Women and children left vulnerable as Hong Kong's divorce rate rises
In the first of a two-part series on divorce, Darren Wee explains how grey areas in the law and a lack of enforcement of family support payments are leaving women and children from broken marriages especially vulnerable.
When Ah Lai finally signed her divorce papers in 2001 she thought it was the end of her abusive marriage. Instead, it turned out to be the start of a 13-year battle for social housing and maintenance payments that led her into a spiral of depression and even a suicide attempt.
Ah Lai is just one of thousands of women in Hong Kong who divorce to escape one bad situation, only to find themselves in another dreadful predicament or worse.
Census and family court data show the number of divorces in Hong Kong has shot up more than 10 times from 2,062 in 1981 to 23,255 in 2012. This means the crude divorce rate rose from 0.53 per 1,000 people aged 15 or above in 1981 to 3.27 in 2012, putting Hong Kong ahead of other Chinese societies and even many European countries.
Although divorce can rescue people from bad marriages, it can also erode a society's resilience. The emotional and psychological stress on children aside, divorce is more likely to impoverish households, especially those made up of mothers and children.
"Our divorce rate was very low 20 years ago but it has caught up with the West now," says Dr Paul Yip Siu-fai, professor of social work and social administration at the University of Hong Kong and principal investigator of a research project on divorce in Hong Kong commissioned by the Central Policy Unit.
Some reasons behind the rising divorce rate are common to all modern societies: women are better educated and more financially independent than they were 20 years ago and there is less stigma attached to divorce, so they are more likely to call it quits when the marriage fails to work.
"In the old times, divorce was considered shameful in Chinese society, but now Hong Kong is modern and people are more open-minded," says Sze Lai-shan, a social worker and organiser at the Society for Community Organisation.
Other factors are particular to Hong Kong, such as added friction from living in small spaces, long working hours and demographic factors.
"Rent is very expensive and there's no space for the family or for the children, so there's more conflict," Sze says, adding that many divorced women and their children were victims of domestic violence.
Yip goes so far as to describe Hong Kong as "not a family-friendly environment" and full of distractions.
"In Hong Kong, work pressure is one of the reasons [for the rising divorce rate]. People tend to spend more time at work than with their family. We just don't have the time to cultivate relationships," he says.
He believes the many hours of overtime spent at the office may lead to affairs with co-workers - a problem exacerbated by the surplus of women in the city.
More than 20 per cent of Hong Kong women over the age of 40 have never been married, Yip says, a consequence that he partly attributes to the increasing number of marriages between Hong Kong men and mainland women.
"We are losing 20,000 marriageable men to the mainland [each year]."
The falling birth rate may also be a reason why marriages are not lasting as long as they did. Yip says the more children a couple have, the longer they tend to stay together. For example, the average length of marriage for couples without children filing for divorce is seven years, compared with 14.3 years for two children and 22.2 years for three or more children.
In some ways, the legal maze has become less daunting for people seeking to end their marriage. The law has developed and people now have a better idea of what to expect from a divorce, says Jennifer Ip Wing-ching, a partner at Ip and Heathfield, a firm specialising in matrimonial and family law.
"The legal system is much better now. There are more case laws," she says. "We follow the common law, so there is a lot more clarity about finances, division of assets and custody of children."
Still, Yip reckons the rising divorce rate is a concern. "Every society is made up of families, made up of households. But if there are more singleton households, that will negatively affect social cohesion."
Divorced households also have higher rates of poverty, especially those comprised of mother and children.
"Divorce contributes to the feminisation of poverty. We would argue women are more prone to poverty because of their family status," says Si-si Liu Pui-shan, director of the Hong Kong Federation of Women's Centres, which offers free legal advice to women considering divorce, divorce applicants and divorcees.
Women were more likely to be the caregivers in a family and less likely to work, so divorce could push them into poverty, Liu says. After divorce, 75 per cent of children live with their mothers and 77 per cent of mothers are involved in the care and upbringing of their children, compared with just 27 per cent of fathers.
Liu says many women who seek legal advice at their centres are locked in battles over maintenance payments from their ex-husbands.
"If a woman is not successful getting the money through court, that could actually put her in poverty," she says.
Ah Lai, for example, spent the past 10 years pursuing HK$99,500 in back payments for family support. Her ex-husband stopped paying maintenance after two months even when threatened with imprisonment and, despite a court order, refused to remove her name as an occupant of the public housing flat they used to share.
This meant she could not apply for public housing for herself and her two children. As a result Ah Lai and her daughter were forced to move in with her mother while her son chose to stay with his father.
Financial pressures coupled with feelings of worthlessness eventually sent Ah Lai into a tailspin. Because she was insomniac, constantly tired and suffering from aches and pains, Ah Lai initially thought she had the flu. But in 2006, five years after divorce, she was diagnosed with depression. Life felt so miserable Ah Lai attempted suicide and spent three days recovering in hospital; she still sees a psychiatrist.
Liu says such symptoms are common among the women seeking legal help at the federation's centres: 64 per cent feel helpless or inadequate and 63 per cent are nervous and focused on unpleasant thoughts. Irritability, headaches, difficulty sleeping and concentrating, and feeling weak are also common complaints.
Divorced women are more likely to work than the general female population, but the median income of divorced households with children, most of which are headed by women, actually fell from HK$10,000 a month in 2001 to HK$9,500 in 2011.
Such deprivation is especially common among mainland immigrants such as Chan, a 44-year-old from Guangxi province. She and her eight-year-old son must make do on an income of just HK$9,000 a month: HK$4,000 from her part-time job and HK$5,000 from social security payments.
Rent for the subdivided flat in Cheung Sha Wan, which she shares with her son, takes up HK$3,800, and utilities another HK$500; that leaves HK$4,700 for all other living expenses. "It's not enough because rent is too high and my income is low," Chan says.
Some 40 per cent of marriages in Hong Kong are cross-border relationships, and social workers say these have contributed to the rising divorce rate. Many marriages are between younger mainland women and much older men from Hong Kong. Meetings between the couples are often arranged and they would not have not known each other long before so the foundation of their marriage are not strong.
Chan's former husband, for example, is 21 years older. He was introduced by friends, she says, and she fell for his good looks and the promise of a better life in Hong Kong. They dated for a year before getting married, but soon after she relocated from her hometown of Yulin, he quit his job and started gambling at mahjong parlours every day.
He was very controlling and refused to contribute to the family finances, saying she owed him for bringing her to Hong Kong. He later moved out and after repeated attempts at reconciliation and nine years of marriage, Chan filed for divorce.
"I can't go back [to China]," she says. "I gave up my hukou [household registration] to move to Hong Kong and there would be criticism and gossip."
Chan hasn't told her extended family in Guangxi about the divorce and, without relatives and close friends in Hong Kong, she has no support network to lean on for help.
Liu says: "Women from the mainland are more vulnerable than local women because usually they are the ones who don't have an occupation. In particular, those on two-way permits are not allowed to work, so they're really economically dependent."
Not surprisingly, divorce "negatively impacts the psychosocial and educational development of the children", Yip says. In 2011, some 80,780 children (7 per cent of the total) lived in divorced households and, of these, 30 per cent lived in poverty.
The person hit the hardest in Chan's divorce, for example, has been her son, who is now in counselling. He lacks confidence and is afraid his friends will find out his father has left them, she says.
At the Federation of Women's Centres, Liu renewed calls for setting up a unit to enforce family support payments from spouses, although the government has previously rejected the proposal as using public funds to settle private disputes.
Legal aid is available for divorced applicants from low-income backgrounds, but the process can be overwhelming, especially to women with only basic education.
Ah Lai, who applied three times before being granted legal aid, says just filling in the forms was difficult for someone of her education level.
"I could understand each character but I didn't understand the meaning" of legal terms used on the application form, she says.
Moreover, lawyers assigned by the service did not tell her all her options. It was only after she sought advice from pro bono lawyers and represented herself in court that she was able to force her ex-husband to pay maintenance and remove her name from their public housing unit in January this year, by threatening to sell the property.
"The laws are unfair to women … there are a lot of grey areas or they're not implemented," Ah Lai says.