Silent Victims: Abused Live-In Partners in the Philippine Divorce Discourse

Amidst the debate over whether the Philippines should allow divorce, one crucial aspect of committed partnerships seems to be overlooked: cohabitation or “pagsasama nang walang kasal.” The discussion on grounds for divorce should not overshadow the imperative of safeguarding partners in cohabitation relationships.

In the Philippines, two forms of cohabitation (aka Live-In partnership) have long been practiced: consensual marriage and the querida system. Consensual marriage involves a permanent relationship without a formal marriage ceremony, often as a cost-saving measure. The querida system involves maintaining a second wife or family.

New Path to Marriage: The Significance of Increasing Cohabitation in the Philippines-New Population Review/ Midea M Kabarnalan

According to an article1 citing findings from the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA), the number of common-law or live-in couples in the country rose to 12.66 million between 2015 and 2020.

Along the same vein, data from the PSA’s 2020 Census of Population and Housing, released on February 16, 2023 2, indicated that 14.7% of the 86.33 million people aged ten years and over were in common-law or live-in arrangements, up from 9.2% of 78.91 million people in 2015.

These arrangements, along with divorced, separated, or annulled statuses, are most prevalent in the country’s National Capital Region (NCR), where 20.1% of people are in common-law/live-in arrangements. This is followed by Region VIII at 18.7% and Region IV-A (CALABARZON) at 17.6%, with the lowest proportion in BARMM (Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao) at less than 1%.

The age group with the highest proportion of individuals in common-law/live-in arrangements in 2020 was 25-29 years, at 20.8%. This distribution was the same among both males and females, each at 10.4%.

The Family Code of the Philippines does not recognize common law marriage but acknowledges the rights of individuals in live-in relationships, particularly regarding property acquired during the partnership, which is presumed to be equally owned. Children born to unmarried couples are considered legitimate if their parents marry later. If not, the child is regarded as illegitimate but still has rights to support and inheritance. The Code ensures children’s rights are protected, regardless of the parents’ marital status.3

Common Law Marriage in the Philippines: Legal Framework and Formalization/

Religious considerations
The view that cohabitation is immoral or un-Christian may stem from the country’s predominantly Catholic population. However, Catholic or Christian views are no longer as significant in explaining the increasing number of cohabiting unions.

According to a 2022 article by the CBCP (Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines)4, citing an online survey of 1,200 respondents conducted by Radio Veritas, more Filipino Catholics have adopted a liberal mindset regarding cohabitation.

The Veritas Truth Survey (VTS) found that nearly 45% of respondents believe that marriage is not necessary before living together, 40% think that couples should marry first, and the remaining 15% are undecided. The survey also observed that younger respondents, aged 13 to 39, are more inclined to believe that marriage is not a requirement for cohabitation.

This shift in perspective among young Catholics may be due to valuing modern practicality and the convenience of living together without marriage, more than undergoing the rigors of evaluating one’s moral beliefs based on Catholic teachings.

Yet, according to my reading, the Catholic Church upholds the Christian faith consistently, teaching that sexual relationships are appropriate only within the bounds of marriage. Engaging in extramarital sex is seen as a sign of disrespect toward the sacrament of marriage, the sacredness of sexual intimacy, and human dignity.5

More discourse for domestic abuse within cohabitation arrangement
Those people in cohabitating unions, which according to reports are increasing, will not benefit from the Divorce law if enacted. Surely, among the strong points for enacting a Divorce law is that partners in abusive relationships will have recourse to end the abuses.

Related: Domestic abuse: Are we turning a blind eye to the elephant in the room?

As reported on the House approval of the absolute divorce bill on the final reading last May 22nd, the grounds for absolute divorce can include “psychological incapacity, irreconcilable differences, domestic or marital abuse, when one of the spouses undergoes sex reassignment surgery or transitions from one sex to another, and separation of the spouses for at least five years.”6

It can also include grounds for legal separation under the Family Code of the Philippines, such as physical violence or abusive behavior, coercion to change religious or political beliefs, attempts to involve the petitioner or children in prostitution, imprisonment of the respondent for more than six years, substance addiction or habitual gambling, homosexuality of the respondent, bigamous marriage, marital infidelity or having a child outside of marriage, attempted harm against the petitioner or children, and abandonment of the petitioner without cause for over a year.

Abuses continue: A true story of domestic abuse
However, I would also like to address the issue of abuse among those in cohabitating relationships. Despite having our own anti-violence laws that can be applied to men, women, regardless of marital or extramarital status, as well as members of the LGBTQ+ community who may be in or at risk of an abusive situation, why do abuses continue to occur within cohabitation relationships? Why do abuse victims continue to be silenced by a flawed socio-cultural system?

I will relate a story of someone who is in this position.

The partners reside in a shanty within a slum area outside of Metro Manila. They have five children, three of whom are school-age and one who is a teenager. The male partner persists in abusing the female partner, employing verbal, physical, psychological, emotional, and economic means of abuse.

The male partner is idle. His scant earnings from selling junk amount to only a few hundred pesos, roughly US$3-5. Most of this money is spent on cigarettes or alcohol, leaving nothing for food. They do not pay rent because they live in a shanty, and they do not have utilities like electricity or water. They lack basic amenities such as a lavatory or toilet.

Their life is filled with constant shouting and mistreatment. The children are able to attend school due to benefits from the 4Ps (Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program). Apart from this assistance, they have no other means of support. The mother resorts to unconventional methods to earn money to feed the children.

If that is not the worst part, several residents in the community in that area, are relatives of the male partner, and naturally would tend to cover up for and side with him. They even take turns verbally abusing the female partner.

The barangay (a local government unit) hall is conveniently located nearby, yet they fail to offer any protection or assistance to the female partner. This may be due to their tendency to wait for the female partner to file a formal complaint, which she has reportedly done a few times but was ignored. Alternatively, it could be that the barangay officials have become accustomed to the ongoing display of abuses and fail to intervene.

This is not an isolated case. Undoubtedly, there are many more female partners in similar economic conditions who are suffering the same fate, without support from their communities. This perpetuates a cycle of silence and neglect for these groups of abused individuals in cohabitation situations – Silence elicited out of fear, immunity to the situation, or hopelessness.

Louder, VAWC!
As we know, there is the VAWC (Anti-Violence Against Women and Children) Act of 2004 or Republic Act No. 9262. However, for this legislation to be effective, the abused individual must be empowered enough to raise their voice and resist the abuses.

Empowerment can take various forms, such as being knowledgeable about their rights and the laws that can protect them, having a livelihood or means of support if they decide to end the relationship, having access to alternative shelter in case they are forced out of the cohabitation, being able to take custody of their children, and having access to psycho-social or trauma counseling support, among others.

In my opinion, the VAWC provisions unfortunately are not well disseminated among individuals in (poorer or more far-flung) communities. Knowledge about VAWC is largely limited to law enforcers, who typically wait for complaints before taking action.

Even efforts from relevant Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) seem to remain inadequate to, at the very least, educate communities about VAWC. While information is available on social media and websites, not everyone has ready access to the internet. Additionally, it’s important to acknowledge that not every individual in the country has internet access, and even for those who do, comprehension may be hindered by the use of English or legal jargon in the information provided.

Community and support system
As the saying goes, it takes a village to stop abuses. But how can that happen if people in the community are not aware of what constitutes abuse?

Oftentimes, due to cultural notions, marital conflicts are believed to be resolved solely within the confines of the household and only between the partners. The phrase “Huwag makialam, away mag-asawa (Do not meddle, it’s a marital dispute)” is deeply ingrained in the community, and perpetrators of domestic abuse often use this notion as a shield or excuse.

One time, I visited a barangay (local government unit) hall and spoke with a kagawad (barangay councilor) in charge when I attempted to report a domestic violence incident. His stance was that the abused victim must come forward themselves because it is considered a marital dispute. I fear that no action will be taken unless a tragic event, such as someone being fatally injured during an altercation or domestic abuse incident, occurs.

There was another instance where I assisted a young abuse victim who reported the abuse to the barangay. The abuse involved the neglect of the child of the person who impregnated her. I was informed that the barangay personnel requested gas money and snacks from the victim, who didn’t even know where to find money for their next meal, in order to bring the accused, who lived in another town approximately 10 kilometers away, to the barangay. To my knowledge, no action was taken on the complaint simply because there was no “gas money” provided.

Remember: Barangays are mandated to HELP and ASSIST people who are victims of domestic abuse.

As per RA 9710 of the Magna Carta of Women, under Rule IV, Rights and Empowerment, Section 12 (Protection from violence), letter D, all barangays are mandated to set up a VAW Desk, with the punong barangay (chief) appointing a trained individual, preferably a female barangay kagawad or barangay tanod, to handle cases sensitively.

Moreover, provincial governors, city mayors, and municipal mayors are responsible for ensuring the establishment of VAW Desks in all barangays under their jurisdiction, providing necessary technical and financial support.

Barangays have the VAW desk and several key responsibilities for the prevention and response to violence against women (VAW) include:
• Aid VAW victims in obtaining Barangay Protection Orders (BPO) and accessing essential services.
• Address cases of gender-based violence brought to the barangay’s attention.
• Maintain records of gender-based violence cases handled, submitting quarterly reports to relevant city/municipal offices.
• Ensure confidentiality of VAW case records, restricting access to authorized personnel only.
• Develop a gender-responsive plan to tackle gender-based violence, encompassing support services, capacity building, and referral systems.
• Collaborate with and refer cases to government agencies, NGOs, and other service providers.
• Combat various forms of abuse against women, particularly senior citizens, women with disabilities, and marginalized groups.
• Lead community advocacy efforts to eradicate VAW, alongside other assigned related tasks.

Download here a copy of the DILG’s Memorandum Circular on the Guidelines on the Operationalization of the Barangay VAW desk.

Divorce as a course of action; yet…
Divorce in the PhilippinesI believe that for certain married individuals, both divorce and annulment are viable solutions. However, deciding whether to pursue a divorce is always a deeply personal and serious decision.

Regardless of their reasons for avoiding divorce, such as staying for the sake of their children or due to religious convictions, these reasons should not be judged by others as right or wrong.

Just because your favorite celebrity or a popular influencer vouches for or against divorce does not mean they are right. Use your own truth (i.e., situation) as your compass to make decisions. And need I say more that you can pray for guidance?

Every decision an individual makes is a step towards learning life’s lessons and discovering the meaning of their existence.

Similarly, this discussion on divorce fails to address the sector that resorts to cohabitation due to a variety of factors, including personal choice, ignorance of the pros and cons of marriage, and financial constraints preventing them from affording the associated costs (of a wedding).

The enactment of divorce laws might reinforce the notion that marriage or Kasal is merely a piece of paper, leading some to question why they should get married in the first place and thus resort to cohabitation.

My plea

In our discussion of divorce in the Philippines, we should also focus on strengthening the VAWC and reaching into the corners of society where marginalized sectors suffer silently from domestic abuse.

May we educate the entire community, including police enforcers, both male and female; barangay officials and councilors; and all individuals, including teenagers, about domestic abuse. It’s crucial that everyone understands what constitutes abuse, the various situations that qualify as abusive, the importance of remaining vigilant against it, the options available to victims for seeking help, the legal implications, and the lawful punishments for perpetrators. Furthermore, we must ensure that victims can readily access assistance without facing judgment from community leaders.

May we advocate for the Department of Education (DepEd) and the House of Congress to prioritize the inclusion of education on domestic abuse in the academic curriculum, rather than focusing solely on implementing the mandatory Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) to discipline the youth and instill character.

Side Notes: As the Department of National Defense (DND) officer-in-charge, Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr, once stated, “the (proposed enhanced) ROTC program would allow trainees to beef up their resilience and character and will include courses that are specifically designed to foster resilience, self-leadership, character-building, and discipline.”7

If that was true, then why is it that…

In light of various incidents involving military personnel and domestic violence, it appears that disciplinary measures centered solely on military values may fall short in fostering a sense of responsibility towards family members.

The prevalence of accusations and convictions of domestic violence, child abuse, and partner assault among military personnel underscores this concern. These occurrences prompt reflection on the efficacy of disciplinary approaches within the military. I conclude with these observations.



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