Divorce's Rise in Emerging Economies Helps Women Get Ahead

What’s the best way to help the status of women in the developing world? Give them the power to divorce their husbands
Photo illustration by Crash!; Photograph by Getty Images

A little-noticed trend is spreading in many of the world’s emerging economies: More and more people are getting divorced. Outside of North America, Europe, and Oceania, two-thirds of the countries for which the United Nations has data saw rising divorce rates from 2007 to 2011. According to the UN, the divorce rate in Mexico has climbed from 0.3 to 0.8 per thousand people since the late 1970s. In Brazil, where ending a marriage was illegal just 30 years ago, the divorce rate is now about 1.4 per thousand people. Rates have climbed dramatically in China, Thailand, Iran, and South Korea, which has seen more than a fivefold increase in divorces over the past few decades.

In Western countries such as the U.S., which has a divorce rate of 3.6 per thousand people, the prevalence of divorce is most often viewed as a regrettably common fact of life; evidence suggests it can be a factor in juvenile crime and declining child welfare. In Asia, Africa, and Latin America, however, divorce is both an indicator of and force behind social changes that have improved prospects for women, reduced gender inequality, and fueled development. All of which suggests that the more people are able to get out of bad marriages, the better off their societies are likely to be.

Many of the same countries with rising divorce rates have also experienced significant economic development in recent years. Take China, Thailand, and South Korea—all have seen increasing numbers of divorces alongside impressive social progress. South Korea is now a member of the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development club of rich countries. In 1990 about 3 percent of China’s college-aged kids were enrolled in university; today that number is 27 percent. Thailand’s infant mortality rate is about one-third of what it was in 1989.

How might rising divorce rates be linked to these gains? There’s evidence that policies that give women in developing countries more options in their marriages also lead to more productive households. Neha Kumar and Agnes Quisumbing of the International Food Policy Research Institute examined a recent change in Ethiopia’s divorce law to require equal division of assets. They surveyed women to see if their perceptions about what would happen to marital assets had changed as a result of the law. Those who correctly understood their improved legal position didn’t report themselves any more satisfied with life, but they did see themselves as more in control of their destinies. In addition, their children—especially their girls—were more likely to complete school.

The more common divorce becomes in a given society, the less damaging it’s likely to be for those individuals who pursue it. Research by Matthijs Kalmijn suggests divorce causes greater unhappiness in social settings where it’s rare. In the U.K., according to economists Andrew Clark and Yannis Georgellis, the period before a divorce is associated with low life satisfaction, but the period after it is comparatively satisfactory, especially for women. And if mothers escape an abusive relationship, it’s good for their children, too.

In the developing world, increased divorce has mirrored improvement in measures of gender equality. When it comes to education, women are catching up with men worldwide in the number of years they stay in school. The proportion of parliamentary seats held by women has climbed in every region of the globe since 1990—in South Asia, the proportion has tripled (although it’s still only 1 in 5). One hundred and eighty-seven countries have ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. (The U.S. hasn’t done so, because the Senate is allergic to any treaty with the words “United Nations” in the title.) According to the UN, 139 constitutions worldwide guarantee gender equality and 115 countries specifically guarantee equal property rights.

Divorce itself is a signal of changing norms. In Brazil, the Rede Globo channel broadcasts a slate of soap operas that feature powerful female leads who work, make investment decisions, and commit infidelities as frequently as their male counterparts. During the 1970s and ’80s, as Rede Globo’s reach expanded across the country, the divorce rate went up while fertility rates went down, according to researchers from the Inter-American Development Bank. The soap operas helped create new opinions among Brazilians about what they should expect out of a relationship: Some women decided to have fewer kids; others looked for a fresh start. That sense of empowerment has been associated with lower maternal mortality, higher levels of education (especially among girls), and greater economic opportunity for one-half of the country’s population.

There’s still a long way to go when it comes to both legal and practical equality between the sexes. For instance, 127 countries do not explicitly criminalize rape within marriage, and one-third of countries lack laws against domestic violence. One-third of the world’s women have been victims of violence at the hands of their partners, according to the World Health Organization. The relationship between women’s overall empowerment and rates of domestic abuse is complicated. In a recent study in Bangladesh, women with more power in household decision-making were found to be more at risk of abuse. But in the Philippines, household surveys suggest domestic violence is highest when women’s authority at home is low, with the relationship reversing as decision-making between husbands and wives becomes more balanced.

The transition to more equal gender relations can be painful. But that’s all the more reason why countries should make it more straightforward, not less, for women to leave their husbands. The experience of countries that simplified divorce some time ago shows that giving women the option to divorce can empower them to improve a bad marriage. In 1969, Governor Ronald Reagan of California (later America’s first divorced president) signed America’s first no-fault divorce law. Similar laws spread across the U.S. and much of the industrial world.

Research by former Stanford University economist Justin Wolfers suggests that although no-fault laws didn’t result in more divorces, they did make the option of a split with fair division of assets much more straightforward, changing the nature of the relationship between husbands and wives who were still together. In research with his partner Betsey Stevenson (the newest member of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers), Wolfers also found that no-fault divorce caused a significant drop in the number of women committing suicide and a reduction in domestic violence.

Recent trends in the West suggest that the spike in broken marriages in the developing world may be temporary—and that as men and women in those societies become more equal, divorce rates will begin to fall. While divorce rates approximately doubled in the U.S. from the 1960s to the ’80s, more recently the rate of divorce and annulment per thousand people has fallen from 4 in 2001 to 3.6 in 2011—a 10 percent decline in 10 years. Similar reverses have occurred in many parts of Europe.

We should only infrequently celebrate the end of a marriage. But having the option to divorce—with legal provisions for child care and the division of assets—is beneficial. Giving more women everywhere that right may ultimately ensure that more couples stay together in healthy, productive, and equal relationships. The best way for policymakers the world over to reduce the number of failed marriages is to make it easier to get out of them.

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