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Bhutanese take divorce in their stride

Thimphu market scene
Bhutan is urbanising less quickly than its neighbours

By Charles Haviland
BBC News, Thimphu

"The divorce case is very, very common. If you go to the court, you will see most of the cases are all on divorce."

It may sound like a comment from Scandinavia - but this is Bhutan and the speaker is a young artist, Barun Gurung. His own parents divorced 10 years ago, when he was 13 and his brother a little older.

"I think during their marriage they used to have small fights which, you know, used to have bad impact on us," he told the BBC.

"They used to fight and you know my father used to put hands on my mother. So it was quite bad to see that."

We meet in the studio where Barun works - a collective of artists in the Bhutanese capital, Thimphu, its walls plastered with brightly coloured pictures.

At least one of his colleagues joins in the conversation saying he, too, comes from a family affected by divorce. Marriage break-ups are common in this tiny kingdom. So, too, are love marriages, not arranged by one's family.

Pregnant

In both these ways Bhutan differs from its neighbours like India, Bangladesh and Nepal; this is a region where divorce is rare and carries a stigma.

Passang Dorji
In Bhutan basically marriage is very mutual and practical
Passang Dorji

A few blocks away Tshering does a completely different job. Now in her late 20s, she says she got divorced after a three-year marriage, having got pregnant while in college.

"To have a baby without a father is not very acceptable in Bhutan," she says. "We got married and we tried to compromise and we tried to make it work. [But] we kept fighting for small little things.

"At the same time we barely spoke to each other. So it wasn't a very healthy environment for a child to grow up in. So we talked it over and we just had a very clean and peaceful divorce - it wasn't ugly at all."

Thimphu is an attractive, orderly city set in a valley of pine forests. By world standards it is a very small capital. A recent press article on social trends said, however, that the town had nearly 700 divorce cases in its courts over a four-year period.

Many causes were cited, including alcoholism, infidelity, domestic violence - and plain incompatibility. There were many more cases that did not come to court. And the divorce rate is rising.

It is the kind of trend many would associate with urbanisation - but Bhutan is urbanising less quickly than its neighbours.

Barun Gurung relates it to the fact that people here "are quite easy-going and a little laid-back" and that, compared with, say, India, women here are treated more on a par with men.

But the attitude to marriage itself is also unusual.

Barun Gurung
Bhutanese are "easy-going and a little laid-back", says Barun Gurung

In this Buddhist-dominated society, in both rural and urban settings, many people tie the nuptial knot in a more casual, less ceremonial way, than elsewhere. There is also a long tradition of people starting to live together and, once they are clearly committed, being regarded as married.

Passang Dorji, a senior reporter at the Bhutan Times, cites his own situation.

"In Bhutan basically marriage is very mutual and practical," he says. "It basically depends on a couple's mutual consensus."

He met his own wife - a teacher - in their primary school days. Later "she used to work in a very remote place and I used to go there and live with her. So basically our marriage didn't have any ceremonies.

"So far our married life has been very good. We are parents of two and she is also a working mother."

'Puppy love'

It is a far cry from the lavish, sometimes cripplingly expensive, weddings common in the region.

Given that marriage is more low-key, and more often tied to romantic love than to parental choice, that might be a reason why it has become easier to leave it. And, says Passang, neither the man nor the woman is likely to be disdained.

Sangay Zam
Divorces shouldn't be so cheap - there should be some cost factor so that people think twice
Sangay Zam MP

"Her friends, her relatives, her parents would be there to help and sympathise with her," he says.

"If by stigma someone is forced to live with the person she or he doesn't like, I think it is not a meaningful life... Our system basically gives liberty for a person to practise a lifestyle that she or he prefers."

But some think the tide should turn; that some young people are too careless and get married for reasons of "puppy love".

Sangay Zam, a member of parliament, stresses that many Bhutanese do still revere and value the marriage institution. She feels that marriage break-ups are usually initiated by men and are too easy.

"If the men get the opportunity to pull the strings and have their say, they would naturally have divorces. And divorces are not so expensive, if you look at the law of the country.

"So I think some of the parliamentarians are taking it up to say that divorces shouldn't be so cheap - there should be some cost factor so that people think twice before they think about divorces."

Barun, the artist, now has both a stepmother and a stepfather - both his parents have remarried. He gets on well with both. But he too says divorce should be a last resort.

"If the relationship is not working out, I think it is better to get divorced. But if the relationship is working out and it's just that you have a feeling for another girl or woman, it's really bad."

It is striking that this generally poor country seems, in some areas of life, to be following a path more akin to Western countries than its neighbours.

Tshering is glad that as a divorced mother she is not ostracised. But she is not in a hurry to marry again.

"I need a lot of time - to bring up my son, to focus on my career - so marriage is the last thing right now," she says, laughing.

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