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Ethnicity and Marital Disruption in Southeast Asia: A Comparative Study of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand

Charles Hirschman


Bussarawan Teerawichitchainan

Center for Studies in Demography and Ecology Department of Sociology Box 353340 University of Washington Seattle, WA 98195 (


Ethnicity and Marital Disruption in Southeast Asia: A Comparative Study of Indonesia,

Malaysia, and Thailand


Based on the historical experience of the United States and other Western countries, the general

sociological interpretation is that modernization leads to a higher incidence of divorce, perhaps at

an accelerating rate during the late 20 th century. This pattern is, however, not universal. William

J. Goode (1993) has identified a number of traditional societies with high rates of divorce, and

Gavin Jones (1994) has shown modernization during the post World War II period has led to a

rapid decline in divorce in Islamic Southeast Asian countries. In this study, based on an analysis

of marital histories from World Fertility Surveys conducted in the 1970s, we explore trends and

patterns of marital disruption in the three Southeast Asian countries of Indonesia, Malaysia, and

Thailand. We find large sociocultural differentials in divorce within each country that cannot be

explained by demographic and socioeconomic composition. In addition to the differences in

divorce rates between cultural groups in each society, divorce is more common among persons

with more traditional social characteristics, such as rural residence, low levels of education, and

young age at marriage. Changes in these characteristics, especially rising educational levels, has

led to a decline of divorce in several, but not all, of the societies studied here. These findings

point to the need for a more complex theoretical perspective on marriage and family organization

in traditional societies and a revision of the conventional thesis that modernization leads to an

increase in marital disruption.

Keywords: divorce, marital disruption, ethnicity, modernization, Southeast Asia.

Ethnicity and Marital Disruption in Southeast Asia: A Comparative Study of Indonesia,

Malaysia, and Thailand


It is commonplace to observe that modernization leads to a rise in divorce. Although this

is the trend in the United States and in some (but not all) Western societies, it is not a universal

pattern. In several Asian countries, including Japan, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Indonesia, there were

moderately high patterns of divorce prior to modernization and industrialization (Goode 1993;

Jones 1997). Goode labels these societies as “stable high divorce rate systems.” In contrast to the

Western trend of rising divorce, these societies have experienced declines in divorce with

modernization. In some regions of Malaysia and Indonesia, upwards of 40 percent of men and

women who were interviewed in the 1970s reported that they had a previous marriage that had

ended in divorce (Jones 1994, Tables 5.5 and 5.9). With exposure to modern education,

urbanization, changed laws and social mores, and new expectations about the role of marriage,

divorce rates in these societies have plummeted and are now below those in most Western

countries (Jones 1997, p.96).

These societal patterns of “traditional high divorce,” and their recent decline, are as yet,

understood only in their broadest outline. In this study, we present an in-depth micro-level

analysis of trends and correlates of divorce among women in three Southeast Asian societies:

Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand from the 1940s to the 1960s. Southeast Asia is home to people

of many ethnic groups (within as well as between countries) who, while sharing common

historical experiences and aspects of culture, have diverse religions and languages and live in

societies with very different political and economic structures. In general, Southeast Asian family


systems are bilateral and maintain close links to maternal as well as paternal relatives. Living

arrangements and other aspects of family life are characterized by flexibility rather than strict

cultural prescriptions (Chamratrithirong 1984; Keyes 1995; Tsubouchi 1976). There are some

regional and cultural groups in Southeast Asia, which hold preferences for matrilocal living

arrangements, but these are not followed as rigidly as the patrilocal custom of East Asian

societies. The Southeast Asian cultural patterns of marriage and family life have adapted to a

Muslim religious tradition among the majority of the Indonesian and Malaysian peoples and to

Theravada Buddhism in Thailand (Geertz 1961; Hugo, Hull, and Hull 1987; Keyes 1995).

Settlers from China and India have, over the last century, brought patrilineal and patrilocal family

values to the multicultural Southeast Asian world. Although we cannot fully explain the cultural

roots of moderate and high divorce family systems in Southeast Asia, one of our primary goals is

to present a preliminary map of the association between levels of divorce and sociocultural

groups in the region.

The analysis of divorce rates is based on marital histories of Indonesian, Malaysian, and

Thai women, based on retrospective, individual-level data from the World Fertility Surveys circa

1974/76. Our research builds and extends upon prior work (Guest 1992; Jones 1994, 1997; Smith

1981) using comparable data across countries and with life table and Cox proportional hazards

models to estimate trends and correlates in the likelihood of divorce and/or separation over

several decades of incipient modernization after World War II. Although the analysis is limited

to first marriages and to the risk of divorce in the first five years after marriage, almost all

marriages and divorces are included in this definition.

To varying degrees, the initial phase of modernization changed the social and economic

characteristics of women across marriage cohorts in all three societies from the 1940s to the


1960s. Specifically, there were higher proportions of women who received primary education,

participated in the modern labor force prior to their marriage, and married at later ages.

Educational attainment and age at first marriage are revealed to be important factors explaining

the likelihood of marital disruption over time, but participation in modern labor force plays a

weak and inconsistent role across the three countries examined here. And most significant is the

finding of the independent role of ethnicity as a pervasive and persistent influence on levels of

marital disruption in Southeast Asia


The general finding in the United States and other western countries has been a rapid rise

in divorce, particularly since the 1960s (Cherlin 1992, p. 22). Recent studies suggest that more

than 40 percent of new marriages in the United States will eventuate in divorce (Castro Martin

and Bumpass 1989; Cherlin 1998; Ruggles 1997), though the upward trend may have reached a

plateau in recent years (Goldstein 1999). The popular explanations for the rise in divorce are the

breakdown of traditional family and communal values, a lessened stigma associated with

divorce, and the liberalization of laws that have made it easier to dissolve marriages. Tracing

cause and effect is, however, not a simple matter. Changes in laws may well be a political

response to accommodate the increasing numbers of couples who wish to divorce. Research on

the effect of “no-fault” divorce laws on the incidence of divorce has been mixed (Gallagher

1996; Jacob 1989; Wright and Stetson 1976). The structural roots of rising divorce rates in

industrial countries may reach back for a century or more.

Preston and McDonald (1979) find there has been a continuous secular rise in divorce

(interrupted by peaks following wars) for cohorts of American marriages since the Civil War.


This finding suggests that the rapid rise in divorce over the last 50 years has deeper roots in the

processes of industrialization, urbanization, and increasing individual freedom associated with

the modern era of the last century or two, and is not simply a response to modern mass media and

lifestyles. Seeing the long-term trend in divorce in this light is consistent with the broader theory

of social change and family organization, which posits the gradual erosion of many family

functions, particularly its educational, economic, religious roles as other societal institutions

assume greater centrality (Ogburn and Nimkoff 1955). As individuals become less dependent on

the family in general, they are able to dissolve specific family relationships without their entire

lives collapsing. It is not that families in traditional societies were any better able to satisfy

individual needs and interests than at present, but that there were few alternatives or choices for

most persons in traditional societies (Goode 1993). As urbanization and industrialization lead to

increases in geographic and social mobility, individuals are exposed to new opportunities and are

less dependent on their current family for economic survival and social support.

The general thesis of modernization and industrialization does not clearly identify the

specific social, economic, and cultural forces that have been associated with the acceleration of

rise of divorce in recent decades. One potentially important factor is the economic independence

that comes from the increasing participation of women in non-household employment. Many

studies contend that female labor force participation has increased women’s economic

independence and thus, greatly reduced their motivation to stay in unsatisfying relationships

(Becker 1981; Cherlin 1992; Oppenheimer 1988). Another possible cause is the shift in cultural

values that allows individuals to put higher priority on self interest and fulfillment than on

maintaining family commitments that lack love and companionship. These new values are

frequently portrayed in Hollywood movies and in the mass media, more generally.


Trends and patterns in divorce cannot be understood without close attention to changing

patterns of marriage. The secular trend of rising divorce has accompanied a trend toward a later

age at marriage, but at the individual level, age at marriage and the probability of divorce are

inversely correlated. Adding to the complications is the increase in cohabitation, which creates

both conceptual and measurement problems. If young couples have replaced early marriage with

cohabitation, then should break ups of cohabiting relationships be considered as equivalent to

divorce? Since the standard data sources rarely collect data on cohabiting relationships and their

break ups, most research continues to examine divorce that follows formal marriages. This

means that trends and patterns of divorce may well be confounded with their measurement.

Many people assume that high divorce rates are an epidemic spreading from the decadent

West to the rest of the world. However, in his careful review of the evidence, Goode (1993)

argues that there is neither a universal trend nor a theoretical consensus on the relationship

between social change and divorce. Although there is a general trend to higher divorce in modern

countries, there are wide variations in levels and trends among Western countries. Moreover,

Goode reports that divorce was relatively high in many countries prior to modernization and

industrialization. The decline in divorce with modernization in these countries raises

fundamental questions about the standard interpretation that modernization creates new

opportunities and attitudes that weaken the hold of traditional family structures and lifelong

marriage bonds. Perhaps a greater understanding of the reasons for the decline of divorce in

traditionally high divorce societies may yield new insights on the reasons for the rise of divorce

in other societies.



Southeast Asia consists of the lands that lie between the Indian subcontinent and China

(see Figure 1). While there are common geographical, historical, and cultural features of

Southeast Asia, diversity is the hallmark of the region (O'Connor 2000; Reid 1988, 1993;

Wolters 1999). In this study, we examine trends and patterns of divorce in three major Southeast

Asian countries, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand. In 2000, Indonesia, one of the world’s most

populous countries, had population of about 200 million, Thailand stood at approximately 60

million, and Malaysia at around 22 million. 1

[Figure 1 About Here]

The distinguishing cultural characteristics of Southeast Asia are the relatively high status

of women and bilateral kinship systems, relative to the patriarchcal and patrilineal societies of

East and South Asia (Reid 1988, p. 162-172; Van Esterik 1982). For the most part, there are

neither sex preference for children in Southeast Asia (Wongboonsin and Ruffolo 1995) nor

strong prescriptions on residence with the groom’s family after marriage. Located along the

major sea route between the great civilizations of East Asia and South Asia, the “plural society”

has been one of the defining features of Southeast Asia, which has been relatively open and

absorptive of peoples, ideas, and cultural practices from elsewhere. Over the centuries, a good

share of Chinese-origin peoples have intermarried and blended with local populations in many

Southeast Asian countries, but there remains a segment of the Chinese population that has been

residentially and socially segregated even after three or four generations of local residence

(Cushman and Wang 1988; Reid 1996, Chapters 1-3).

1 The Malaysian survey sample is limited to Peninsular Malaysia, and the Indonesian data only include

Java and Bali.


The relatively higher status of women in Southeast Asian societies includes their familial

roles as well as participation in the labor force outside the home. In her account of the Javanese

(the largest ethnic group in Indonesia) family, Geertz (1961) reports that the wife generally

makes most of the decisions and controls family finances, and although she gives her husband

formal deference and consults with him on major matters, she plays the dominant role in day to

day matters. Similar descriptions can be made about the status of Malay and Thai women

regarding the social and economic roles in the household (Bumroongsook 1995; Rudie 1983;

Yoddumnern-Attig et al. 1992). In some areas and regions, Southeast Asian women are also

active in economic activities outside the home, particular as sellers and traders in the market

(Geertz 1961; Gordon 1964; Kirsch 1996). Geertz (1961), for example, found that most

occupations, including farm labor, petty trade, and wholesale buying and selling were open to

Javanese women. Earnings from these economic activities may lessen women's economic

dependence on husbands.

Another cultural trait of the Malay populations of Southeast Asia (the indigenous peoples

of Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia) is tolerance of divorce. In the 1950s divorce rates in

Islamic Southeast Asian countries were the highest in the world (Jones 1981: 261, 1997). These

findings are confirmed in ethnographic studies using qualitative methods (Geertz 1961;

Nakamura 1983; Singarimbun and Manning 1974), as well as statistical studies based on vital

statistics and survey data (Chang et al. 1986; Guest 1992; Jones 1981, 1994; Jones, Asari, and

Djuartika 1994; Smith 1981). Although high levels of divorce are sometimes thought to be

associated with the relative ease of divorce in Islam (most Malaysian Malays and Indonesians are

Muslims), the cultural predisposition adapted to the arrival of Islam to the region (Jones 1997,


p.103-4; Tsubouchi 1976). Tsubouchi (1976) reports that divorce rates were lower in Malay

villages that had more contact with Chinese and Europeans.

Gavin Jones observes that the high level of divorce in Indonesia and Malaysia is bound

up with marriage and family systems that include very early marriage, fairly common polygyny,

considerable social and economic independence of women, a strong cultural emphasis on spousal

compatibility, economic support, and moral support from kin for divorced women and their

children, and ease of remarriage (Jones 1994, p.218-34, 1997, p.103-15). According to Jones,

there was little stigma attached to being divorced, although parents felt compelled to rush their

daughters into early marriage (as young as 15 or 16) to protect family honor from the threat of a

premarital pregnancy. The relative significance of these factors and the relationship between

indigenous cultures and Islamic beliefs are buried so far back in history that is difficult, if not

impossible, to sort them out.

One notable feature of the traditional Malay marriage and divorce system is that many

divorces occur without consummation of the marriage following the formal wedding ceremony.

For example, a very young bride, married without her consent, may decide to postpone moving

out of her parents' household. After many months of delay, the parents of the groom request a

divorce (Geertz, 1961; Hull and Hull 1987; Nakamura 1983; Singarimbun and Manning 1974).

The elaborate wedding serves primarily the purposes of the parents, giving them an occasion to

reaffirm their social status in the community. To lesser degree, it can also be a kind of celebration

of the girl’s formal entry into adulthood, after which she is relatively free to make her own

decisions, including the choice of a new marriage partner (Geertz 1961).

Another aspect of Southeast Asian cultures that may be especially relevant in the Thai

case is matrilocality. Although the Thai family system is bilateral, the most common pattern of


postmarital residence is with the wife's family, especially the rural peoples in the North and

Northeast (Keyes 1995, p.133). Goode (1993) observes that societies with matrilocal traditions

may be especially adaptive in societies where divorce is common; he explains:

“Women and their brothers remained firmly linked even after marriage, since they

belonged to the same lineage, and shared material and emotional stakes in lineage

matters. The husband was not a member of his wife’s lineage, but his children were, and

their mother’s brother had jural authority over them. If there was divorce, the husband

moved out, and the children and mother remained together as a unit, still possessed of

whatever lineage property there was…. In addition, many of these societies were also

horticultural, and thus women were very important in the productive process itself”

(Goode 1993, p. 217-8).

Although Thailand is not usually considered as society with traditional high levels of divorce,

several anthropological works indicate that marital disruption may have been quite common in

Thai peasant society, and divorce might be frequent among lower class Thais (Bumroongsook

1995; Henderson 1971; Philips 1965). Neither traditional Thai culture nor Theravada Buddhism

stigmatizes divorce. Keyes (1995) reports that divorce can occur without serious social

disruptions in local neighborhood and community, although there are social pressures for

maintaining a marriage since the family has important economic functions. In practice, divorce is

relatively easy on the part of either husband or wife, as it typically involves the informal process,

in which one of the partners simply moves out (Kirsch 1996; Knodel, Chamratrithirong, and

Debavalya. 1987).



One of the few sources for comparative research on trends and patterns in divorce is the

survey data collected as part of the World Fertility Survey (WFS) program conducted in many

developing countries during the 1970s. Although regular fertility surveys have become

institutionalized in statistical agencies and in many international collaborative programs, almost

none of them have collected marital history data, especially the outcome of the first marriage

with the date of dissolution. Data on current marital status and even the number of marriages are

insufficient to provide more than a descriptive account of trends and patterns of divorce. There

have been a few studies of marital dissolution based on WFS data but these reports were

primarily focused on the methods of measurement (for example, see Smith 1981; Smith,

Carrasco, and McDonald 1984).

Our analysis is based on WFS data from Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand. These

surveys were officially known as the 1976 Indonesian Fertility Survey (IFS), the 1974 Malaysian

Family and Fertility Survey (MFFS), and the 1975 Survey of Fertility in Thailand (SOFT). While

SOFT is a national sample, the IFS sample is confined to the islands of Java and Bali, which

accounted for two thirds of Indonesian population in the 1970s, and the MFFS sample is limited

to Peninsular Malaysia, which covered about 84 percent of Malaysian population. All three

surveys have comparable content; the questionnaires were largely based on the standard WFS

core questionnaire. Ever-married women under age 50 were interviewed in detail about their

maternity and marriage histories, knowledge and use of contraception, fertility intentions and

preferences, and socioeconomic background. Although the design of these samples is cross-

sectional, the surveys contain relatively rich retrospective data. The WFS marriage history

questions collected then dates (month and year) of each respondent’s first marriage and marital


dissolution (for the cases that are applicable) and thus, allow for a comprehensive analysis of

trends and differentials in marital disruption of first marriages.

We examine the incidence of divorce among first marriages across marriage cohorts,

holding constant the duration of exposure to the risk of divorce. To limit possible bias from

incorporating recent marriage cohorts, we restrict the analysis to only women who first married

in or before 1969. Most women in the most recent marriage cohorts—that is, those who married

in or after 1970—had not yet been exposed to five years of risk of marital dissolution prior to

their interview. They are, therefore, excluded from our study. All women who experienced a

divorce in the first five years of marriage and those whose marriages were intact for at least five

years are included in the sample. We did exclude 15 cases whose status of first marriage was not

reported, 36 cases whose date of first marriage preceded date of dissolution, and 215 cases,

which reported an age at first marriage below age 10. These cases are most likely to be the case

of reporting errors since child marriage was not common in traditional Southeast Asian societies

(Singh and Samara 1996). The resulting sample survey sizes are 6,718 women for Indonesia,

5,075 for Malaysia, and 2,928 for Thailand.

In our study, both reports of formal divorce and separation are taken as measures of

marital disruption. In many countries, divorces are not registered or formalized, unless there is an

intention to remarry. In some languages, such as Thai, “separation” has a less unfavorable

connotation than “divorce.” It is plausible that many survey respondents may find it easier to

report marital dissolutions as separations than divorces.

To index temporal change, we compare the incidence of divorce across marriage cohorts,

holding exposure constant. In the descriptive analysis, we present life table estimates of the

probability of divorce within 60 months (5 years) after the date of first marriage. Although we


have computed estimates for successive five-year intervals of marital duration, the results are not

presented here because most divorces occur in the first five years of marriage, and no major new

patterns are uncovered. In the multivariate analysis, we use Cox proportional hazards techniques

(Castro Martin and Bumpass 1989) to estimate the effects of predictor variables on the hazard of

divorce, net of marital duration and other covariates in the model. The logistic coefficients are

expressed as the natural log of the odds ratio relative to an omitted category. To lend somewhat

more interpretability to results, we present the exponentiated coefficients [exp(β)] that represents

the odds ratio for a particular category relative to the odds for reference category. For example,

an exp(β) of 1.4 means that the risk of marital disruption is 40 percent higher than the reference



In all three WFS data sources, married women were interviewed about the timing of their

current and prior marriages. Current marriages include some fraction of higher order marriages,

which tend to be more unstable than first marriages and may have a different causal structure

than first marriages. To avoid these complexities, which may vary across populations, we limit

the universe of first marriages. First marriages include the overwhelming majority of marriages

(and divorces) in each population.

Table 1 shows the percentage distribution by “status of first marriages” for all

respondents (married before 1970) across three marriage cohorts (those married in the 1940s, the

1950s, and the 1960s). The major change across these three cohorts is a dramatic increase in

intact marriages—the proportion of women still married to their first husband. For the Indonesian

sample, the percent of women still married (at the time of interview, in the mid 1970s) rose from


44 in the marriage cohort of the 1940s to 71 of those married in the 1960s. For Malaysian

women, the comparable figures rose from 60 percent to almost 90 percent, and for Thai women

from 70 to 86 percent. The primary reasons for the trend toward intact marriages were declines in

widowhood and divorce. The proportion of women husbands had died declined from the high

teens to close to zero, and the proportion of women whose first marriage ended in divorce (which

includes separation) declined by a third or more.

[Table 1 About Here]

Any meaningful interpretation of this secular trend toward more intact marriages (or the

observed declines in spousal death or divorce) is stymied, however, because of the different

periods of exposure (to the risk of marital dissolution) across the three marriage cohorts. Women

in the most recent marriage cohort (those married in the 1960s) had, on average, about ten years

of marital duration prior the interview (circa 1974/1976), while the earlier cohorts had married 20

to 30 years prior the interview. A secondary problem is that a nontrivial fraction of the cohort of

women who married in the 1940s (or 1950s) did not survive to the 1970s (and be at risk of being

interviewed the WFS).

In the subsequent analysis of trends (across marriage cohorts) of divorce, as well as other

correlates of divorce, we control for exposure by using life table methods to estimate the hazard

of divorce in the first five years of marriage among persons who have been married at least five

years or had a divorce during the period (the small number of persons who were widowed during

the first five years of marriage are excluded from the risk of divorce).

In spite of this limitation on the interpretation of any observed period change, Table 1

provides important reminder that marital dissolution is not simply a product of divorce but also


there is little doubt that declines in mortality have contributed to more intact marriages over time

(and greater exposure to the risk of divorce). Even though trends cannot be interpreted from the

data in Table 1, we can observe intercountry and ethnic differences in spousal mortality and

divorce within each period (marriage cohort), when exposure is held constant (within a ten year


The ethnic variations in levels of divorce within countries are greater than the differences

between countries. In Indonesia, the Sundanese linguistic community, which is primarily

concentrated in West Java, has long been noted as having the greatest propensity for divorce

(Jones 1994, p.195-200). The estimate of a 50 percent level of divorce of first marriages among

Sundanese women married in the 1940s may well be the world record for high divorce in a

traditional society. The Balinese speaking population, concentrated on the island of Bali and a

very small proportion of the total Indonesian population, has a much lower level of divorce than

all other ethnic communities in the country. The Balinese are Hindu, and there may be some

religious influence that has contributed to their lower divorce rate. The only other group which

maintained a somewhat lower divorce rate, is the Indonesian speaking community (groups were

defined on the basis their home language). The Indonesian speaking population is not an ethnic

community, but is primarily composed of people who live in the capital city of Jakarta and may

also include a significant number of Chinese who have lost their mother tongue over the last

generation or two and adopted the national language rather than a regional language.

In Malaysia, the ethnic Malay community (about 55-60 percent of the population) has

much higher divorce rate than the Chinese (about one-third of the population) and Indian (about

10 percent of the population) communities. In Thailand, a similar division occurs, with Muslim

Thais having a high divorce rate and Chinese Thai rates having very low divorce rates. Thai


Buddhists (who are more than 90 percent of the population) have an intermediate level of

divorce, much lower than the Muslim populations in either Indonesia or Malaysia, but higher

than the Chinese in Thailand or Malaysia, and the Balinese in Indonesia.


The “Asian economic miracle” is a label frequently used to describe the rapid economic

growth and development that swept through much of East and Southeast Asia from the 1970s to

the 1990s (World Bank 1993). Although not in the first tier of rapidly expanding East Asian

economies, the three countries of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand have been among the more

successful Asian countries over the last quarter century. The period considered here, from the

1940s to the 1960s, precedes the era of rapid economic growth and development. Nonetheless,

there were significant social, political, and economic changes during this period that set the stage

for subsequent developments.

The 1940s were a period of severe economic contraction, caused in large part by events of

World War II. Japanese military forces occupied much of Southeast Asia, including Malaysia

(then British Malaya) and Indonesia (then the Dutch East Indies). The post World War II

recovery was slowed by the Indonesian war for independence (1945-50) and a domestic

insurgency, known as the Malayan Emergency, between the British colonial government and an

army led by the Malayan Communist Party from 1948 to the mid 1950s. Malaya became

independent in 1957 in a peaceful transition of power, and become Malaysia in 1963. 2 Thailand,

2 Malaysia was created with the union of independent Malaya and three former British colonies of

Singapore, Sabah, and Sarawak. Singapore subsequently left Malaysia in 1965. In this paper, we refer to


the only Southeast Asian that was not formally colonized by a Western power, also underwent

economic and political dislocation during the same period. The Thai government allied itself

with Japan during World War II, and Japanese military forces were stationed in several locations

in the country.

The late 1940s and the 1950s were a period of substantial recovery for all three countries.

The newly independent governments were more responsive to popular aspirations than the

colonial regimes and began to invest in education, infrastructure, and other domestic needs. The

resumption of international trade, including the demands created by wars in the region (Korea in

the 1950s and Vietnam in the 1960s), increased earnings from exports and provided the

economic base for increased investment and consumption in Southeast Asia. These trends

continued during the 1960s as development-oriented governments and a healthy international

economy quickened the pace of social change. Economic development in Indonesia lagged

behind that of Malaysia and Thailand because of domestic political instability, but modest

progress was made.

The direction of social change during this period is evident in Table 2, which reports the

level of education, employment prior to marriage, age at marriage, and the timing of first birth for

women who married during the three decades (the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s) for the three

countries in our sample. These particular variables were selected not only because they represent


the independent variables for the subsequent analysis of divorce, but here they also show the pace

of social change in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand from the 1940s to the 1960s. 3

[Table 2 About Here]

Almost all (84 percent) Indonesian women who married in the 1940s had not received

any formal schooling, but half of those married in the 1960s had some schooling, and more that

10 percent had gone on to secondary school. Indonesian brides are very young at the time of

marriage – more than 95 percent were below age 20, and half were below age 15, in the 1940s.

By the 1960s, only about one in four Indonesian women married below age 15. There was less

change evident in other some other dimensions of the lives of Indonesian women over this time

period. There was virtually no change in the premarital work experiences; indeed, more than half

did not work at all.

Our final indicator of social change is an indicator of the timing of the first birth relative

to the time of marriage. If the first birth is reported to have followed less than seven months after

marriage, we classify the birth as “a premarital conception-postmarital birth.” Our expectation is

that a rising age at marriage accompanied by greater labor force participation by single women

may lead to increases in premarital births or premarital conception-postmarital births, relative to

postmarital conceptions. Of course, this variable is very susceptible to reporting errors because

the coding relies on matching dates from independently reported pregnancy and marital histories.

Errors in the reporting of dates by a few months may lead to the classification of a premarital

3 The marriage cohort of the 1940s is selective of women who married at a young age. The WFS samples

included women age 15 to 49 in the mid-1970s, therefore excluding women who were born before 1925.

Since most women married relatively young, the sample selection bias is primarily limited to the first half

of the decade of the 1940s.


conception or a premarital birth. Although there is a small increase in reports of premarital

conceptions by Indonesian women married in the 1940s to the 1960s, 90 percent of all first births

in Indonesia are post-maritally conceived.

According to the measures reported here, brides in Peninsular Malaysia and Thailand had

higher socioeconomic statuses than Indonesian women in the 1940s and experienced more rapid

social change over the next two decades. The fraction of Malaysian brides with no formal

schooling declined from 67 percent in the 1940s to 21 percent in the 1960s, and the comparable

figures in Thailand were 34 percent and 14 percent. Only 1 in 20 Malaysian women worked in

the modern sector (nonagricultural paid work) before marriage in the 1940s, but one of four did

in the 1960s. In Thailand, unlike Malaysia and Indonesia, 90 percent of women worked before

marriage, but most were employed as unpaid workers in family agriculture. The fraction of Thai

brides who had worked in paid nonagricultural employment rose from 9 to 18 percent over the

two decades.

There has also been significant change in age at marriage in Malaysia and Thailand. In the

1940s, 80 percent of Thai brides and 90 percent of Malaysian brides were below age 20 at the

time of marriage. By the 1960s, the fraction of teenage brides was less than 60 percent in both

countries. The percent of first births that were premaritally conceived did rise in Malaysia, but

the figure was still in the single digits in the 1960s. The sum of the proportions of premarital

births and premarital conceptions is slightly higher in Thailand (about 13 percent of first births in

the 1960s) than in other countries, probably reflecting the later age at marriage in Thailand and

somewhat greater freedom for premarital courtship.

Because ethnicity is the dominant feature of Malaysian society, and divorce patterns vary

widely across the three major groups in Malaysia, our analysis includes a parallel analysis of


social change comparing patterns for Malaysian-Malays, -Chinese, and -Indians in Table 3. For

this time period, the Malay population was a little more than half of the population of

(Peninsular) Malaysia, the Chinese about one-third and the Indian community about 10 percent

of the total population.

[Table 3 About Here]

Historically, the Malaysian Malay population was the most rural and agrarian, while the

Chinese were much more likely to reside in urban areas, while the Indians were intermediate. The

rapid pace of social change in Malaysia in the decades following World War II, have led to major

social gains for all ethnic communities in the country. For example, in the 1940s, more than half

of Indian and Chinese brides, and almost three-fourths of Malay brides had not been to school.

By the 1960s, about 80 percent of the brides in each community had some formal schooling, and

from 10 to 20 percent had reached secondary school. There was less change in premarital work

experience for Indian and Malay brides over this era, but over 40 percent of Chinese women had

worked in the modern sector (nonagricultural paid employment) prior to marriage.

These changes in socioeconomic roles paralleled major shifts in the timing of marriage. In

the 1940s and 1950s, the overwhelming majority of Malaysian women, regardless of ethnicity,

married before age 20. In the 1960s, female age at marriage increased, perhaps following the

expansion of women attending secondary school. A quarter of Malay and Indian women married

after age 20 as did 70 percent of Chinese women. There is a slight increase in premarital

conceptions among Chinese and Indian women, but the absolute levels remain quite low.



Tables 4a and 4b show the estimated proportions of marriages ending in divorce or

separation within the first five years of marriage for three marriage cohorts (the 1940s, 1950s,

and 1960s) reported by women in each country (and by major ethnic community in Malaysia in

Table 4b). In addition to the trend for the total population in each country, estimates of divorce

are presented by regions, language/ethnicity groups, education, premarital work experience, age

at marriage, and the timing of first birth. These figures are life table “q x ” probabilities of divorce

within the five-year period following marriage based on the WFS samples (collected in the mid

1970s). The small number of women whose first marriages were disrupted by the death of the

husband within five years of marriage are excluded from the calculation.

[Tables 4a and 4b About Here]

Overall, divorce rates were high and falling in Indonesia (slight decline) and Malaysia

(major decline), but moderate and stable in Thailand. More than 1 in 5 Indonesian marriages

ended in divorce within five years, while less than 1 in 10 Thai marriages were disrupted. The

overall Malaysian divorce rate is an average of two completely different ethnic patterns and

trends. The Malay divorce rate of 24 percent in the 1940s declined to only 12 percent of

marriages in the 1960s. The divorce rates of Chinese and Indians in Malaysia were extremely low

(1 and 4 percent, respectively) and unchanged. There is a striking parallel of the Malaysian and

Thai ethnic variations in divorce. The Thai Muslim population, which lives in southern Thailand

near the Malaysia border, has a divorce rate with a level and trend comparable to the Malaysian

Malay population. The estimate of divorce among self-identified Chinese Thais (perhaps only a

small fraction of the Thai population with some Chinese ancestry) has a very low divorce rate,

close to that of Chinese in Malaysia.


The cultural roots of communities that tolerate medium to high levels of divorce are also

evidenced in the regional and linguistic communities in Indonesia. 4 The incidence of divorce is

highest in West Java, where about a third of all first marriages end in a divorce within five years

after marriage, though this level is only slightly higher than in Central and East Java, where about

a quarter of all marriages are disrupted in the same time period. The one area with a very low

divorce rate is Bali, which has an incidence of divorce more comparable to the non Malay

population in Malaysia and the Thai Chinese population than other groups in Indonesia. The

incidence of divorce in the capital city of Jakarta and among Indonesian speakers (language

spoken at home) is intermediate with a rate in the medium to high teens. The Indonesian Chinese

population is over-represented in both of these categories, though probably as a relatively small

minority (only three percent of the Indonesian population is of Chinese heritage).

In addition to the strong association between cultural groups and the propensity to

divorce, the other finding in Table 4a is the association between “traditional” social roles and

divorce. This is most clear for rural/urban location and educational attainment. Just as Jakarta

City had a lower level of divorce than the rest of Java and Bali, Bangkok (and Central Thailand)

has the lowest level of divorce in Thailand. There is also a steep inverse relationship for the

rural/urban classification in Malaysia. The pattern in Malaysia is not simply a function of ethnic

composition across rural/urban categories. The inverse relationship of rural/urban location and

divorce holds for the Malaysian Malay population (see Table 4b). There is insufficient variation

4 Region and ethnic/linguistic groups overlap considerably in Indonesia. For Tables 4 and 5, we have

decided to contrast regional patterns, which means that the linguistic groups are collapsed to two

categories, those who speak either Indonesian or a regional language at home.


in divorce among the Malaysian Chinese and Malaysian Indian populations to allow any

meaningful analysis of the correlates of divorce.

In all three countries, lower educational attainment (especially no education) is associated

with higher divorce. Within Malaysia, this is most evident for the Malay population. For those

with middle secondary schooling in Indonesia and Malaysia, and some secondary schooling in

Thailand (admittedly very small fractions of the population have secondary schooling), divorce

drops to very low levels. These patterns suggest that women in modern social roles are less

tolerant of divorce than women in more traditional statuses.

The relationship between premarital work experience and divorce is more variable across

societies. In Indonesia and Malaysia, women who worked in traditional sectors, such as

agricultural and nonagricultural unpaid jobs (probably family businesses) prior to marriage had a

higher incidence of divorce than women who worked in the modern sector (nonagricultural paid

work). This pattern is, however, not found in Thailand. In Thailand, women who did not work

prior to marriage had a somewhat higher divorce rate than women who did work. In Indonesia,

divorce among women who did not work had divorce rates comparable to women working in the

traditional sector. Among Malaysian Malay population, divorce rate among women not working

is closer to the lower level of divorce of women working in the modern sector. This societal

differences may be partially explicable by the selection into the nonworking (prior to marriage)

population. More than half of Indonesian and Malaysian Malay brides have not worked prior to

marriage (see Tables 2 and 3), perhaps because they married at a very early age. In Thailand, less

than 10 percent of women did not work prior to marriage, and there may be some important

unobserved correlates of women who did not work prior to marriage in a society where almost all

women do work prior to marriage.


There is a clear and consistent inverse relationship between age at marriage and the

likelihood of divorce in all three societies. Women who marry before age 15 (only measured in

Malaysia and Indonesia) are the group with the highest propensity of divorce. But women who

marry in their late teens are considerably more likely to divorce than women who marry in their

early twenties. We expected that the timing of first birth, relative to marriage, would have an

impact on divorce, specifically that women with premarital conceptions would have a higher

likelihood of divorce because the marriage was rushed to legitimate the birth of the child.

However, the pattern is opposite to this expectation in Indonesia and Malaysia. Although the

expected pattern holds in Thailand, the difference is too small to warrant any interpretation.

Neither is there any support for the thesis that women with a premarital birth have a higher

probability of divorce. The combination of a very small number of observations and potential

mismeasurement of the dates of first birth and marriage weakens our ability to test the impact of

premarital childbearing on the stability of first marriages.


In Tables 5a and 5b, Cox proportional hazards models of divorce are presented separately

for four populations: Indonesian, Thai, Malaysian Malay, and Malaysian non-Malay. For each

population, we estimate four models. The first model simply shows the trend in divorce based on

the single independent variable of marriage cohort. The next model (2) adds our measures of

cultural characteristics: region and language/ethnicity (the latter variable is not included for

Malaysia). The two socioeconomic variables (education and premarital work experience) are

added in Model 3, and the two measures of marriage (age at first marriage) and first birth timing

are added in Model 4. The sequential order of the models is designed to test several hypotheses:


Is the observed trend a function of the changing composition of the population? Are cultural

differences in the rate of divorce influenced by the socioeconomic characteristics? and Is the

inverse relationship of education on divorce partially explained by age at marriage?

[Tables 5a and 5b About Here]

The coefficients in Tables 5a and 5b are expressed as the ratio of the odds of divorce to

non-divorce of each category relative to the comparable odds of the reference category for each

variable. For example, with the reference category of the 1940s marriage cohort in Model 1 for

Indonesia having a standard odds ratio of 1.0 (the ratio is the odds for the 1940s divided by

itself), the odds ratio for the 1950s is .891 or about 10 percent less than the odds ratio of 1.0 for

the 1940s. This indicates a declining trend in divorce over the decade. The coefficient for the

1960s reveals a continued decline in divorce experienced by the 1960s marriage cohort, which is

about 26 percent less than level of the 1940s.

The observed trend in divorce, as measured in by marriage cohort in Model 1, is

statistically significant and is exactly the same data as reported with life table probabilities in

Table 4a. The multivariate analysis, reported in subsequent models, shows that the declining

trend of divorce in Indonesia can be explained by the changing composition of the population. A

significant share of the trend disappears in Model 2, which simply includes region and language

spoken. Perhaps, faster growth of the population in Jakarta and speaking the national language

has contributed to part of the decline in divorce over this period. In Model 3, which includes the

significant variable of educational attainment, the marriage cohort variable is no longer

statistically significant.

Region of residence and ethnicity are overlapping categories in Indonesia. West Java,

which is predominately the home of the Sundanese speaking community, has the highest level of


divorce in the country. Bali, whose population speaks their own language (Balinese) and follows

Hinduism rather than Islam, has the lowest incidence of divorce. Other categories are

intermediate. The effect of Jakarta, the national capital, remains significant though its impact is

reduced with the inclusion of Indonesian speakers in Model 2 and educational attainment in

Model 3. The true effect of urban residence is perhaps most clearly shown with the contrast

between the coefficients for “Yogyakarta City” and “Central and East Java.” Most of the

inhabitants of Yogyakarta are Javanese who are also the primary ethnic linguistic group in

Central and East Java.

Education has a very strong and significant negative relationship with divorce in

Indonesia. The effect of educational attainment is only slightly reduced with the introduction of

age at marriage in Model 4. The effect of education on lowering the probability of divorce is

direct and not because women with more education marry later (highly educated women may

marry later, but this does not explain the effect of schooling on divorce). Although there is strong

effect of education on divorce, there is no relationship between premarital work experience and

divorce. Perhaps, there were too few women in any non-traditional economic roles during this

period of time to register any impact on marriage and divorce systems.

Age at marriage has a strong negative net impact on the likelihood of divorce in

Indonesia, holding constant region, language spoken, education, and premarital work experience.

Very young brides, especially those less than age 15, may have much less say in the selection of

their marriage partner than older brides. Brides who are able to exercise some influence on

marriage choices may wind up with more satisfactory matches or may simply feel a stronger

commitment to maintain the marital bond. There is a very small, but statistically significant,

effect of premarital conception of first births leading to more stable marriages (slightly less


divorce during the first five years of marriage). Although the effect is opposite to our initial

expectation (and affects only a very small fraction of the population), the finding may suggest

that sexual relations prior to marriage lowers the risk of divorce because the relationship is a

“love match” rather than one imposed by parents.

The multivariate analysis for Thailand (right hand panel in Table 5a) shares some

common features with the Indonesian patterns, but with a few significant differences. In contrast

to Indonesia and Malaysia, there has been no trend in divorce rates in Thailand. The divorce rate

of about 10 percent (of marriages ending in divorce within five years) in Thailand is considerably

below the Indonesian and Malaysian levels, but still relatively high for a traditional society

As elsewhere, there is a considerable overlap between regional concentrations and ethnic

composition in Thailand. The multivariate results in Model 5a show that regional variations in

divorce in Thailand are largely a function of ethnic composition. With Muslims as one of the

ethnic categories, there is no direct effect of residence in southern Thailand on divorce. There are

moderate negative impacts of living in Bangkok and the Central region on divorce, but only one

coefficient is statistically significant in Model 2, before socioeconomic variables are entered. In

contrast, there are very strong effects of ethnicity, with Chinese Thais having a much lower

likelihood of divorce and Thai Muslims have much higher odds of divorce than the majority Thai

Buddhist community (over 90 percent of the population of Thailand). The Muslim effect is

reduced only slightly with additional controls for education and age at marriage, and the Chinese

impact is even stronger with covariates added to the model (with less than 100 Thai Chinese in

the sample, this finding remains tentative).

As in Indonesia, there are strong net effects of education and age at marriage on the

likelihood of divorce in Thailand. Until recently, compulsory primary education in Thailand


consisted of only 4 years, and very few persons went beyond that level. The effect for secondary

schooling is in the expected direction, but the coefficient is not statistically significant, perhaps

because of the small sample size. The effects of premarital work experience are not consistent

with any plausible hypothesis. The very small numbers of women who work in nonagricultural

unpaid employment (family businesses) or who did not work prior to marriage have somewhat

higher divorce rates than the majority of Thai women who work in family agriculture prior to

marriage. The higher level of divorce of nonworking women does not operate through age at


Unlike Indonesia and Malaysia, there are few marriages of women before age 15 in

Thailand, so the categories for age at marriage only less than 20, 20-24, and 25 and over.

Marrying above age 20 has a very strong and significant impact on lowering the odds of divorce

relative to those who marry younger. The coefficient for those who marry above age 25 is in the

expected direction, but smaller in size and not significant. Perhaps the pattern of lowered divorce

with a higher age at marriage does not necessarily continue in a linear fashion, and there are

correlates of an older age at marriage (in a society where age at marriage is very young) that are

less supportive of marital stability. There is no effect of the timing of first birth on the probability

of divorce in Thailand.

There are somewhat more complex patterns revealed in the multivariate models of

divorce for Malaysian Malays and a very simple picture for the non-Malay communities

(predominately Chinese and Indians). For non-Malays, only one variable is a significant predictor

of divorce, namely age at marriage above age 15. There are small differences among those who

marry from 15 – 19 relative to those who marry in their twenties, but coefficients are not

significantly different from each other.


For Malaysian Malays, there has been a dramatic reduction in divorce from the 1940s to

the 1960s (see Table 4b). The multivariate models in Table 5b show that this trend has been

largely driven by rising educational levels and especially by rising age at marriage. The final

model shows that the divorce level of marriages contracted in the 1960s is not significantly

different from those in the 1940s after all variables are held constant. This finding does not

diminish the magnitude of the observed social change, but reveals the reasons for it.

The effect of metropolitan residence on divorce among Malaysian Malays is only barely

significant, and the lower level of divorce in biggest cities is a primarily a product of the

educational composition of the people who live there. Education has a powerful and striking

effect on lowering the likelihood of divorce, and the impact is direct and not mediated via a later

age at marriage. Premarital work experience has no systematic net impact on the probability of


Marrying above age 15 dramatically lowers the chances of divorce among Malaysian

Malays. There are only small differences in the divorce rate for persons who marry in their late

teens relatively to women who marry in their twenties. The timing of first birth has no effect on

the probability of divorce in Malaysia.


Our final analysis combines the data for all three countries and asks whether we can

explain the country and ethnic difference across countries with the socioeconomic variables

measured here. Table 6 presents two series of three cumulative models of the combined

Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand WFS data in a format similar to the within country analysis in


[Tables 6 About Here]

Model 1 includes the three marriage cohort categories, representing temporal change, and

three dummy variables for the three countries: Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand. Model 2 is a

second baseline model, but instead of country, the major ethnic groups are included as a set of

dummy variables. Models 3 and 4 are extensions of Models 1 and 2 with the inclusion of the

socioeconomic variables of educational attainment and premarital work experience, and Models

5 and 6 add age at first marriage. The timing of first birth variable is not included in this

comparative analysis. Although there are similar effects of the covariates on divorce (as evident

in Tables 5a and 5b), the effects of the covariates in the combined analysis will be affected by the

differential sample sizes of the three surveys. This means that findings in the combined analysis

are somewhat closer to the patterns in Malaysia and Indonesia (relative to Thailand) because of

the larger sample sizes of the WFS data.

The downward trend in divorce over time (which varies across societies) is evident for

the combined data as reported in the baseline Models 1 and 2 in Table 6. This average for

Southeast Asia is a function of the higher sample sizes of the Indonesian and Malaysian surveys.

The downward trend is partially a function of educational attainment (note the narrowing of the

cohort differences in Models 3 and 4 (relative to Models 1 and 2), and disappears entirely with

the inclusion of age at marriage as a covariate. This suggests that the decline of divorce in

Southeast Asia from the 1940s to the 1960s has been part of a larger transformation of marriage

systems in the region and gradual elimination of very young marriages.

The country effects in Models 1, 3, and 5 show a consistent pattern. Indonesia and

Malaysia are part of a marriage system that is fundamentally different from Thailand, and that the

inter-country differences cannot be explained by socioeconomic composition nor age at marriage.


The ethnic effects in Models 2, 4, and 6 reveal more complex patterns within and between

countries. We set the Javanese population as the reference population because they are the largest

single ethnic community in the Southeast Asia. The Sundanese population has a higher divorce

rate than the Javanese community, but this difference is relatively minor compared to the low

divorce communities of the Balinese, Malaysian Chinese, Malaysian Indian, and Thai Chinese. In

these populations, divorce is a very rare event.

At the relatively high level of divorce among the Javanese (which is well below the

Sundanese) are Indonesian Maduranese (primarily on the island of Madura), and the Thai

Muslims. Next are the remaining Indonesian speaking population and the Malaysian Malay

community. In an intermediate level, well below the high divorce populations in Malaysia and

Indonesian, but much higher than the low divorce populations is the Thai Buddhist population.

These ethnic differentials narrow only slightly with the introduction of the covariates. In other

words, the incidence of divorce across these cultural groups would not disappear if they shared

similar socioeconomic and age and marriage characteristics.

The net negative effects of education on divorce are strong and attenuated only slightly

with the introduction of age at marriage. There are no systematic effects of premarital

employment of the divorce. Age at marriage has strong direct impact on reducing divorce across

all these data sets and this is evident in pooled data set.


Western social science has the tendency to assume that studies of their home societies

represent universal patterns. In general, sociological survey of theories and research on divorce

do not even mention traditional high divorce societies (Raschke 1987, Huber and Spitze 1988).


The results presented here, building on earlier work by Goode (1993) and Jones (1994, 1997),

challenge the conventional sociological wisdom that divorce is low in traditional societies and

that the trend in divorce rates is invariably a one way street from low to high levels.

We have examined trends and correlates in the incidence of divorce of first marriages in

Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand using retrospective marital histories collected as part of the

World Fertility Survey program in the mid 1970s. Reconstructing the outcomes of first marriages

from these survey data provides a portrait of marriage and divorce systems in mid-twentieth

century Southeast Asia, when the first stirrings of economic development were being felt. At the

initial stage of our vantage point—the marriage cohort of the 1940s—most Indonesian,

Malaysian, and Thai women had little or no formal schooling, worked on family farms prior to

marriage (or not at all), and married at very young ages. For their daughters, who married in the

1960s, there have been substantial gains in education and the average age at marriage had

increased as well. For some groups, there was also a trend toward increasing participation outside

the household economy.

In all three societies, levels of divorce were considerably higher than that expected to

prevail in traditional societies prior to modernization. In Indonesia (really only Java), over one-

fifth of marriages were disrupted by divorce within five years after marriage and in Thailand, the

comparable figure was about 10 percent. The level of divorce in Malaysia (for the Malay)

population was intermediate between the Indonesian and Thai levels. Across the three marriage

cohorts represented here, the divorce rate was falling in Malaysia and Indonesia, but stable in


Two additional important findings emerge from our analysis. First, there are clearly

sociocultural, ethnic, and religious group differentials in levels of divorce. There are three basic


groups. The first group is the Muslim populations of Indonesia (Sundanese, Javanese, and

Maduranese), Malaysia (Malay), and Thailand—all of whom have very high divorce rates. The

second group is the Thai Buddhist population with a moderate level of divorce, and the third

group covers the very low divorce populations of Balinese, Malaysian Chinese and Indians, and

Thai Chinese. There are variations in the level of divorce within these populations, especially the

first group, but these are less significant than the distinction between the populations. These

differences can be labeled cultural in the sense that they are not measurably attenuated when

educational levels, geographical location, premarital work experience, and age at marriage are

included as covariates in multivariate models.

The second major finding is that, at the individual level, divorce is correlated with lower

socioeconomic status and more traditional demographic characteristics. Rural areas, low

education, and a very young age at marriage are associated with higher levels of divorce. Indeed,

change in these characteristics largely account for the decline of divorce in Malaysia and


These findings require reconsideration of the dominant theoretical perspective that

modernization leads to a rise in divorce. The conventional theory does not assert that persons in

modern societies are less happy or satisfied with marital partners than was true in past times, but

rather that modernity brings more opportunities and choices. Social and geographic mobility

brings people into new settings where they are exposed to a broader variety of persons,

ideologies, and possibilities. Even assuming no change in marital happiness, modernization may

allow more individuals to act on their preferences to end unsatisfactory marriages because of the

knowledge that alternatives are possible. Although this argument is convincing, there is an

additional assumption that married couples in traditional societies were bound together by strong


economic and ideological pressures. These conditions may be more variable across societies than

the conventional theory suggests.

Families are the basic economic unit in all premodern societies, but this does not

necessarily mean the conjugal family. Multi-generation families often provide economic security

that does not require continuity of every person and every marriage. For married women, the

support of their natal family may be sufficiently strong in societies with bilateral (and especially

in matrilocal) kinship structures that wives are less willing to tolerate unhappy marriages.

In many western societies, marriage bonds are often reinforced by strong ideological

pressures from formal religion and the state. These conditions are, however, not inherent in

traditional societies. Traditional Southeast Asian culture put a high priority on compatibility

between marriage partners (Jones 1997, p.104). Given that a system of arranged marriage at a

very young age was bound to create many incompatible couples, a cultural system that permits

divorce with minimal shame and stigma allows a “loophole” for second chances at marriage with

somewhat more freedom in the choices of the parties. Although the Southeast Asian cultural

tradition of flexible divorce predates the spread of Islam, religion may have reinforced the

custom by creating pressures for even younger marriage. In order to avoid the risk of a premarital

pregnancy that would bring shame to the family, good Muslim families may have responded by

marrying their daughters at (or even before) the age of puberty. With the spread of education, a

rise of the age at marriage, and more choice in marriage partners, there may be lessened need to

rely on divorce.



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