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Why divorce doesn’t work for Indonesian women

Marriage and divorce practices across Southeast Asia have transformed as a result of the social and economic changes associated with industrialisation. The understanding of marriage in traditional Southeast Asian societies as both a civil and religious union has been increasingly challenged, along with changes in perceptions of self, family, and society.  This is true for Indonesia too.

One of the unavoidable results is that divorce, especially among Muslim families (the majority in Indonesia), has become more common (link is external). The dominant idea that marriage is a central component of Islam and a requirement for leading the life of a good Muslim now seems open to negotiation. While many see the rise in legal divorces as alarming, the fact is that in many cases divorces are just a formalisation of existing marriage failure, for example, where the wife and children are abandoned by the husband, an event common in Indonesia.

Divorce cases form the single largest group of contested cases in the Indonesian judicial system. In fact, in 2010, divorce cases represented 80 per cent of all civil cases heard in Indonesia (link is external). Data from Indonesia’s Religious (Islamic) Courts, which have exclusive jurisdiction over Muslim marriage and divorce, show that there has been a significant increase in the number of state-sanctioned divorces over the past decade.

While 251.208 cases of divorce were decided by Religious Courts nationally in 2010, the number increased by half again to reach 382.231 cases in 2014. About 80 per cent of the divorce applications were made by women and were granted by the courts.

Legal scholars explain (link is external) that the rise in the number of successful divorces is a result of a series of judicial reforms, which started in the 1990s with the introduction of fee waiver and circuit courts, as well as capacity building programs that have strengthened judges’ awareness of women’s rights and gender.

Islamic family law was liberalised by the introduction of Law No.1 of 1974 on Marriage, which allowed women to petition for divorce for the first time, and the 1991 Compilation of Islamic Law, which limited the rights of husbands to unilateral divorce (talak) by requiring all divorces to be heard in court, and regulated rights to spousal maintenance and child support post-divorce. These legislative instruments have become hallmarks of Islamic family law reform in Indonesia.

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