Divorce rates globally have seen a monumental rise, and India too has witnessed the occurrence of this phenomenon as well. But compared to global statistics, there are still fewer divorces in India. India has one of the lowest divorce rates globally, estimated to be around 1.1%. While a majority of divorces worldwide are initiated by women, in India, men initiate most divorces. All the same, divorces initiated by women are now rising significantly.
While India’s divorce rates are relatively lower, the numbers have doubled over the past two decades, according to a United Nations report. The popular response to this has generally been negative. The consensus seems to be that this is symptomatic of eroding familial values, an adoption of Western ideas regarding marriage, and is a threat to the family unit and the wellbeing of children.
But in reality, higher divorce rates are good because they indicate easier access to divorce and socio-economic progress. Getting a divorce in India has always been an uphill battle because of legal, social, and economic barriers – especially so for women. Women still face rampant social ostracisation if they are divorced, as do their children.
Further, the nature of marriage in India is such that getting a divorce can have severe familial consequences. India’s low divorce rate is regularly thought of as a testament to the effectiveness of the arranged marriage system. But the truth of the matter is that in an arranged marriage when families are deeply involved, getting a divorce can be a tall order because of a lack of support and active resistance from the families.
Women also often lack the financial resources to seek a divorce. According to the World Bank, Indian women’s participation in the formal economy is one of the lowest. This means the vast majority of women aren’t financially independent. This makes divorce inaccessible in two important ways; firstly, it makes divorce inaccessible due to the costs associated with retaining a lawyer, and secondly, a lot of women wouldn’t be able to sustain themselves and look after their children after the divorce.
So increase in divorce rates indicates how women’s economic autonomy has improved and the stigma associated with divorce has reduced. Getting a divorce still comes with socio-economic barriers, but while these barriers were insurmountable for nearly all women a few decades ago, this is gradually changing.
Lower divorce rates in the past weren’t an indication of happier marriages, but of fewer options for people in unhappy ones, especially women. Lower divorce rates are wrongly attributed to stronger family values and more arranged marriages in the past. China’s increasing divorce rate is regarded as a sign of women’s social progress.
It is also important that we delve into what family values mean and who carries the burden of it. Often, in patriarchal societies, the onus of making a marriage work and making sacrifices to save a marriage falls squarely on the shoulders of women. Women are expected to diminish themselves, sacrifice any and all autonomy, and even endure domestic violence to save their marriages, for the sake of the family and children.
A lot of the debate surrounding divorce comes down to one thing – children. While studies suggest that having married/co-habiting parents are better for the well-being of children and divorce can be disruptive, this only speaks of children of married/cohabiting parents who are able to provide happy, safe homes. Children who come from unhappy, dysfunctional homes, especially violent ones, fare poorly. Children who are witnesses to domestic violence are at risk of developing long-term or life-long physical and mental health issues. These children are also at greater risk of being abusive in future relationships or of enduring spousal/intimate partner abuse.
While the concept of marriage and family enjoys great reverence, especially in South Asian cultures, they still continue to be the site of inequalities, misogyny, and violence against women. Three billion women globally live in places where marital rape isn’t criminalised. According to the United Nations, women in 19 countries are legally required to obey their husbands.
In India, there continues to be no legislation against marital rape. The National Crime Records Bureau’s data revealed that in 2020, 19 women died each day due to dowry-related violence. Recent NFHS-5 data shows that nearly 30 per cent of women in India have been victims of domestic violence, and this figure is expected to have been much higher if not for severe underreporting. In addition to this, there is the issue of rigid gender roles that women are expected to adhere to in a marriage. Marriages severely limit individual autonomy of women in cultures like ours and also restrict educational and work opportunities, causing economic dependence.
All this makes for great imbalances of power in marriages. Due to the socio-economic status of women within a patriarchy, the power imbalances in a marriage are skewed against women. And when women don’t have any options to leave, especially those in abusive marriages, this power imbalance increases because they are trapped in these relationships with nowhere to go and their abusers know that and use that knowledge to perpetrate more violence against them. Thus, making divorce accessible helps to remedy this power imbalance – at least slightly – by giving women an option to opt out of relationships that are detrimental to their wellbeing.
Although, unsurprisingly, seeking a divorce in the face of domestic violence is still a cause for uproar and is rarely regarded as a valid reason to seek a divorce.
In 2020, when Taapsee Pannu’s Thappad released (which saw a woman seek a divorce after her husband was violent towards her), there was widespread outrage claiming that the movie was breaking up families by presenting divorce as a valid alternative at the first instance of abuse. The film was deemed feminist propaganda and a threat to the very institution of marriage. Women are often expected to endure violence from their partners due to the stigmatisation of divorce and the cultural importance placed on marriage.
Increased divorce rates are an indication of the greater autonomy women enjoy. It’s no surprise then that divorce is viewed as a threat to the social fabric of the country or a demise of the institutions of family and marriage. While the stigma surrounding divorce has undoubtedly reduced, it still hasn’t been eliminated entirely. And this stigma takes on a gendered characteristic. There is greater stigma surrounding divorced women than divorced men.
But access to divorce allows women to seek and pursue increased equality within marriages and remedy power imbalances. They also allow women – and men – to protect themselves and their children from violent spouses and domestic violence. The crux of the matter is – everyone should be able to leave a relationship that is no longer favourable to their wellbeing without facing stigmatisation or ostracisation and increasing divorce rates suggest that we are closer to that ideal.
Akshita Prasad is a writer and student whose work mainly centres around feminism, law, and pop-culture.
Featured image: Glaring man, despairing woman. Credit: Quinn Dombrowski/Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0