Glancing at divorce data in India, it’s amazing how low the divorce rate is in the country. For many years, India has had one of the world’s lowest ten divorce rates, with western countries continuing to see high and rising rates. In the United States, for instance, numerous studies are being conducted on how a high level of divorce affects the economy, the children of divorce, the emotional state of all the parties involved, the common perception of marriage and family, and many other things.
While social scientists try hard to figure out why certain states repeatedly feature higher divorce rates than others, the Indian family seems to remain perfectly stable and not subject to all these factors and incendiary issues. But as the saying goes: “99 percent of the statistics tell 49 percent of the story”, so Onlinedivorce.com – a website which provides inexpensive and easy online preparation of divorce papers – tried to sort out why this is happening. Why is the divorce rate in India so low, and does a low level of divorce always mean a high level of family wellbeing? We took an in-depth and nuanced look into the issue.
Divorce in the East vs. in the West
Let’s start by comparing the history of divorce in the US and India. In the US, divorce has been a legal institution since the 19th century. However, like marriage, divorce has always been under the jurisdiction of state governments – not the federal government. As a result, a given state might have stricter or more lenient rules compared to others. The concept of no-fault divorce (one that is not caused by adultery, desertion, or bigamy) has primarily been a topic of feminist discourse; since women did not have equal rights in finding employment or choosing their own way of life, marriage was more a matter of survival than personal happiness for them. Every time women were given more rights, the issue of the right to divorce was brought up in society.
But it was only in the 1960’s, with the emergence of second-wave feminism and work from the National Association of Women Lawyers, that the formation and adoption of no-fault divorce law became possible. In 1969, California became the first state to adopt this law and allow divorce based on the wishes of the spouses, without mandatory accusation and evidence of the spouse’s fault.
At almost the same time, and also connected with the feminist movement and theory, the landmark Hindu Code Bill passed thousands of miles away in India’s parliament. Women were given property rights, polygamy was outlawed, and, finally, the right to divorce was recognized. In India, the path from recognition of divorce to recognition of no-fault divorce (one that does not require guilt from a side) turned out to be much shorter – no-fault divorce was allowed about 20 years later.
Nevertheless, Indian women still had to face the same difficulties as American women in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Although divorce had become officially recognized, it remained stigmatized in society. Data on the divorce rate in India is based on the national census, which allows citizens to mark their status as “never married,” “separated,” “divorced,” “widowed,” or “married”, and it’s worth noting that separation is more popular than divorce in the country. The number of people separated is almost three times higher than the number of people divorced. Along with that, some women tend to conceal separation or divorce because of the stigma attached to their status.
Love marriage vs. Arranged marriage
According to the recent census, about 0.25% of the total married population in India are divorced (about 1.36 million people). This figure is negligible compared to the US or Europian countries, but it has, in fact, grown since India’s numbers in the ’80s.
Rapid upticks in divorce rates (in our case, India) cause heated debate in society. Is this something that we should be worried about? Does it mean that the stable nuclear Indian family is going through hard times? Does it mean that the influence of Western tendencies is negatively affecting the happiness of Indian citizens and the worldview of the younger generation?
For most of its history, Indian society relied on traditional ideas about the family, and even the adoption of no-fault divorce law and the advent of globalization did not greatly change the standard way of life. As we know, there are two types of marriage in India – “arranged marriage” and “love marriage”. An arranged marriage implies that the elders, well, arrange the marriage for young people, picking out a suitable partner for their son or daughter. Love marriage, on the other hand, means that the future spouses meet by themselves and build their relationship gradually – the much more familiar scenario for a western audience.
For young people in India, though, arranged marriage is by no means equal to forced marriage. According to recent surveys, about 75 percent of young Indians are not only loyal to but even prefer arranged marriages, entrusting the choice of their future spouse to their families, trusting their connections and so on. Most respondents who are in arranged marriages emphasize that though the marriage was arranged, they willingly agreed to it, and just a small segment of respondents say they had no choice but to agree.
From a psychological point of view, this really can work if one grows up observing how things are done from parents, relatives, friends, etc. And vice versa, something uncharacteristic for our society tends to scare us, and we react on an emotional level. For those who were brought up in a society where arranged marriage is rare or nonexistent, chances are the concept of arranged marriage seems strange, and someone who argues for or imposes this option (parent, future spouse, etc.) automatically seems like a threat to your freedom of choice. We suspect that there must be a certain motive that is inducing, for example, your parents, to depart from the norm adopted in your society, as well as some reason why they are not willing to trust you with this decision.
That is to say, what makes arranged marriage so alarming to a western audience is not always its rational inconsistency, but the fact that it is marginal and foreign. Not there aren’t rational arguments against arranged marriage, of course – there are.
With this in mind, it is not surprising that in India, where arranged marriage is the norm, it is perceived primarily as the elders’ concern about the future of the family, the formation of close ties and social networks in the complexly organized Indian community. It is not seen as a threat to freedom.
When an increasing divorce rate is for the good
So, it seems that the reason for the rising divorce rate in India does not lie in rejection of traditions – traditional Indian arranged marriage and the nuclear family are still preferable amongst the country’s population. The reason is also not in the arranged marriages themselves, because the fact that marriage is arranged does not make it forced and doomed to failure.
Here it is worth remembering one simple truth – every case, every couple, every family is unique. It does not matter under what rules, traditions and believes it is built on; what’s important is the freedom that both parties have when the marriage is irretrievably broken (in the eyes of the husband or wife, or both of them), the freedom to leave.
Conservative supporters of the nuclear family often complain about the growing tolerance of divorce in Indian society and present the country’s consistently low divorce rates as a clear indicator of the happiness of Indian families. However, there is a significant difference between a) sincere appreciation for the institution of marriage, and trying to save that when it makes sense, and b) staying in an abusive marriage just because choosing otherwise would make your life much more difficult. And unfortunately, the second scenario is still likely in India.
Speaking of abusive marriages, 50,000 cases of domestic violence are registered annually in India (and this is just the officially registered cases, and doesn’t include cases of non-physical violence). The percentage of people who have been punished for cruelty to their wives under article 498 A of the IPC is staggering — it’s only around two out of 100 accused.
At the same time, the number of women who stated their status in the census as “divorced” or “separated” is much greater than the number of men. This could be because it is much more difficult for women to remarry after a divorce. The difficulty, in turn, may be an indirect reason why many Indian women are in no hurry to stop unsuccessful marriages. But one way or another, we can see evidence of the stigmatization of divorce, and especially of how it negatively affects women.
Given the population in India and the size of the country, of course, divorce rates vary greatly from region to region. And there are always multiple factors that account for fluctuations in the divorce rate, but in India, the issue of women’s rights is definitely one of the leaders. In the more patriarchal northern states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan or Haryana, divorce rates are much lower than in the north-eastern states where women have relatively higher status. Women in these regions have more opportunities, more life choices, and this is correlated with a higher divorce rate.
This is not, in our view, evidence of any “evil influence” of Westernization that conservative citizens like to mention. People are different, and even the same person over time is different, so a zero divorce rate would seem rather suspicious in a society where the rights of both spouses are honored not just on paper. Imagine if you ran a big tech company, and over the first month, not a single user made a complaint about the service. This would seem suspicious.
Therefore, if divorce rates are rising nowadays because women are finally standing up for themselves – that rise is for the good. Every country should determine its own “real” divorce rate, which can not be zero. But who knows – perhaps in India, it would still be relatively low. If so, it would be low because of the true wellbeing of Indian families, and not because of restrictions and stigma.