In Depth

Countries where divorce is illegal

England and Wales introduce less strict divorce laws, but ending an unhappy marriage is still not possible everywhere in the world

New divorce legislation to be introduced in England and Wales will allow couples to dissolve their marriage more easily, ending the need for one person to be held responsible for the breakdown.

The current law requires one spouse to prove the other is at fault by way of adultery, desertion or unreasonable behaviour. If both parties want out, they can formally divorce after a two-year separation - but if one spouse refuses to agree to the divorce, their partner faces a five-year wait to officially dissolve the union.

The reformed laws will only require one person to state that the marriage has broken down irretrievably, with the other partner no longer able to delay divorce proceedings.  

Campaigners for the reforms have argued that the current laws are outdated and unfair. However, the option of ending an unhappy marriage is still not available everywhere in the world.

Where is divorce illegal?

Today, divorce is only illegal in two states; the Philippines and the Vatican City. In the latter, a city-state within Italy which is home to a few hundred celibate Catholic priests, laws against divorce are little more than an ideological gesture. But the same cannot be said for the Philippines, where campaigners are desperately fighting for a legal path for citizens to escape unhappy marriages.

Over 80% of the Philippines’ population is Roman Catholic, “and the church has a powerful influence in the country,” according to the BBC. The country’s Muslim minority is allowed to divorce, in accordance with Sharia law, but for the majority, there is no such opportunity.

Situations which are commonly grounds for divorce in other countries - including physical abuse, desertion or cruelty - are only grounds for a legal separation under Philippines law, a status which prevents either spouse from remarrying.

According to the Philippine Statistic Authority, one in four married women in the country has been assaulted by their partner, and “spousal violence is the most common form of violence experienced by women ages 15 and 49,” ABC reports.

“Women, even if they're in an abusive relationship where their husbands would batter them, even if their husbands are drunkards or are alcoholic or engage in extramarital affairs, even if they do drugs - their wives are unable to dissolve the marriages,” Clara Padilla, executive director of Manila-based nonprofit EnGendeRights, told NPR.

Marriages may be ended through annulment, which requires a civil case in which a judge decides whether or not to declare the marriage invalid.

An annulment requires proof that one spouse was “psychologically incapacitated” or under threat of force at the time of marriage, and that they have not freely chosen to live as man and wife at any point since. Other accepted grounds for annulment include serious deception - for example, an undisclosed drug addiction - diagnosis of an incurable sexually transmitted disease or irreversible impotence.

Annulment cases can take up to ten years, and even the quickest proceedings produce legal fees equivalent to about 50% of the average Filipino worker’s annual income - meaning it simply is not an option for poorer families. 

Adultery is also criminalised in the Philippines, with married women able to face up to six years in jail, and men up to four.

What other unusual divorce laws remain around the world?

Saudi Arabia passed a law in January requiring courts to make sure a woman is notified via text message in the event of a divorce ruling ending her marriage.

This was passed to combat “secret divorces,” a practice allowing men to divorce their wives without their knowledge. It also ensures alimony rights and prevents powers of attorney from being misused. 

In Japan, a woman is required to wait six months after a divorce before she remarries. Men, on the other hand, have no necessary waiting time.  

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