What’s the biggest factor behind divorce in India?

November 2, 2016

Childlessness is the biggest factor for divorce in India while religious stereotyping for social practices such as polygamy can be misleading, studies and Census data show

Roshan Kishore

After the Central government has made clear its opposition to triple talaq among Muslims in an ongoing case in the Supreme Court, the debate around a uniform civil code (UCC) has once again gathered momentum in the country.

Broadly speaking, there are three camps on the whole issue: those who support practices like triple talaq and nikah halala (which forces a Muslim women to consummate marriage with another man before remarrying her divorced husband), like the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board; those who oppose such practices as being un-Islamic but are against imposition of a UCC; and those who want a UCC in place of different personal laws.

Given that the legal and political debate around the UCC is likely to continue for some time, Mint has looked at some statistics and research on divorce in India.

First, census data shows that polygamy among men is not a phenomenon which is restricted to Muslims alone, an impression which is often drawn because of practices like triple talaq under the Muslim Personal Law.

Census data gives the number of currently married male and female population by religious groups. The data shows that the number of currently married women is greater than currently married men among all religious groups. In a world where one man marries one woman, the discrepancy is difficult to explain.

To be sure, it could have been argued that intra-religious mismatch among number of married men and women is a result of inter-religious marriages. However, the overall difference in the number of married women and men, more than 6.5 million, shows that polygamy exists among men in the country. A similar exercise with state-wise data is likely to give misleading results because sex-skewed migration can produce distorted outcomes.

Census data on divorce also shows that Muslims do not have the highest share of divorced women among all religious groups in the country. While Muslims have a higher share of divorced women than Hindus and the all-India average, Christians and Buddhists have a much higher share of divorced women in their population.

Another interesting statistic which emerges is when we club together the categories of divorced and separated women—the latter category represents women who are living separately from their husbands despite the fact that they have not had a legal divorce.

Once the share of separated women in total population of women is added to the share of divorced women, the Hindu-Muslim gap becomes much smaller. This suggests that while the Hindu law does not allow men to easily terminate their marriages, they might be abandoning them without taking recourse to a legal route such as divorce.

The above data tells us that marital break-up patterns in India do not fit into the common religious stereotyping of Muslims being the community with highest divorces.

Having said this, there are other discernible patterns which can be seen among divorced women in India.

For example a 2016 research paper by Premchand Dommaraju, an assistant professor of sociology at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, has used unit level data from District Level Health Survey-3 (DLHS-3) conducted in 2007-08 to analyse the various factors which could lead to divorce or separation (for a period of more than one year) among women.

The analysis, presented in the form of odds ratio, shows that women with characteristics such as no living sons or no children have a higher probability of facing divorce in comparison with those who have at least one living son. Similarly, women whose husbands have a lower level of education face a higher risk of divorce or separation in comparison with others.

What explains the prevalence of more stable marriages among the relatively better-off in India? While the data suggests that divorce rates have been increasing with time in India, there is some research to suggest that poorer societies have much less stigma associated with remarriage for both men and women.

For example, a 2016 paper based on study of slum clusters in south Delhi by sociologist Shalini Grover shows that remarriage among men and women is neither uncommon nor a taboo among poorer people. Many times, the decisions are driven by practical concerns such as a widowed/single father looking for childcare or a married woman seeking to escape from a violent marriage. While the police is regularly involved to mediate or procure proof of abdication (in the form of complaints), which is often used for remarriage, prohibitive costs keep most away from legal recourse. Grover cites case-histories where even after remarriage, men and women have gone back to live with their earlier partners.

In these pages see here and here, we have also pointed out the gender inequality on questions of marriage and remarriage in the country. Reading the statistics on divorce which have been cited above, along with those in the earlier stories, underlines the point that marital hierarchies in India are too complex to be ascribed to one particular religion or set of laws. Of course, this is not to suggest that vested interests that advocate regressive laws such as triple talaq should continue to be placated.