Understanding the rise in divorce in Bangladesh
A divorce takes place every hour in Dhaka. This was one of the startling findings in an exclusive report published by Prothom Alo recently. The report states that in the last seven years, the divorce rate application has increased by a massive 34 percent throughout the country according to data compiled by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS). "At least 50,000 divorce applications were filed in Dhaka North and South City Corporations in the past six years, which means on average one divorce application was filed every hour," the report reads. In Chittagong City Corporation, already 2,532 applications have been filed during January-July of this year.
For the inquisitive mind, these findings could provide for a very interesting case study. Does this trend signal that a major societal change is under way? Is it a manifestation of attitudinal or behavioural changes towards marriage? If so, does this shift in attitude have a relationship with something much bigger? Could the changing socioeconomic structure of Bangladeshi society have a role in all this?
The answer to the first two questions will vary depending on who you ask. I have come across some who see it as an indicator of female empowerment. Then there are those who believe that this trend demonstrates the eroding sanctity of the institution of marriage as a whole (which, I believe, could be true to an extent but it's harder to "prove" this claim).
Going back to BBS' findings, in Chittagong City Corporation and the two city corporations of Dhaka, the majority of applications being filed were by women. While the most common reason for divorce has been found to be marital conflict, what's more intriguing are the differences in reasons cited by men and women for seeking a divorce. For women, the most common reasons were their husband's suspicious nature, extramarital relations, dowry, husband never returning home after going overseas, drug addiction, Facebook addiction, impotence, and personality clash, among others. On the other hand, the most common reasons cited by men were wives not leading lives according to Islamic rules, bad temper, indifference towards the family, disobeying their husband and infertility.
A cursory glance at the most common reasons cited by women lends some legitimacy to the claim that the rising trend of divorce, as more and more women are initiating divorce and seeking a way out of their marriage, is an indicator of empowerment. Today, women are less willing to remain in an unhappy marriage where the husband is constantly suspicious of the wife, is having an affair, or is physically torturing or mentally abusing the wife for dowry.
The taboos against divorce are still intact in many parts of the country, particularly in rural areas, where a divorced woman is associated with disgrace and shame. But it could be argued that the prejudices attached to divorcees are withering away, albeit gradually, in places like Dhaka where modernisation is giving way to people shedding their conservative attitudes. This shift in attitudes is likely part of a broader societal change brought about by an increased number of women attaining higher education and their absorption into the labour force. As a woman's decision-making role in the private sphere has begun to be recognised, so too has her right to end a marriage. The combination of a growing societal acceptance of divorce and women's realisation of their own rights has a big role to play.
Women's economic independence stands as one of the most crucial factors—not just in Bangladesh but around the world where we see similar trends in divorce. Women's participation rate in the labour force in Bangladesh has increased by eight times in the last four decades—from four percent in 1974 to 35.6 percent in 2016. It is true that much of Bangladeshi women's increased freedom in their personal lives today has to do with their financial independence: less dependence on the spouse for money means there's less of a need to remain tied to an abusive marriage.
In a paper titled "The Connection between the Family Cycle and Divorce Rates: An Analysis Based on European Data" published in 1974, the author looks at how industrialisation, urbanisation and rise in educational levels affect phases of the family cycle. The findings of the study, gleaned from data of European countries, hold a lot of relevance for industrialising countries even today where family cycles and roles of men and women are undergoing transformation. One of the findings is related to women's increased participation in the labour force which, as the author interestingly and astutely puts it, is due to the "professionalisation" of many tasks leading to a "separation of the private and the occupational spheres…Through more and more tasks being taken away from the family and professionalised, the area of women's tasks within the family has become considerably restricted. It thus becomes possible that the woman, deprived of her formerly abundant tasks, leaves the intrafamily sphere and goes out to work." Women's absorption into the labour force combined with a rise in life expectancy and decrease in the number of children was found to have a positive relationship with divorce rates.
However, a word of caution is necessary—and let's not jump to generalised conclusions. The above BBS data—which gives us a glimpse into marriage and divorce scenarios in urban and rural areas—does not give nearly enough information needed to analyse, for example, region-wise trends: what proportion of divorces taking place in urban and rural areas are due to marital conflict, torture, etc. Could it be that more urban women are filing for divorce on grounds of marital conflict while in far-flung rural areas more women are divorcing their husband alleging torture or physical violence or due to abandonment by their husband? An analysis that looks at the socioeconomic status and the reasons for divorce of individual couples could shed much light on the contrasting views men and women from different strata of society have on divorce. Given the frequency with which we are bombarded by headlines of women being tortured or killed for dowry—violence against women being so deeply embedded in society—especially in rural pockets of the country, we would perhaps be surprised to find the number of women filing for divorce on grounds of physical violence despite being financially dependent on their spouse.
Furthermore, the prevalence of child marriage in Bangladesh presents an unfortunate paradox: on one hand, girls as young as 15 (and even younger) are being forced into marriage while, on the other, more women are seemingly choosing to leave their marriage of their own volition. Just a thought: could there be women filing for divorce (included in BBS' statistics) who were victims of child marriage? In that case, isn't it true that divorce, for a woman who was coerced into marriage at an early age, represents a symbol of liberation as she is the one who took the decision to leave the marriage?
The way we look at and talk about divorce should be nuanced. True, age-old notions about divorce are slowly being shed. And women's higher decision-making power derived from their economic freedom is a major reason. But let's also start talking about the ways in which divorce can be prevented. A rising trend in divorce also means that there are increasing disruptions in familial harmony— a painful experience and a source of severe trauma for children that can have lifelong effects. Existing awareness campaigns such as those against violence against women and dowry—two big reasons behind women seeking a divorce in Bangladesh—could take on these findings to drive home their message. Extensive research that takes into account the social complexities of Bangladesh and resulting disaggregated data could also prove to be very useful in understanding the deeper causes behind the rise in divorce and the ways to prevent it.
Nahela Nowshin is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.