A woman’s right to identity
Last Tuesday, the House of Representatives committee on population and family relations approved unanimously (on a vote of 12-0) a substitute bill reinstating divorce as an alternative mode for the dissolution of marriage. While for now the Philippines is one of only two countries in the world (the other being the Vatican) where there is no divorce, it wasn’t always so. In 1917, absolute divorce was made legal here, replacing Spanish civil laws that only allowed relative divorce or legal separation. But the divorce law was repealed in 1950 after the passage of the Civil Code, so the only allowed regime to legally end a marriage these days is a declaration of nullity, which is both tedious and expensive.
“Spouses, especially wives, will soon have the option of getting out of an irremediably broken marriage and get a new lease on life,” said Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman, one of the principal authors of the measure. The Gabriela party list added that couples will now have a chance to free themselves from a toxic and abusive relationship to begin life anew.
But while Filipinos wait for the eventual passage of the divorce bill into law, women (as well as legislators and the courts) are making progress in the fight for equal rights on other fronts. Despite it already being a reality in law, a proposal that would allow married women to retain and use their maiden surnames has just been approved by the House on second reading. Authored by Manila Rep. Edward Vera Maceda, the measure was approved through “via voce” or voice voting on March 14, a day after the ceremonial and symbolic turnover of leadership roles in the House to women representatives as part of the celebration of Women’s Month.
Once the proposal is enacted, the New Civil Code of the Philippines would be amended, which would allow a married woman to use her maiden first name and surname (Maria dela Cruz), her maiden first name and surname plus her husband’s surname (Maria dela Cruz Santos), her maiden first name and her husband’s surname (Maria Santos), or her husband’s full name, but prefixing it with a word indicating that she is his wife, such as “Mrs.” (Mrs. Jose Santos).
As explained, Filipino women assume that once they marry, they must change their last name. But the Civil Code says otherwise, with women always having had the option to opt for any of the previously mentioned alternatives. The Supreme Court also said that a married woman is not prohibited from using her full maiden name, so long as she changes her civil status from single to married.
Despite the established policy, however, not many government offices, health establishments, and other institutions are aware of this. Some mothers, according to a parenting Facebook group, were forced to adopt their husband’s surnames by circumstances. In some cases, employees in government agencies have been reported to automatically change a woman’s last name to that of her husband in their records because she is married. This is one instance when social and personal mores dictate government policies and practices, with civil servants “enforcing” these mores despite laws that discourage or are neutral on them.
Many employees and officials, even in private firms, still seem unprepared to acknowledge or recognize the legal status of a married woman who prefers to use her maiden name. For instance, if a woman wants to add her husband as a dependent on her health maintenance organization (HMO), she is often required to update her surname to that of her husband, even if it’s declared on the marriage certificate that they are married to each other. Banks, too, have a lot of questions if a married woman continues using her maiden name in transactions.
A woman’s right to use her maiden name, (and thus assert her identity) even after marriage, is just one aspect of the continuing struggle for true equality between women and men in the eyes of the law and in practice. One wonders how much more complicated it would be if and when divorce is legalized in this country. The arena, it seems, is much broader than the halls of Congress and the premises of the courts. Much more reforms are needed in the real battlefield of minds and hearts, and practicality.
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