One gets to hear news of divorces between couples from the Indian subcontinent who have settled abroad so often that unfortunately it doesn’t surprise anyone anymore. But the rate of divorce is still alarming and one can’t help but wonder why families who migrate in pursuit of better futures end up going separate ways, negating the very reason they chose to leave their homeland in the first place.
Data shows that it’s actually women who initiate majority of these separations or divorces. It makes one question why women choose to stay married for more than a decade or two in their own country and then call it quits within a few years of setting foot on foreign soil?
I think the answer lies in the fact that the Indian subcontinent is still largely male dominated and perceived as such by developed nations who themselves have, not very long ago, undergone an overhaul of their own social fabric and drafted family laws intended at protecting the interests of women. Also, couples in the Indian subcontinent mostly live in a joint family arrangement, where women have little say and are often relegated to indoor chores.
And despite women working as hard as men and holding high paying jobs, managing the house, taking care of children, and running the kitchen are still considered their responsibility, and that perhaps leads to resentment as the years go by. But any resentment and hence rebellion is suppressed by the idea that this is the norm and way things have been for generations. Apart from divorce being a taboo, it also doesn’t help that majority of marriages are arranged and is considered a bond between families. And the family machinery works overtime to repress any rising dispute.
Moreover, there is little government support for single parents and maintenance accorded is sparse often depending on who is at fault and the reason for separation. There is no independent agency enforcing child support or maintenance to the spouse. However, things are different in developed nations.
The social structure in developed nations accord equal rights to women and more importance is given to one’s own happiness. Separation or divorce is not a social taboo. Couples live independently from their extended families and there is no pressure to fit into stereotyped gender roles. Family laws are very liberal based on ‘no blame’ and give more rights to women where children and property are concerned, regardless of who is at fault or the reasons for separation. There is also generous government support at hand like rental assistance, childcare subsidy, and sustenance allowances for single mothers and independent child support agency to enforce maintenance of children.
Migrating couples initially find it hard to settle in, given the challenges of adapting to new surroundings that have little in common with what they left behind. There is pressure to quickly acclimatize to the new lifestyle, language and the accent, dress sense and appearance to gel well and be a part of the workforce. (On a different note, accent is the most difficult and I still struggle with my Aussie accent that comes across as different, often funny, twangs. Perhaps in our subconscious mind, we perceive ourselves as the ‘outsider’ and tend to go overboard with our metamorphosis in the pursuit of acceptance.)
Another crucial thing about living abroad is that, while the standards definitely get better, living expenses are exorbitantly high. It becomes necessary for both the partners to work and when the once docile housewife joins the workforce, it opens a gateway to an entirely different world. On equal footing with men and not just consigned to indoor chores, she becomes financially independent and, for the first time in her life, has the freedom of choice.
Often times, women from the sub-continent are perceived as being tormented, originating from a male dominated society, and their fellow co-workers take it upon themselves to educate them about their rights. They are exposed to a whole new glossary, what was once just an argument gets a new definition: Verbal abuse. Priority is accorded more to personal happiness, while welfare of children and family becomes secondary. In a culture where children are to fend for themselves when they turn 18, there is no pressure to stick together for the sake of the children.
Lawyers are readily available to offer advice, fee to be paid later from the asset pool transferred to their trust account as part of settlement. The prospects are favorable – major share of the property, primary care of the children resulting in inflated fortnightly child support payouts till the children are eighteen, and quite generous government subsidy. It’s a win-win situation and, for an anguished woman already on an uneven footing, these prospects are like violent tremors shattering the family edifice on which the matrimony was built so meticulously back home.
Unfortunately, most separations are being pursued in court citing ‘verbal abuse’ and domestic violence in retrospect, which is easily believed as the couple hails from a regressive society back home. The same couple, not very long ago, had forsaken everything and migrated to this land of opportunities in pursuit of a better future, but will now seek counseling and medical assistance for anxiety, stress and depression and fight a prolonged and bitter battle in court.
How do we exorcise this demon? I wish I had the answer. Perhaps the family laws require a revamp to stop it from being exploited (There are talks of Australia making changes to its family law this year). But I also believe laws can only do so much. Unless the societal structure back home, which puts women at a disadvantage, changes, nothing substantial can be done to transform this situation worldwide. And this will also continue putting innocent men at a disadvantage by giving women a chance to exploit the fact that they come from a male dominated society.