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KUALA LUMPUR, March 3 ― Civil servant Jamilah Baharuddin (not her real name) and her husband divorced in 2012 after 12 long years of conflict with his family who did not approve of their marriage.
The 35-year-old woman, who earns about RM6,500 a month, says they likely would not have split up if she wasn’t working because she would have been forced to rely on her husband to support her and their three children financially.
“That’s one of the reasons why a lot of Malay women in rural areas are scared to step forward and get a divorce when they are abused ― they can’t survive without their husband’s assistance,” Jamilah told The Malay Mail Online recently.
The number of divorces in Malaysia has more than doubled in just eight years from 2004. In 2012, a whopping 56,760 divorces were recorded, which is equivalent to a marriage breaking down every 10 minutes.
According to statistics provided by the Syariah Judiciary Department Malaysia (JKSM), the number of Muslim couples getting divorced rose by 2.3 times from 20,916 in 2004 to 47,740 in 2012, and to 49,311 last year.
The number of non-Muslim marriages, however, broke down at a slightly higher rate from 3,291 divorces in 2004, increasing by 2.7 times to 9,020 cases in 2012, the most recent year where statistics are available from the Statistics Department.
While couples are increasingly splitting up, the number of marriages, however, are also going up.
A total of 112,262 Muslim couples tied the knot in 2004, a number that has risen steadily in general over the years to 148,806 marriages in 2012, according to the Department of Islamic Development Malaysia (Jakim).
But the pattern for non-Muslim marriages is more erratic.
A total of 57,530 non-Muslim couples got married in 2004, a number that declined the following year, after which the figure rose and fell until 65,993 marriages were registered in 2012.
The Statistics Department, however, does not have the marriage or divorce rate per population.
In the United States, the divorce rate more than doubled from 1940 to 1981, before plunging by a third in 2009 when the 18-month recession ended June that year, according to a report by Bloomberg last month.
As the economy improved, however, the number of divorces in America increased for the third year in a row to about 2.4 million in 2012, said the business newswire.
In Singapore, the crude divorce rate dipped slightly to 1.9 divorces per 1,000 residents in 2012 from 2.0 in 2011, according to a report by Today Online last July.
Most of the four syarie and family lawyers The Malay Mail Online interviewed recently said that the rising divorce rate is due to women becoming more financially independent.
“With the rat race, better education, economic independence, influence of multimedia and the women having access to legal advice, and better understanding of the laws, they know their rights and they are not as tolerant as the last generation was,” said syarie lawyer Rafie Mohd Shafie.
He said that based on his observation, marriages generally last between five and 10 years before breaking down.
Family lawyer Honey Tan similarly said women are now more aware of their rights, but pointed out that the law still discriminates against women as they generally end up with a lesser share, especially homemakers, when matrimonial assets are divided during a civil divorce.
“In the past when women were uneducated or poorly educated, getting married was just about the only option open to them to survive,” said Tan.
Tan added that although the Law Reform (Marriage and Divorce) Act 1976 takes into account the non-monetary contributions of women who quit their jobs to look after their children, their husband will always receive a greater share of matrimonial assets in a divorce.
“The ability of men to earn income is still valued more than the ability of women to look after the home and the family, especially the children,” said the lawyer.
Datuk Dr Shamsul Amri Baharuddin, an anthropologist from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM), said that the stress of modern life in the city is one of the factors behind the rising divorce rate.
“Financial instability will cause a lot of problems,” he said.
Another university lecturer trained in anthropology, Dr Julian Hopkins, observed that a rising divorce rate in general is linked to industrialisation, pointing to women’s increased financial independence and greater social acceptance of divorce.
“Over the second half of the 20th century, there is a correlation between more women being in the labour force and more divorces,” Hopkins told The Malay Mail Online.
Sisters in Islam (SIS) programme manager Suri Kempe noted that there is increasing pressure for Muslim youth to marry young in order to legalise sex.
“Many get married because they are in love with the partner and pressure from parents and relatives, but without fully understanding the implication of marriage,” the Muslim women’s rights activist told The Malay Mail Online.
Suri also pointed out that Muslim women often face difficulties when they initiate divorce, while Muslim men can easily divorce their wives outside the court.
“This is substantiated by a 2005 study by Jabatan Kehakiman Syariah Malaysia which reveals that states that apply low fines to divorces outside of court have a high frequency of ‘pengesahan cerai’ (validation of divorce when pronounced without the court’s permission),” said Suri.
“The existing Islamic Family Law must be amended, with a return to the original 1984 provision that mandated divorce take place only in court,” added the programme manager with the Muslim women’s rights group that handles 50 divorce cases every month through its legal clinic.