Frustration among women in China as new divorce law stalls process

Chinese feminist and writer Xiao Meili said a new law limited women's rights to seek a separation. "Divorce should be permitted if one person wants it."

A Chinese woman puts on sneakers after taking pictures in advance of her wedding near the Forbidden City in Beijing, in April 2020.Kevin Frayer / Getty Images file

BEIJING — For Qi Jia, an office worker and blogger in China, the decision to divorce her husband was not one she took lightly.

"He became so sloppy and had an addiction to gaming," Qi, 39, who lives in the eastern city of Changzhou, said. "I took care of our child by myself."

The couple lived apart, due to work, for 13 years and had little communication, she wrote in a personal testimony posted on the Chinese social media site, Douban.

But a recently introduced law, which gives couples a 30-day "cooling off" period to reconsider their decision to untie the knot, finally compelled her to act. Just three days before the law took effect at the start of this year, Qi divorced her husband.

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Like many other countries, China's divorce rate has steadily increased in recent years.

The new law is meant to urge couples to reconsider hasty divorces, but the legislation has instead only generated frustration among women who fear that seeking a divorce has now become more difficult.

Such was the rush to beat the new restriction that more than 1 million couples requested a divorce in the last three months of 2020, before the cool off-period came into effect — a 13 percent increase on the same period in 2019 — according to data from the Civil Affairs Bureau.

The feminist writer Xiao Meili called the law a "step backwards" for women and said it limited their rights to freely seek separation from a spouse.

"Marriage needs agreement from both people," Xiao told NBC News. "Divorce should be permitted if one person wants it."

Often that person is a woman.

Around 74 percent of first hearings in divorce cases in 2016 and 2017 were filed by women, according to a report by China's Supreme People's Court.

Other barriers to divorce include a gender income gap, rules on property division that tend to favor men and traditional perceptions of gender roles.

In February, a Beijing court created national shockwaves when it ruled that a woman should receive financial compensation — around $7,000 — for housework carried out during the course of her five-year marriage. The case stirred up a huge public debate about the status of women in society.

A Chinese woman wears a protective mask as she is helped by a photo assistant while taking pictures in advance of her wedding outside the Forbidden City, on April 30, 2020 in Beijing, China.Kevin Frayer / Getty Images file

Better access to education and jobs in recent decades has improved the financial independence and social status of women in China, who as a result seemingly have less tolerance for unhappy marriages.

However, social pressure is still present — family and friends often discourage women from divorcing and Chinese courts tend to rule against divorce in the first instance, in order to maintain social stability. Divorce still leaves a trace of social stigma for many women.

Sometimes, even evidence of suffering and domestic abuse does not guarantee a divorce will be granted.

In one prominent 2019 case, a woman named only as Ms. Liu, from China's central Henan province, was shown on security camera video being violently assaulted by her husband. Yet the court did not rule in her favor when she filed for divorce in 2020. Liu posted the video online, sparking a debate on social media that pressured the court to grant her divorce.

China's Civil Affairs Bureau has made clear the new cool-off period would not apply to divorce lawsuits that involve domestic violence. But divorce through the courts is nonetheless often prolonged and unfruitful for many women.

Ma Danyang, a divorce lawyer based in Beijing, said the new cool-off period had only increased the anxiety among her clients.

"Couples finally come to an agreement but then they start to worry the spouse might change their mind during the 30-days," Ma said.

"It's quite unfair to women. ... Each day in this waiting period feels like years to them."

But for professor He Xin, an expert in China's legal system at Hong Kong University, the introduction of the divorce cool-off period is reasonable, as divorce is such a big decision. "Many countries already have similar laws," he added.

In China, the rising divorce rate is compounded by declining marriage and birth rates, prompting a demographic crisis as the country's population ages — a big challenge for the government in Beijing, which has ramped up efforts to advocate traditional family values in recent years.

The one-child policy, which was in place for decades, was abandoned in 2015, but this change alone has not been able to stem the crisis in the world's most populous country.

Some think the new divorce rules could discourage couples from tying the knot in the first place.

"Young women now have more awareness of gender equality," Xiao said. Adding, "many single women can still have a decent life by themselves."