Just a few months after getting married, Nguyen Thu Trang knew that she had made a big mistake. But, in a Confucian society that places a high value on female obedience to men, she was fearful about how her family and friends would react if she sought a divorce.
“Divorce is often seen as a black mark on a family and I worried about what people would say,” says the 24-year-old office worker from Hanoi. “When I told my mum what I wanted to do she cried every day, but I had to think of my own happiness.”
Ms Trang, who went to university in Switzerland, is one of a rapidly growing number of young, professional Vietnamese women filing for divorce, emboldened by increasing financial independence and the shifting social values that have accompanied communist Vietnam’s integration into the global economy. She has since remarried and subsequently helped a number of her friends pluck up the courage to leave unhappy marriages.
In many Asian countries, divorce rates have been rising as women become more economically independent and more willing to challenge traditional, socially conservative values.
In China, the divorce rate has doubled in less than a decade, rising from 0.9 per 1,000 people in 2002 to 2 per 1,000 people last year, according to government statistics cited in the state media
Vietnam has also seen a particularly sharp rise in the number of divorces, which have increased by nearly 50 per cent since 2005, when legal reforms made it easier for couples to divorce in cases where there is mutual consent. While marriage remains the dominant social unit in Vietnam with 72.7 per cent of people aged over 15 married or widowed and only 1.7 per cent divorced, that figure is rising.
There were 88,591 divorces last year in the country of 87 million people, according to the supreme court, a rapid increase from 79,769 in 2009 and 65,351 in 2008.
This nascent social transformation is being driven by women, who make up the majority of divorce petitioners, with economic pressures, lifestyle differences, adultery and abuse cited as the main causes, according to social researchers.
“Traditionally, Vietnamese women were expected to accept what befalls them,” says Tran Thi Van, assistant representative of the UN Population Fund in Vietnam. “But changes in their status and income have made modern Vietnamese women more independent and less influenced by tradition.”
Rapid economic growth has created more opportunities for women to earn a good independent income, especially in urban areas, where divorce is far more prevalent.
“Many of the cases I see involve younger people,” says one divorce lawyer. “Our open economy and society is leading to more westernised thinking.”
He adds that while many Vietnamese men seek respite from a difficult marriage by visiting a brothel, for women the only way out is through divorce.
The jump in the number of cases is flooding Vietnam’s inefficient court system and the government is considering a proposal to set up dedicated family courts, according to a legal official.
In one recent high profile divorce, a court in Hanoi refused to rule on how one of the country’s wealthiest couples should divide their $500 million of assets, arguing that judgment should be made in a separate civil case.
Researchers believe that the scale of marital problems in Vietnam is much worse than the official statistics suggest because enduring discrimination deters many women from leaving unhappy and sometimes abusive marriages.
“Like with many of my friends, my husband cheats on me all the time but my mother says it is my own fault for not satisfying him and that I must keep the family together,” says one 32-year-old Hanoi businesswoman and mother of two.
Vietnam’s socially conservative and overwhelmingly male leaders are concerned about the jump in divorce numbers, one of various social changes that threaten to undermine traditional control structures. In a typical example of government propagandists’ attempts to tackle the issue, local state-owned TV in the province of Hung Yen, bordering Hanoi, aired a talk show entitled “How to reduce the divorce rate” to mark Vietnamese family day on June 28.
However, Nguyen Thanh Tam, a researcher at the Hanoi-based Institute for Family and Gender Studies, thinks officials are wrong to push back against divorce.
“It won’t lead them anywhere,” she says. “How can you tell a 30-year-old to stay in a marriage when it has stopped functioning?”
Rather than undermining Vietnam’s progress, Vo Thi Hao, an outspoken writer, argues that the growing cohort of empowered, divorced women will drive the country forward.
“After divorce, women with a good education, a career and a good social network do much better because they are freed,” says the 55-year-old divorcee, who wrote a popular collection of short stories called 101 Stupid Mistakes by Men. She believes the divorce rate will continue to rise sharply as traditional social values ebb away.
“Many of my friends say that staying in an unhappy marriage is like unpaid prostitution,” she says. “In Vietnam today, if it wasn’t for fears about the harm to personal reputation, up to 80 per cent of women would file for divorce”.