It’s difficult for many Americans to imagine a modern world without divorce, but until recently this was the case in countries as diverse as Ireland , Argentina, and Chile. Ireland legalized divorce in 1997 and Argentina ten years earlier in 1987. Divorce only became legal in Chile in 2005. In all three countries the Catholic Church lobbied fiercely to keep divorce out of the picture.
Surprisingly there are a few countries where divorce is still entirely illegal and more where it is culturally frowned upon and extremely difficult to obtain. From an American perspective, many would consider divorce laws in the following countries strange:
In general, divorce is illegal in the Philippines. Under Philippine law, certain Muslim Filipinos can obtain divorces, and Filipino citizens married to foreign nationals who divorce in the other spouse’s country of residency are considered legally divorced and able to remarry. Filipinos who divorce in other countries but are legal residents of the Philippines are still considered married under Phillippine law. But most Filipinos are out of luck; their only options are legal separation or annulment, and the process is lengthy and expensive for either one. Legal separation may be granted if one spouse can prove physical abuse, drug or alcohol addiction, homosexuality, infidelity, or abandonment. Annulment is even more complicated, in that the parties must prove some sort of fraud or mental incapacity at the time of the marriage.
Divorce is illegal in Malta. The country is 98% Catholic, Catholicism is the state religion, and the illegality of divorce was written into the Maltese constitution in the 1960s. At that time divorce was still illegal in many primarily Catholic countries such as Italy, Portugal, Spain, and Ireland, so Malta was hardly unique. However, by 1997 every other European country had made provisions for legal divorce. Not so in Malta.
Unlike the Philippines, however, Maltese law recognizes divorces obtained legally in other countries when one of the parties is a resident of that country, even if they have retained Maltese citizenship. Malta also recognizes divorces obtained elsewhere between a Maltese citizen and a foreign national. Maltese couples may also obtain a legal separation, which can be either consensual or contentious. Maltese law requires a couple go through mediation before a separation can be legalized, and there are only three grounds for separation: adultery, “excesses, cruelty, threats or grievous injury on the part of the other spouse or against any of his/her children,” or an irretrievable breakdown in a marital relationship (provided the couple has been married at least four years, or have lived separately for at least two years). Annulments can be obtained in Malta, as in the Philippines, in cases of underage marriage, mental incapacity, non-consummation, or some sort of fraud at the time of the marriage.
Chile was one of the last countries to legalize divorce, in 2005, but the influence of conservative Catholic lawmakers has made the process lengthy and difficult. There are no provisions for no-fault divorce; the parties must prove infidelity, abuse, or abandonment for the divorce to be granted. A separation period between one and three years is required.
Egypt introduced no-fault divorce in 2000, but Egyptian women still face unequal access to family courts and protections under the law. Prior to the new laws, women could only be granted a divorce if they could prove physical or psychological abuse, while men needed only to follow the Islamic law of saying “I divorce you” three times, or file a notice with the government marriage registrar. Personal status laws in Egypt establish that Islamic rules on marriage and divorce prevail except in cases where both husband and wife are non-Muslims and from the same religious denomination. Under the current law, for instance, a Catholic husband with a Coptic wife could be subject to Islamic law.
Women can now file for no-fault divorce, but must give up all financial and property rights to do so and repay any dowry their husbands gave to the wife’s family upon the marriage. To receive any sort of support they must be able to prove their husband harmed them during their marriage, often needing eye-witnesses even for physical abuse. Egyptian men, however, have unconditional rights to divorce and don’t even need to go to court to obtain it. Women filing for divorce have to go through mediation with their estranged husband; men have no such requirement.
Most divorces in Japan are consensual and fairly straightforward. The couple only has to sign, seal, and file a one-page form; they can be divorced without ever going to court. However, there is no provision for joint custody of children under Japanese law, unless the divorce was finalized in another country where the child has citizenship and custody was established there. There are provisions for child support but not visitation; it is uncommon for children to see the other parent frequently after a divorce.
Another odd aspect of Japanese family law is that women have to wait six months before they can remarry after a divorce, although men have no such restrictions. A woman is also required to take her husband’s surname upon marriage, and it takes complicated legal maneuverings to restore her maiden name after a divorce.