divorce is another measure that has received much clamor in past years but has seen little progress with its enactment. This leaves the Philippines as the only country in the world where divorce is outlawed for all citizens.

AJ Alfafara, co-founder of Divorce Pilipinas Coalition, seeks that change as she continues to fight for millions of Filipino women who want to be free from toxic and abusive marriages.

According to her, implementing a law on divorce would greatly benefit women in this country as it would grant them “the power to escape abusive or unhappy marriages,” and would thus promote their autonomy and well-being.

“In today's troubled world, life can be challenging, and securing freedom in fundamental civil rights, such as the choice to marry and dissolve marriages, is paramount,” Alfafara said.

“[The approval of the divorce bill] represents a dedication to safeguarding individual rights, promoting the welfare of children, and ultimately reinforcing Filipino families by granting them the liberty to chart their own courses with honor and consideration,” she added.

Alfafara’s push for this law stems from her own failed relationship with her former husband. After being separated for three years, she attempted annulment in 2015 which eventually failed, plunging her deeper into debt.

“We're not fooling anyone; deep down, we know we're living a lie. Married but not. Despite the hardships, staying alive for my daughter became a source of relief, as the marriage had driven me to contemplate suicide,” she said.

After seeking out various divorce groups and learning about the marital struggles faced by both men and women, this ignited Alfafara’s passionate drive for legal reform.

She and other advocates have since remained steadfast in lobbying the bill to lawmakers, but to further help in its passage, Alfafara said that it’s important to do away with indifference.

“Even if we personally don't need divorce, advocating for it remains important. We can advocate not only for ourselves but also for other women, including our mothers, daughters, and friends,” she said, adding that advocating for divorce doesn't conflict with being pro-family.

The advocate urged the public, especially the younger generation, to continue the call for "justice and equality."

"Your voices are vital in reshaping societal norms and ensuring that everyone has the right to a life free from marital captivity.”

Improving laws on gender-based violence

The Philippines has laws for various forms of violence against women, such as the Anti-Rape Law of 1997, Anti-Trafficking Law of 2003, Anti-Violence Against Women and their Children Act of 2004, the Safe Spaces Act of 2019, and the Magna Carta of Women.

But there’s still much room for improvement, according to Jean Enriquez, executive director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women-Asia Pacific. 

One such change that needs to happen is the repeal of Article 266 of the Anti-Rape Law, which states that the valid marriage between the offender and the victim shall extinguish the criminal action or the penalty imposed.

“We know that with Spanish colonization, women were shamed for all instances of perceived ‘sexual impurity,’ even when sexual violence was committed against her.  Following this colonial thinking, it was perceived that impurity or shame can only be salvaged by marrying off the woman to the man who supposedly ‘took her virginity.’”

This thinking only leads to victim-blaming and deepens the trauma experienced by rape survivors.

“Condemning a woman to marriage to the perpetrator of sexual violence done to her is akin to condemning her to death,” Enriquez stressed.

Given that there is no divorce in the country, “to be married to your perpetrator for life is retraumatizing the victim for life.”

“Other than giving impunity to the perpetrators of rape, [it is] even ‘rewarding’ them by marrying the woman to her (usually forced by older family members) who he would ‘use’ sexually anytime with the sanction of marriage,” she added.

As a survivor of abuse herself, Enriquez knows just how terrible the experience is, especially when the authorities failed to protect her. This fueled her to empower other women and help protect them.

In terms of prostitution, Enriquez pointed out that while implementers tend to act on trafficking that involves cross-border movement, they have not penalized buyers of prostitution despite this act of violence being normalized in Philippine society.

Apart from these, she further called to reject “patriarchal-thinking men in Congress, or even women who belong to political dynasties and only follow patriarchal thinking.” Enriquez also highlighted the importance of enforcing existing laws.

“We need education on the law up to the local level so that government frontliners—barangays, police and investigators, social workers, prosecutors, as well as judges—implement the laws according to their spirit,” she said.

For advocates who want to do more to fight the issue, Enriquez urged them to understand the root of the problem and understand who gains from statements that women "wanted" to be raped or prostituted.

“It maintains the unequal power relations between women and men, and does not question male privilege nor question the social construction of their sexuality, often with pornography,” she said.