Decreasing divorce rate still hides a melancholy reality in Taiwan

Decreasing divorce rate still hides a melancholy reality in Taiwan

Lovers of all ages celebrated Chinese Valentine's Day yesterday, which fell this year on Aug. 2, the seventh day of the seventh month in the Chinese Lunar calendar.

The auspicious date marks the reunion of the seventh daughter of Shangdi, the supreme god of Chinese folklore, and a cowherd in the Milky Way, according to an ancient folktale. For many people, however, there weren't any reasons to celebrate this Chinese Valentine's Day because they had already divorced in 2013.

According to statistics released by the Taiwan Ministry of the Interior in July, nearly 10 couples out of every 1,000 went their separate ways last year. This figure represents 53,599 divorced couples, down 4 per cent from the previous year. Why? What could be the reasons behind such a high divorce rate here? Maybe there were some irreconcilable differences or some financial burdens or personal shortcomings or perhaps parental pressure to have babies?

Nobody can actually explain what makes a good and lasting marriage, but when marriages fail in Taiwan, everyone tries to find a reason.

The ministry pointed out that the number of divorces decreased with the increased number of marriage years. Those who had been married for less than five years, for instance, accounted for the most divorces at 30.6 per cent, followed by those who had been married for between five and nine years (24.4 per cent).

Looking at divorce rates for the past 15 years, the ministry also stressed that between 1998 and 2013, the number of divorces averaged 50,567 couples per year, and this year's numbers are about average.

When we compare Taiwan's crude divorce rate, that is the number of divorces per 1,000 inhabitants, to other countries though, this year's number still hides a sad truth - it is much, much higher than in most countries.

In 2012, the latest year for which data for the European Union as a whole are available, the highest crude divorce rates were recorded in Latvia (3.6 divorces per 1,000 inhabitants) and Lithuania (3.5), ahead of Denmark (2.8). The lowest crude divorce rate that same year was recorded in Ireland (0.6 divorces per 1,000 inhabitants). Italy (0.9 divorces per 1,000 inhabitants, 2011 data), Malta (1.1), Greece (1.2, 2010 data), Slovenia (1.2) and Croatia (1.3) also recorded relatively low crude divorce rates.

So, the real question remains: why does Taiwan have such a high crude divorce rate in the first place?

A possible answer to this question might be found in the unprecedented demographic shift that the country has been experiencing in recent years. The number of young people has been dwindling while the number of seniors has been rapidly expanding.

Yet, young couples have been waiting before getting married and having children, or quickly giving up on their marriage at the first hurdle, to the point that the average family size has now shrunk to just three people. Why get married and have children if the costs of living are so high? Why get married if we think that we can lead a better life on our own?

The definition of "family unit" is certainly a changing concept in today's Taiwan and other countries around the world. What it means to be a member of a family and the expectations people have of family relationships is different today than it was 20 years ago.

In this respect, it is important for authorities to take these trends into consideration and evaluate their profound implications on the job market and the economy in order to devise new policy initiatives that will boost the island's plunging birthrate.

Legal alternatives to marriage, like registered partnerships, which have become more widespread worldwide, might be a possible answer for Taiwan to confer more rights to unmarried and same-sex couples and encourage them to have a family.

But tackling issues such as marrying later, the soaring costs of living, higher divorce rates (the highest in Asia) and lower birth rates (one of the lowest in the world) should now be a priority to save the very idea of "founding a family," and, beyond that, saving the island's job market and economy.

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