DIVORCE RATE RISES AS MORE WOMEN STOP TOLERATING UNHAPPY, UNFAITHFUL UNIONS
By Lena Fung Warmack
As Taiwan wrestles with the future of its political freedom, the island's women are increasingly making personal declarations of independence -- from unfaithful, uncaring or ungenerous husbands (2004).
In a society that has long placed great importance on marriage, Taiwan's divorce rate is climbing. After South Korea, Taiwan now has the highest divorce rate in Asia -- a sign that as more women enter the workforce, their roles and rights are changing.
Increasingly, these breakups are being initiated by women. Fewer married Taiwanesewomen are tolerating their husbands' extramarital affairs or are willing to live a lifetime with irreconcilable differences. In a society with a tradition of looking the other way at men who have mistresses, more professional women are accepting divorce as a way to get out of unhappy relationships.
"They know their rights. They can live independently, and they don't have to rely on their husbands,'' said Alice Lee, a divorced volunteer at the Taipei branch of the Warm Life Association, a non-profit offering legal services and marriage counseling. "Usually the women come here and have great anger at their husbands, and they even want to divorce first.''
Divorce rate doubles
Experts estimate that about 25 percent to 30 percent of marriages in Taiwan are ending in divorce -- more than double the number just a decade ago. About 60,000 couples divorced this year, 6 percent more than last. Surveys show 61 percent of those splits occurred after less than 10 years of marriage, according to the government's Directorate-General of Budget, Accounting and Statistics.
"The traditional view is once people get married the marriage will last forever,'' said Anny Ko, an associate professor at the Chinese Culture University who has published several studies on divorce. "But this view is changing now. People view divorce as a normal thing. It's getting worse every year.''
Divorce laws in Taiwan have historically favored men, who had exclusive rights to all of their wife's property, including her personal belongings, until 1985, said a family law attorney in Taipei. Today, women have the right to ask for their belongings and joint property.
Women's rights groups are working to simplify divorce laws so couples can dissolve their marriages without having to go to court. Wu Wei-Ting, secretary general for the Awakening Foundation, said her group lobbied for a law to allow couples to have a two-year separation period before a divorce is granted, with the hope that they might reconcile.
For some women, there can be no going back. In Jen Chen's case, her marriage nearly killed her.
Deciding to leave
After 20 years of marriage, Chen, an account manager for a software company, decided she could no longer put up with her husband's infidelity. She wanted out. In July, the 44-year-old mother of two attempted suicide, overwhelmed by the pressure to appear "outstanding'' as a wife, a mother, a daughter-in-law and a career woman.
"I gave him myself. I lost myself. I almost died,'' Chen said, fighting back tears at Warm Life. "I just gave up hope. When I woke up in the hospital, I realized that marriage is not the only purpose that I have.''
She spent three months in the hospital. After her recovery she confronted her husband at his office -- divorce papers in hand. She kept the house, half their assets and receives alimony. He has custody of the children.
It has been a year since her split, and she said she is only now beginning to tell close friends and family about the divorce, because word of their family breakup might affect her ex-husband's professional reputation.
"I had no financial problems, and I knew I had to get out,'' she said. "But even a strong woman like me, I couldn't really walk out at the time. I wanted a new life, I wanted to be independent. But it's harder for a housewife. I don't think most women can do so in an Asian culture.''
Lee noted that, unlike Chen, many women lack the financial means to leave an unhealthy relationship.
Rita Lai found herself in that position. She gave up her career as a sales agent to become a stay-at-home mother for her two children. But her idea of a perfect marriage was shattered when her husband spent more time with his computer than her.
"I was a computer widow. I lost my husband to the computer,'' 40-year-old Lai said with glazed eyes and clasped hands.
She said her marriage of 5 1/2 years ended after she discovered that her husband was having an affair with another Taiwanese woman he met over the Internet. After she confronted him, he reacted by saying their relationship was finished. She got the house and about $75,000 in savings. Today she is a production manager for a Japanese-owned packaging company in Taipei.
"The kids are stable now, and I'm working,'' Lai said. "Now it's OK for us, but I don't know about the future.''
Divorced men feel pressure
Men also are untying the knots of unholy matrimony.
Eric Chu, 42, a health insurance manager, said his first marriage ended after a friend told him his wife was having an affair with a co-worker. Chu said that his seven-year marriage failed because he seldom talked about problems with his wife, and that they were surrounded by family and friends with marital problems.
Chu said that in Taiwan's culture, a failed marriage reflects poorly on a man, because it shows he cannot maintain a family.
"I felt a lot of pressure,'' he said. "I felt my life was meaningless, and I went about my daily business routine like an animal without a purpose in life. My relatives and friends comforted me. I know they thought I was a loser.''
In the divorce, Chu did lose custody of his daughter, a relatively recent phenomenon for Taiwanese men. Before the law was changed eight years ago, men usually received custody.
Although divorce is growing in acceptance in Taiwan, it's still not preferable, especially when it wrecks families, counselors say.
"Even in our society, we don't encourage divorce,'' said Lee of Warm Life. "We still want them to keep the family.''
VICTORY FOR TAIWAN HOUSEWIVES
By Laurence Eyton
Taiwan this week (2002) passed one of the most radical pieces of social legislation perhaps ever passed in an Asian country -- and almost nobody noticed. The blandly named Civil Code Amendment bill makes Taiwan the first country anywhere in the world-- to this reporter's knowledge-- to mandate cash payment for housework.
There was of course more, and less, to the legislation, than that. The aim of the change in the law was really to remedy inequities in the property-holding system that put women at a disadvantage. But it was the pay-for-housework clause which captured the headlines.
Many in Taiwan-- and they are by no means all male-- think that lawmakers should have had better things to do with their time than legislating on issues more usually associated with cranks and the lunatic fringes of feminism.
Others, more thoughtfully, have pointed to the vagaries in the new law and wondered how cases might be brought under it and judgments made using it, and how the results of those judgments might be enforced.
But the new legislation marks another step in an area in which radical change has taken place during the current government's two years in office.
Much of this change has been barely noticed because it is not politically contentious and the object of partisan squabble. But when the humor has subsided, there might yet be a time when the presidency of Chen Shui-bian will be seen as a watershed for the promotion of sexual equality and the reform of a legal system that has long left women, at home and in the workplace, as second-class citizens.
The pay for housework provision is not specifically aimed at women; it is merely that the idea of a househusband in Taiwan is almost unheard of. The law says that a working spouse must pay a sum to a homemaker for the housework he or she does, the sum to be agreed between the two spouses. This sum is exclusively for the non-working spouse to spend as he or she pleases, and is extra to any sum that he or she receives for household expenses. If the couple are unable to agree upon a suitable sum to cover the value of the housework, then they can apply to a court, which will decide the issue.
Critics of the move have said that this gives the court a far too intrusive role in a couples personal affairs.
Supporters of the measure argue that it is up to the couple as to whether they take their disagreement to court in the first place, the judiciary is not forcing itself into their lives. What they think is of greater concern is that penalties for ignoring a court ruling in such cases were deleted from the bill in a committee stage. Supporters of the law are therefore concerned that it might simply create a class of deadbeat scofflaws, working spouses who refuse to pay the homemaker partners their pocket money and ignore a court order to do so.
The new law does not only try to regulate the position of working and stay-at-home spouses. It also stipulates that when both spouses work, their contribution to household expenses should be in proportion to their respective salaries. This provision has incurred a lot of criticism; most Taiwanese believe that who contributes what to the household is a matter strictly between family members in which the law should have no role.
But the measure is justified, say others, as are the property-related provisions of the amended law by a new phenomenon threatening marital harmony in Taiwan, mistresses or second wives in mainland China.
The time was when a philandering husband in Taiwan might have a fling with a bar girl, or even keep a mistress, but the very fact that he continued to live in the family home with his wife gave her some control. While married women's property rights remained weak-- property brought into a marriage by a woman became her husband's to dispose of as he pleased. Adultery is also a crime and the threat of prosecution gave women some leverage over erring husbands to ensure financial support.
Such redress is not open to a wife whose husband lives and works on the mainland and either keeps a Chinese mistress or has bigamously married a second time. And such cases have grown exponentially with Taiwan's enormous business investment on the mainland. Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of Taiwanese companies have factories or offices in mainland China that are headed by Taiwanese men, usually married and separated from their families. And these are not short-term assignments but involve stays of several years. Obviously some marriages fail. But the real problem, and the one that the revised Civil Code was introduced to solve, is that of husbands who strip their family of their assets to set up home across the TaiwanStrait.
Yu Mei-nu, a lawyer and longtime women's rights activist, told a press conference in April: Since wives in Taiwan have few legal methods of redress if their husbands have affairs in China, the least we can do is to keep the property ... in Taiwan. Yu was especially concerned about the rights of children from a bigamous mainland marriage to inherit property from the husband's first family in Taiwan.
Another problem with the unreformed law was that in Taiwan a husband's wishes took precedence over those of his wife in any dispute about the division of jointly owned property and husbands were not obliged to hand over anything from the sale of such property. The new law says that property that a spouse brings into a marriage or acquires as an individual afterward remains his or hers exclusively. Property that has been acquired jointly cannot be transferred without the agreement of both parties, who can apply for a court order to determine their relative shares in the property should they be unable to agree themselves.
At a stroke this gives women far more control over both their own and family-acquired property. It redresses a situation in which women were often trapped in loveless marriages because if they walked out they would be left with nothing at all. One women's rights advocate has called the measure the last step in dismantling Taiwan's traditional patriarchal system.
Certainly women's rights have been improved considerably since the current government took office in May 2000. Earlier this year the Gender Equality Labor law was passed, banning sexual discrimination in the workplace. In Taiwan this has been a highly contentious issue, with women being fired from jobs for getting pregnant and in some cases-- most notoriously employees of the showpiece Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall in Taipei-- being forced to resign even for getting married.
The next major step will be reform of the divorce law. Divorce is Taiwan can be as easy as signing a contract to dissolve a marriage-- if both parties are agreeable-- or almost impossible if one of the parties contests the issue. The government wants to introduce a no-contest divorce that would be allowed to proceed after three years'separation even if one of the parties wanted to contest it.
Women's groups are worried, and once again it is mainland China that is on their minds. Unless separation is better defined -- perhaps as an agreement to live separately as a result of marital problems-- there is a worry that, as Hsu Chia-ching, secretary general of the Taiwan Women's League, told a press conference this week,Taiwanese businessmen based in China could ditch their Taiwanese spouses easily in order to marry their Chinese girlfriends. The issue gives a whole new dimension to the problems of cross-Strait links.