Divorce as Seen in a District of Hanoi

Divorce Vietnam

Successive social upheavals – the August 1945 revolution with its democratic ideas, the ensuing thirty years of resistance war, the influence of the countries of Eastern Europe through the return home of contractual workers there, the adoption of the free market economy and the opening of the country to the West – have deeply changed the values of the traditional family. Because of this, divorce has shown a steep increase.

Let us look, for example, at the figures recorded in Hai Ba Trung, one of the four major districts of the city of Hanoi. In the period from 1987 to 1995, in a population of around 300,000, out of an yearly average of 2,200 – 3,000 marriages about 400 – 500 ended with a (judicial) divorce, i.e. two divorces for every ten marriages (France: 1 for every ten; USA: 3 for every ten). An alarming rate for a country where matrimonial ties have been regarded as sacred for millennia.

Here is the breakdown of causes for divorce over the last nine years, according to the people’s courts:
– Incompatibility of character: 39.6%
– Adultery: 17.5%
– Bad treatment of the wife: 16.2%
– Family dissensions: 11.3%
– One of the partners (the husband mostly) takes to drinking or gambling: 113%
– Economic difficulties: 2.8%
– Illness or infertility: 2.4%

At present, the Law on Marriage and the Family ensures to the wife equality of rights with her husband, especially the right to ask for a divorce
At present, the Law on Marriage and the Family ensures to the wife equality of rights with her husband, especially the right to ask for a divorce

What conclusions to draw from the above? In the conditions of Vietnam, in full effervescence since the adoption of the free market economy, the rat race and the pursuit of money are in a hectic state; and yet the percentage of divorces born of economic difficulties is only 2.8%. Most divorces (nearly 40%) have stemmed from in-compatibility of character. This, I believe, is rooted in the nature of the institution of marriage and the difficult relationships at all times between man and wife.

The other causes of divorce should be viewed in relation to the situation of the wife and the family in the old family marked by Confucianism: rule of the father, the husband, the male member of the family, who alone could bear the responsibility of ancestor worship.

Divorce for whatever reason was rarely initiated by the wife. The husband had the right not only to sue for divorce but also to repudiate her for one of the following seven reasons:
1. Infertility,
2. Lechery,
3. Failure to perform her duties to her parents-in-law,
4. Malevolent gossip,
5. Theft,
6. Jealousy,
7. Infirmity.

However, repudiation was not possible in three cases: 1. The wife had been in mourning for her father- or mother-in-law for the required period of three years (in other words, she had been a great help to her husband in the performance of his filial duties); 2. The husband had become rich since their marriage (i.e. the wife had greatly contributed to his prosperity); 3. The wife would be deprived of all means of support if she was repudiated.

At present, the Law on Marriage and the Family ensures to the wife equality of rights with her husband, especially the right to ask for a divorce.

Let us come back to the divorce cases in Hai Ba Trung district. The figure of 17.5% (almost 20%) of divorces because of adultery would be inconceivable in the old society, especially with regard to the wife. The husband did not need to engage in adultery for he was entitled to polygamy. A proverb said he could have, if he so wished, “seven concubines and five wives”. On the contrary, the adulterous wife was subjected to inhuman tortures, physical and mental. She would be marched through the village with the back of her neck razed and smeared with slaked lime (got gay boi voi), followed by hordes of jeering children. There is a story that ill 1930, under the French colonial administration, a French police chief gave the permission that an adulterous wife be marched along the streets of Hanoi with two empty kerosene cans hanging from her neck, on which an accompanying man would bang to attract public attention. The punishment which consisted in exposing her on raft built with banana trunks was also a horrid one: the woman was tightly bound in a sitting position and dressed as though about to be buried. In front of her was a tray with some rice and food, a teapot, and a betel box. The raft was left to go adrift in the river, and along its way, no one would dare to give a helping hand to the victim, lest the “contagion of adultery” would affect his own community. An “adulterous” widow would also be punished. Young widows were encouraged to observe strict chastity.

Things have changed a great deal, particularly over the last decade. Adultery is no longer a rare phenomenon, especially among the urban youth, and is none of the major causes of divorce. Other causes are vestiges of the feudal family. Bad treatment of the wife is 16.2%. Wife beating is still fairly frequent in the countryside and suburban villages. In some cases, the wife would be bullied by her mother-in-law with the help of the husband to such an extent that she might take her own life. There are cases in which the wives try to get rid of their husbands who are incorrigible drunkards or gamblers (11.3%).

Such is the picture of divorce in a district of the capital city. Does it reflect the situation in the country at large? In any case, it is a sign of the times.