Via Financial Times

Helen Wu realised she wanted to divorce her husband once and for all after two months of being stuck at home with him and their two children in Wuhan, the Chinese city where the coronavirus pandemic first started.

“I did everything from cleaning to grocery shopping to tutoring my children,” said Ms Wu, who normally works as an accountant at a machine tools factory. “All my husband did was play video games and walk out the room when we found my son had wet the bed.”

The 38-year-old Ms Wu filed for divorce as soon as authorities began to lift the lockdown late last month, brushing aside her husband’s appeals to reconsider. “The epidemic gave me a chance to make up my mind,” she said.

Once a cultural taboo in China, divorces have more than doubled over the past decade to 4m in 2019 as people, particularly women, become less tolerant of unhappy marriages.

But the trend has accelerated in recent months as mandatory self-quarantine measures introduced in January have forced Chinese couples to spend more time together, exacerbating marital problems.

More than a dozen cities have reported a surge in divorce filings since March, when marriage registration agencies returned to work following the lunar new year holiday, Financial Times research shows.

The runaway growth of failed marriages has fuelled concerns about the welfare of Chinese women as the country’s courts are less generous than their western counterparts in granting child support and alimony payments in divorce rulings.

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“The disease has accelerated the long-running trend of rising divorce rates,” said Pan Jun, a Hangzhou-based family lawyer. “And women are more likely than men to suffer financial losses in the process.”

Rising incomes among women are thought to be behind the longer term increase in China’s divorce rate. Official data show the average monthly income of urban women rose from Rmb2,799 ($394.56) in 2007 to Rmb7,667 in 2017. 

Some of the upsurge in divorces since the outbreak began might have been demand that built up while marriage offices were closed. But local officials said the majority was because of the strain of the lockdown.

In the western city of Yinchuan, an official at the local civil affairs bureau, which issues divorce certificates, said so many couples had put in requests it was impossible to get an immediate appointment.

“There has been a marked increase in divorce filings since the outbreak of the virus,” said the official.

Couples in Shanghai, the nation’s commercial hub known for its western lifestyle, face even longer waiting times. When local civil affairs offices opened in the middle of February after being closed for three weeks, they were deluged with divorce filings. Couples who would normally receive an appointment within a week had to wait for up to a month.

Among other local authorities reporting a rise in marriage break-ups, the Tongzhou District Civil Affairs Bureau in Sichuan province said it received 232 divorce requests between late February and end-March. That compared with fewer than 180 in the same period a year earlier.

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Civil affairs bureau officials in Yunnan, Shaanxi and Ningxia provinces said about two-thirds of divorce filings in recent weeks cited the stresses of dealing with the virus or the quarantine measures. 

Underlying some of the filings may be an increase in domestic abuse during the outbreak. Police in Qianjiang county in the worst affected province of Hubei, of which Wuhan is the capital, reported 83 domestic abuse cases in February and 85 in January. That compared with 47 and 43 a year earlier.

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Chinese law requires courts to issue restraining orders to domestic violence victims within 72 hours. Lu Xiaoquan, a Beijing-based women’s rights lawyer, said during self isolation some of his clients were still waiting for the document a week after reporting the incident.

“Victims had no choice but to wait,” said Mr Lu. “That made them more vulnerable to an abusive spouse.”

Experts said the rise in divorces would leave growing numbers of women in poverty. Lawyers in some of China’s wealthiest cities, including Shanghai and Hangzhou, said child support for a divorced parent ranged from Rmb3,000 to Rmb4,000 a month, low compared with the cost of living in these cities. Courts often refused alimony requests.

The Chinese legal system did not take a person’s economic status into account in divorce cases, said Liu Chun, a Guangzhou-based family lawyer. Women usually earned less than men and were more likely to be given custody of the children.

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Ms Liu said most of her female clients could afford to divorce. But she said the overall divorce rate would be higher if more women earned more.

“Women will live with an unhappy marriage if they find it difficult to support themselves after the divorce,” said Ms Liu.