China's divorce rates are hitting record highs


During many of my parents arguments, my mother used to say, pointing an accusing finger at my father: Marrying you is the worst thing that happened in my life! Ive always been sympathetic to her since my father was indeed a lazy, feckless and ill-tempered man.

Yet, mother never contemplated divorce since she held the traditional belief of marry a dog, stay with a dog; and marry a rooster, stay with a rooster.

Women in China were only granted the right to divorce in 1950, when the government introduced the New Marriage Law. 

But things are changing in China. In fact, a soundless revolution is playing out. In early November, Zhou Qiang, the president of the Supreme Peoples Court, revealed in a speech that roughly 74 per cent of divorces in China are initiated by women.

I raised a toast with my daughter over the news. I regard it as an achievement in the liberation of Chinese women because they are now more assertive in pursuing what they want. They are no longer willing to put up with an unhappy marriage, the way our mothers did. The trend of women seeking a divorce runs against the traditional culture, where women are expected to stay in a marriage, good or bad.

But the younger generation of Chinese women, the better educated ones in particular, have become more individualistic, more aware of their rights, more daring in pursuing their happiness. And they care less about tradition.

Three years ago, Ye Hong, a 38-year-old artist, divorced her civil servant husband, after an accidental discovery of pornographic images on his computer. She was shocked. Her mother, who had endured her artist husbands numerous affairs, urged her to think about their young son and her dim prospect of remarrying in middle age. But Ye asked for a divorce. I cannot stay with a man for whom Ive lost respect, she said.

Her marriage lasted 13 years. Many unions in China dont last that long. In his speech, Zhou Qiang mentioned that the so-called seven-year itch has become a three-year itch in China as plenty of marriages unravel quickly.

The divorce rate has rocketed in the reform era. The crude divorce rate, which measures the number of separations for every 1,000 people, was only 0.018 per cent in 1978, the year China introduced the reform and opening up policies which have transformed the nation, and has since leapt to 0.320 in 2018, a record high.

The rate accelerated after 2003, when China made the divorce process easier and faster, including scrapping the employers approval requirement. In 2016, 4.2 million couples, mostly urban dwellers, went their separate ways.

As China is growing richer, women have begun to care more about the quality of their marriages. Increased financial independence means they can be the chooser. If her husband is unfaithful or abusive; if she is very unsatisfied with her sex life; or if he falls short of her expectations, she doesnt have to be trapped in the marriage.

Although gradually easing, theres still stigma attached to divorce. My mother never told the neighbours about my divorce, which took place almost 14 years ago. Why should I hang out the dirty laundry? she would say. For her, divorce was a disgrace for the woman and her family. Luckily, these days, her view has become less common and divorce is more tolerated, especially in cities.

The rising number of divorces has apparently upset the authorities. Obsessed with maintaining stability, they see massive numbers of divorces as a destabilising force and have stepped up efforts at curbing the trend.

A female university student in Beijing raises awareness of domestic violence by dressing in a wedding gown and makeup that simulates the effects of physical abuse, on February 14, 2012. China passed its first domestic violence law in 2015, which took effect in March 2016. 

In 2016, the Supreme Peoples Court instructed judges to balance respecting peoples wishes with defending stable families, which, in their view, is the basis for a harmonious society. Last year, local courts introduced methods such as a cooling-off period, free mediation and even a quiz to deter couples from seeking a divorce.

Theres little surprise that more than half of the filed divorce cases were rejected by courts.

The government shouldnt have bothered to interfere. Of course, divorce should never be taken lightly, especially when children are involved. Still, restricting wives from getting out of a bad marriage will reduce womens freedom and agency. In any case, it is a womans civil right, which must be respected. Even if divorce is not good for society, are miserable women better for it?

The fact that women are driving divorce in China is in line with the trajectory of a developing country in the middle of rapid modernisation. In developed nations such as US and Britain, more women file for divorce than men. Its not that terrifying in a modern world, where the types of family have become more diverse.

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