Hong Kong families need more help to cope with the trauma of divorce

Paul Yip and Melissa Chan say that, with divorce on the rise in Hong Kong, families going through the trauma should have more support and better schemes to help them cope with the challenges

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 July, 2014, 3:59am
UPDATED : Monday, 21 July, 2014, 3:59am

Divorce is on the rise in Hong Kong and the phenomenon has spread to nearly all sectors of society - rich and poor, young and old. The total number of divorces granted in 2012 in Hong Kong (23,255) was more than 10 times the number in 1981 (2,062 cases). The youngest person to have got a divorce in 2012 was just 18, while the oldest was 82, according to our records.

It is estimated that the proportion of children affected by divorce has risen from 4 per cent in 2001 to 7 per cent in 2012.

In a recently completed study, data collected from the Family Court suggested that the average length of marriage is 12.1 years, and is closely related to the number of children couples have. The proportion of childless couples filing for divorce has increased over the years, with an average length of marriage of seven years. However, for couples with one or two children, their marriages last for an average of 14.3 years; for couples with three or more children, their marriages last for an average of 22.2 years. Hence, having children appears to extend the length of a marriage.

Our research also suggests that divorced couples and their children are worse off financially than the general population in Hong Kong. In the study, at least 30 per cent of divorced households with children lived under the poverty line, in comparison with fewer than 20 per cent of married households.

While a small number of our interviewees felt positive after divorce, its impact is largely negative for couples' emotional and financial well-being. Divorce also had a detrimental effect on children academically, emotionally and with regard to their behaviour.

The increase in divorce cases is having a profound impact on society, especially the well-being of families. In order to ease the pressure from divorce, here are a few suggestions to consider.

First, housing and social welfare should be strengthened - for example, by adjusting the Comprehensive Social Security Assistance and single-parent allowance - to bolster financial and housing support for divorced families.

Moreover, authorities should consider speeding up the application process for compassionate rehousing and providing interim housing for families in need who may not qualify for such rehousing. This could ease the stress on families already dealing with unresolved issues such as domestic violence and even the threat of homicide and suicide.

Those who don't qualify for any social assistance are even more vulnerable. The provision of childcare services - in particular, after-school services - should be enhanced so that parents, especially women, can work to support themselves. Flexible work modes and working hours should be provided for these parents, enabling them to fulfil their duties as both caregiver and breadwinner.

Second, marital counselling should be made available to couples at different stages of their life. It can prepare newly-weds for the journey ahead and help those who have been married for some time to develop their relationship. It can also empower couples to make informed decisions if and when their marriage comes to an end. This will help minimise the negative impact on their children, if any.

Specific interventions such as divorce education - targeted at both adults and children - can be considered. This includes information-based and skills-based education that aims to reduce disputes before the problem needs to be settled in court. This kind of intervention helps families cope with stress and strengthens their problem-solving skills.

Moreover, the intervention aimed at parents should address their emotional needs and encourage divorced spouses to provide effective co-parenting.

Policymakers could take reference from overseas experiences. For example, the US and Singapore promote court-based intervention and education for children and parents. The UK also has school-based programmes for children of divorced families.

Third, the procedure of applying for a divorce should be simplified and improved to reduce stress. This could be achieved by providing additional education or assistance in the application procedure, covering important topics such as the divorce process, the legal rights of both parties, criteria for custodial arrangements and so on.

Lastly, more research should be done to understand the marriage, divorce and remarriage situations better, to inform policy formulation. Data currently collected and available on divorced couples, marriages and remarriages is incomplete; it can neither further our understanding nor rectify mistaken ideas about divorce.

Judicial and administrative support in the Family Court should be strengthened, and studies should be conducted to identify effective ways to promote mediation services, as they are currently not as widely used as they could be.

Today, divorce is seen as being more acceptable an option for unsatisfactory marital relationships and has become more common than before. Thus, it is important to conduct more research to enhance our understanding. More data can also help us monitor the situation. These fundamental steps are necessary for evidence-based policymaking. We should help not only to minimise the negative impact of divorce on individuals and children, but also seek to give them a boost, to help them thrive.

Paul Yip is principal investigator of "A study on the phenomenon of divorce in Hong Kong", a project commissioned by the Central Policy Unit, and director at the Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention at the University of Hong Kong, where Melissa Chan is an intervention research officer