Patterns of Marriage Dissolution in India

Patterns of Marriage Dissolution in India

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Data from the Census and District Level Household Survey-3 (2007–08) are used in this paper. The factors of marriage dissolution in India and its regions are investigated using multivariate hazard analysis. The results show that dissolution rates are higher in North-east, South, and West India than in other regions. The risk of marriage dissolution is twice as high for women in urban areas than rural, and higher among the poor than the non-poor, and among the childless than among women with at least one child.

The authors thank the anonymous reviewers for their constructive suggestions and comments on this manuscript.

In most developing societies, birth occurs almost exclusively in wedlock, and marriage is one of the most important demographic processes (Bhagat 2002). In Indian society, marriage is considered a sacred, social event (Hosein 2002). Socio-economic development and improvement in education over the past four decades have caused changes in the attitude towards marriage; a dramatic increase in age at marriage of both sexes; and an increase in the number of free choice marriages, inter-caste marriages, divorces, and separations (D’Souza 1972; Kadi 1987; Singh 1992; Nayab 2009; Jones 2010).

Divorce has long been dissuaded in India, but its incidence has risen since the 1970s. According to the Census 2011 data, around 2.5 million women—1% of all ever-married women aged 15–49—are either divorced or separated (Census of India 2011). Only a few studies examine multiple correlates of rare events such as divorce on the basis of micro-level judicial data on divorce cases (Singh 1992; Rao and Sekhar 2002; Thakur 2009), likely because such data are scarce.

From 2001 onwards, the Census of India has been listing marital status by religion, and for the first time in India, the District Level Household Survey 2007–08 (DLHS-3) collected data on the age at marriage and for divorced and separated women their history of divorce and separation (IIPS 2010). This study uses DLHS-3 data to investigate the factors of marriage dissolution and estimate its likelihood.

Literature Review

Mostly, urbanisation, industrialisation, educational development, and women’s participation in the labour force contribute to changes in society, family structure, and marriage patterns, and help women to leave unhappy marriages (Jones 1997). Earlier, people in East Asian countries would remain in disharmonious marriages to maintain social respect and family status, or for their children’s sake, or to avoid social stigma, but changing circumstances and attitudes towards divorce have increased divorce rates substantially (Jones 2010). Modernisation does not universally raise divorce rates (Jones 1997; Hirschman and Teerawichitchainan 2003), though in traditionally high-divorce societies such as Islamic South-east Asia the divorce rate has risen with modernisation (Jones 1997). A society’s
socio-economic and cultural characteristics are important factors of the social phenomenon of marriage dissolution.

Marriage dissolution rates and pattern vary across countries and over time. The divorce rate rose sharply in Japan, South Korea, and Hong Kong from 1995 to 2000, but in China from 2001 to 2003 (Dommaraju and Jones 2011). The rate of divorce varies also by place of residence. A study in Bangladesh finds that divorce rates are higher in rural areas than in urban areas (Ahmed and Chowdhury 1981) but, in China, the incidence of divorce is higher among urban women than rural (Yi et al 2002).

Demographic characteristics—age at marriage, length of marriage, and sex composition of children—are major factors of divorce. Studies in Ethiopia, China, and India find that the probability of divorce, which is high during the early years of marriage, declines sharply as the marriage ages (Tilson and Larsen 2000; Yi et al 2002; Thakur 2009). Low socio-economic status, illiteracy, and early age at marriage are strongly associated with divorce (Singh 1996; Alam et al 2000). Childless couples are more prone to divorce than those with children (Unisa 1999; Tilson and Larsen 2000). A study in Bangladesh finds that the chance of divorce is high if there is a delay in conception, especially in the first six months of marriage (Alam et al 2000). Longing for a male child and failing to give birth to one is associated with marital discord and dissolution, especially in India (Bose and South 2003; Diekmann and Schmidheiny 2004).

Some micro-level studies conducted in India also corroborate the findings of international studies discussed above. A study in the villages of Himachal Pradesh indicates that ever-divorced women had a much lower mean age at marriage than never-divorced women (Alam et al 2000; Singh 1992). Thakur (2009) finds that, broadly, socio-economic and demographic characteristics are factors of the divorce rate. In Gulbarga, Karnataka, the leading causes of divorce are interpersonal, rather than institutional. In the past few decades, judicial data reveals, increasing numbers of women have petitioned the court for divorce (Rao and Sekhar 2002; Thakur 2009) to seek relief from turbulent marital life.

Divorce Procedures in India

“Divorce” is the dissolution of marriage through the granting of a decree of divorce to one of the spouses. Persons whose marriages have been dissolved by divorce are called “divorced” (IUSSP 1982).

In India, divorce is a lengthy legal procedure that varies by religious group; each has its own personal laws. Hindus can seek divorce under the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955; Christians under the Indian Divorce Act, 1869; Muslims under the Dissolution of Muslim Marriages Act, 1939; and Parsis under the Parsi Marriage and Divorce Act, 1936 (GoI 2018).

Divorce provisions are contained in Section 13 of the Hindu Marriage Act and Section 27 of the Special Marriage Act. Among Hindus, a husband or wife can seek divorce under these acts on grounds such as adultery, desertion for a continuous period not less than two years, cruelty, incurable unsoundness of mind or mental disorder, suffering from venereal disease in a communicable form, virulent and incurable form of leprosy, mutual consent, and being not heard of as alive for at least seven years. A wife may also petition for divorce if she married before she turned 15 and her husband had married again (GoI 2018). A husband or wife can file for divorce in a judicial court on these grounds.

If the divorce is to take place by mutual consent, the wife and husband can file a petition under Section 13B of the Hindu Marriage Act. However, they must have lived separately for a year at least. In India, the divorce procedure takes about a year (GoI 2018).

Kinship and Marriage Pattern: Regional Variation

In South-east Asia, the bilateral kinship system provides the bride a closer association with her family and relatives. Before the newly wedded couple sets up as an independent household, they usually live with the bride’s—rather than the groom’s—parents (Podhisita 1994; Jones 2010).

In India, the Hindu marriage system emphasises the assimilation of the bride into the groom’s family, and marriage is bonding not only between man and woman but also between families. Parents and relatives arrange most marriages, and kin make most decisions. The kinship pattern is interlinked with the marriage system, and influences it. As society is based on the caste system, the kinship system is not homogeneous across the country (Srinivas 1962).

In north India, kinship pattern has three key features. First, marriage is exogamous—the spouse must be unrelated in kinship and should not be from the same place of birth or residence. Second, men tend to cooperate and receive help from their family members, especially men. Third, women generally do not have the right to inherit property, nor do they act as links to transfer it to their offspring (Dyson and Moore 1983). The search for inter-group alliances dominates the marriage system; women do not have a choice.

In south India, the marriage system is endogamous—a man can marry his cousin (mother’s brother’s daughter, father’s sister’s daughter, etc) (Sopher 1980; Miller 1981). Women have higher status than in the north (Karve 1953). Sometimes, they have property rights. Usually, women are married off to men from families known to theirs who live close to their parental home; and their personal movements and sexuality are less rigidly controlled by their in-laws than in the north.

Studying the association of kinship pattern, marriage, and divorce in different parts of India and among religious groups improves our understanding of marriage dissolution.1


In India, the census provides data on marital status by gender, age, and residence. Usually, this data is used to estimate age at marriage. Data from the Census of India (1971–2011) has been used to calculate singulate mean age at marriage and marriage dissolution rates during the study period (1971–2011).

In this study, the trend of marriage dissolution, along with age at marriage in regions of India, and marital dissolution due to separation are calculated (divorce per 1,000 women of reproductive age [15–49 years]). However, it is not possible to calculate age at dissolution or associated factors from the census.

The DLHS-3 is one of the largest demographic and health surveys carried out in India, with a sample size of about 7,00,000 households. In large-scale demographic surveys in India, the timing of marriage is included—to study fertility—but the time of divorce is usually not asked. For the first time, the DLHS-3 asked women about the history, and time, of marriage dissolution. It collected data on the marital history of ever-married women aged 15–49 years (reproductive age).

Fieldwork was conducted from December 2007 to December 2008. It covered 611 districts in the country and gathered information from 6,43,944 ever-married women in the 15–49 age group. A multistage stratified systematic sampling design was adopted for the DLHS-3 (IIPS 2010).

In the survey, the marital status classification refers to the status at the time of the interview; “separated and deserted” refers to couples living apart due to marital problems; and “divorced” indicates people who reported receiving a legal decree of divorce. Ever-married women reporting marital status as divorced/separated/deserted are asked, “How long have you not been living with your husband?”

The analysis of cases of marriage dissolution in this paper is based on ever-married women aged 15–49 who have experienced dissolution—separation/desertion or legal divorce—of their first marriage. (Husbands of ever-married women are not interviewed in this survey; and data are available for the first marriage only.) The duration of marital dissolution is defined as the day of legal separation for divorced women or at least six months of separation for those separated or deserted (not cohabiting and living apart for at least six months).


To understand the dynamics of marriage dissolution by socio-economic background of women and regions, we conduct a bivariate analysis—that is, we estimate percentage by background characteristics, and mean age at marriage and at divorce.

Survival analysis: The Cox (1972) proportional hazard analysis is a proportional hazards model and a well recognised statistical technique for analysing survival data. Considering the demographic importance of changes in family structure, Cox proportional hazard analysis is used to understand the impact of independent variables on the probability of dissolution of marriage among women at various marriage durations (in years). It is useful to assess the effect of predictor variables on the hazard function. The entire set of time-specific rates is considered as response variables in the hazard function. It is based on the product-limit life table and handles censored cases.2

The DLHS-3 data set is cross-sectional. In cross-sectional data sets, the problem of censored cases occurs often; for example, some women have experienced marriage dissolution, whereas others are still exposed to it. DLHS-3 data gives information for women up to age 49 only, and there is a possibility that the marriage dissolution can take place beyond this age.

The time variable used in the Cox proportional hazards model is the marital duration (in years) of divorced, separated, or deserted women. In this study, termination or failure event is marriage dissolution through divorce, separation, or desertion. The hazards model looks at the risk of divorce at each additional year of marital duration.

The selected time-fixed covariates refer to individual socio-demographic characteristics: current age (seven categories); birth cohort of women (before 1975, 1976–85, after 1985); age at marriage and marriage cohort; the number of living children by sex; religion; wealth index; residence type; and region. The educational level of women and their husband is also incorporated. The present analysis of correlates of marriage dissolution is limited to current characteristics of women and her first marriage only.

We analyse census data from 1971–2011 for singulate mean age at marriage and marriage dissolution per 1,000 women aged 15 and above by region (Table 1).

Age at Marriage and Dissolution

Over these four decades—at the all-India level, and in all regions—the mean age at marriage increased three years. Women’s age at marriage rose continually in almost all regions and is highest in the North East and in the South.

The all-India marriage dissolution rate per 1,000 ever-married females aged 15 and above rose from 6.6 in 1971 to 9.6 in 2011, and the number of women who had experienced dissolution of marriage was 3,25,000 in 2011. The marriage dissolution rate varies widely by region—it is highest in the North East; in 2011, the rate in the North East was around five times the rate in the North. In South and West India, too, the marriage dissolution rate is high—in 2011, per 1,000 ever-married women in the 15 and above age group, there were 15 dissolutions in the South and 12 in the West. In 1971, in the North East and South, there were more than 10 cases of dissolution per 1,000 ever-married women. In West India, marriage dissolution rates doubled over the 40-year period. There is a positive association between age at marriage and dissolution rate in all parts of India.

The marital status of women is available by religion and age from 2001. Table 2 presents age at marriage and dissolution by religion. The data on divorce and separation is grouped in the 2001 Census but separated in the 2011 Census. In 2001, other religious groups had the highest marriage dissolution rate, and Buddhists and Christians the next highest rates; in 2011, Buddhists experienced the highest dissolution rate, and Christians and other religious groups the next highest. The dissolution rate was lowest for Hindus. From 2001 to 2011, the rate increased for Hindus by 1 per 1,000 ever-married women and for Muslims by 0.5 over the 10-year period. Buddhist women had the highest divorce rate, and Muslims and Christians the next highest. Separation constitutes a significant proportion of marriage dissolutions. Women of low socio-economic status prefer separation to legal divorce (Holden 2008).

Dissolution: Socio-economic Characteristics

In DLHS-3, the total sample of interviewed women was 6,04,735, of which 9,532 women had ever experienced marriage dissolution. We notice from the census that separations exceed divorces; therefore, in this paper, we combine the analysis of divorced and separated/deserted women.

Of all ever-married women in the 15–49 age group, divorced, separated, and deserted women constitute around 1.5%—higher than the census estimate of 0.96%. The census records marital status as never married, married, widowed, and separated or divorced; it does not consider “deserted” a separate category. The DLHS-3 rates are consistent with the National Family and Health Survey-3 (2005–06) finding of 1.4% of women who had ever experienced divorce, separation, or desertion (IIPS and ORC Macro International 2007).

Table 3 presents the percentage of ever-married women aged 15–49 years who had ever experienced marriage dissolution by individual and household characteristics. The proportion of women with marriage dissolution at younger ages is comparatively low, and at higher ages, it is slightly more. Although the rate of marriage dissolution is usually lower among older women, the cumulative effect of marriage dissolution is higher among older women than among younger women.

Around 2% of ever-married women in urban areas had ever experienced marriage dissolution, higher than in rural areas (1.4%). There are differences by the number of children and their sex composition. About 4% of women without any child, and 2.4% of women without a son, had experienced marriage dissolution. The higher percentage of marriage dissolution among childless women may have been due to childlessness; on the other hand, childlessness may have been the consequence of early dissolution, as they did not get sufficient time to have children.

Marriage dissolution does not show an increasing or decreasing pattern with increasing level of education, but it is slightly higher for women who do not have high school education (1.8%). The association between marriage dissolution and husband’s education is similar. However, 21% of women who were not aware of the educational qualification of their husband had experienced marriage dissolution. Noticeable differences are found by religion and caste or tribe. Christians and Scheduled Tribes report higher incidence of dissolution. There is regional variation—women in the north-east report the highest rate of dissolution, followed by women in the south and west.

Wealth quintile and marriage dissolution show a negative relationship. It is interesting to know the economic condition and dissolution type among women. Hence, the distribution of divorced women is compared with that of separated/deserted women by wealth quintile and length of marriage before marriage dissolution (Table 4). Among divorced women, more than 50% belong to the fourth and fifth wealth quintiles; around 45% women are from the lowest wealth quintiles (first and second). Legal divorce is more common among affluent groups, and separation and desertion are more common among poor women. These findings are supported by Holden (2008). The higher incidence of legal divorce among wealthy women could be due to their knowledge and awareness of legal separation and to their financial status—the legal procedure requires money, which could be why poor women prefer separation.

Age and Duration of Marriage at Dissolution

Age at marriage dissolution is vital, because demographic factors like fertility and the chance of a second marriage depend on it. It is possible to calculate mean age at marriage dissolution from DLHS data. Table 5 presents mean age at marriage dissolution (in years) for divorced, separated, or deserted women (15–49) by socio-economic characteristics—25 years at the all-India level, 26 years for urban women, and 24 years for rural women.

As expected, age at marriage dissolution is high for women whose age at marriage is high (age at marriage of women with high school education and above, and in the highest wealth quintile, is higher than for other categories). The mean age at dissolution for women without any children is the lowest—22 years.

Table 5 presents the mean and median duration before marriage dissolution by the socio-economic characteristics of divorced, separated, or deserted women. Overall, the median duration of marriage for women who had ever experienced marriage dissolution was about five years, and the mean duration was about seven years. About 50% of women experienced dissolution of marriage within five years. The two-year difference between median and mean duration indicates that some women separated after a longer marriage duration, and the distribution of duration is skewed.

The median and mean marital duration of divorced, separated, or deserted women by place of residence is similar for urban and rural women. Childless women have a lower median marital duration (two years) and mean marital duration (four years) than women with children. Our analysis of the duration of marriage and age at dissolution suggests that, for most childless women, childlessness is due to early dissolution of marriage.

Women who report being illiterate have a median duration of marriage before dissolution of seven years and a mean duration of eight years—higher than for literate women. Among the highest wealth quintile, or affluent women, dissolution occurs earlier in the marriage than among women in lower wealth quintiles.

The Cox proportional hazards model is used to determine the factors of marriage dissolution. The hazard coefficients are presented in Table 6. The results of the multivariate analysis are similar to the bivariate results. The relationship between age at marriage and marriage dissolution is significant. The recent marriage cohort (women married after 1996) is experiencing a risk of marriage dissolution that is twice that among women who married before 1985.

The incidence of marriage dissolution among urban women is 1.6 times as high as among rural women, and higher for Christian women than for Hindus. Women in the highest wealth quintile have a lower chance of marriage dissolution than women in the lowest wealth quintile. Regional differences in marriage dissolution are quite significant—women in South, West, and North East India have more than twice the incidence of marriage dissolution of women in the North.

Cumulative hazard graphs are prepared for five variables—residence, sex composition of children, religion, wealth quintile, and region. There is a significant difference in the cumulative probability of marriage dissolution by place of residence (Figure 1).

The risk of dissolution of marriage increases for women without children with each additional year of marriage in comparison to women with children (Figure 2). The sex composition of children also impacts the risk of marriage dissolution—women who have not borne a son are at higher risk of marriage dissolution than women who have borne at least one son.

There are striking differences in the incidence of marriage dissolution over the duration of marriage between Hindus and Christians, but the difference between Hindu and Muslim women is not significant (Figure 3, p 63).

Marriage dissolution is more common among economically poor women than among the non-poor; the results show a decline in the risk of marriage dissolution as one moves from the lowest wealth quintile to the highest (Figure 4, p 63).

There is a clear regional variation in the risk of marriage dissolution over the duration of marriage (Figure 5, p 63). The rate of marriage dissolution is high in South, West, and North East India, and low in North, East, and Central India, and the incidence of marriage dissolution is similar in each case.

Discussion and Conclusions

A study of marriage dissolution can be comprehensive only if the timing of marriage dissolution is discussed, but there is little national-level, duration-specific data in India and, hence, only a few studies. For the first time, the DLHS-3 makes available national-level data on marriage dissolution by marriage duration. These data are used to identify factors of marriage dissolution.

The pattern of divorce and separation this study finds is similar to the most noteworthy previous findings, which show that chances of divorce are high during the early years of marriage and declines sharply with increasing marital duration (Thornton and Rodgers 1987; Tilson and Larsen 2000; Thakur 2009; Yi et al 2002). Much adjustment is needed in the initial years of marriage; failure to do so leads to marital discord. In India, dowry could be a factor of early dissolution of marriage.

In developed countries, the incidence of divorce is lower among younger couples than among older ones (Booth et al 1986; Glick and Norton 1977; Teachman 1982; Thornton and Rodgers 1987; Tilson and Larsen 2000; Yi et al 2002), but the opposite is true in India. Women whose age at marriage is high may also be educated. Growing literacy among women has opened new avenues and challenges. Earlier, girls were dependent on their fathers or maternal homes before their marriage; after marriage, they depended on their husband or in-laws. Nowadays, after higher education, women start working and become financially independent, and may choose to leave bad marriages (Hussain 1983).

In India, the relationship between education and incidence of marriage dissolution is not linear. Dissolution incidence among illiterate women and women educated above high school is lower than for those women who are literate but below high school. Economic status and incidence of marriage dissolution show a negative association. However, among women of low economic status, the prevalence of separation or desertion is more common, whereas legal divorce is more common among women of the affluent sections of society. Some of the possible reasons are secure financial status and knowledge and awareness of the legal process of divorce.

Place of residence and the incidence of marriage dissolution are associated. The incidence of marriage dissolution among women living in urban areas is 1.6 times higher than for women living in rural areas. Also, Christian women bear a higher risk of marriage dissolution than Muslim or Hindu women. Some studies find that childless couples are more prone to divorce than those with children, because children are seen as assets for old age security and as necessary to perform religious rituals (Unisa 1999; Tilson and Larsen 2000).

Sociocultural practices and kinship and marriage patterns vary by region and affect the dissolution of marriage. Women in South India enjoy better status and education level than women in North and Central India. The risk of marriage dissolution in North East, South, and West India exceeds that in North, East, and Central India.

Why is divorce still so low in India? Does it indicate that most marriages are happy? Or that legal and cultural barriers or inadequate economic empowerment trap women in disharmonious marriages? Only a detailed study of marriage stratification can answer these questions. In coming years, more women will have higher education and participate in the labour force. It will be interesting to study the long-term influence of these factors in shaping marriage and divorce patterns in India.

Limitations of the Study

The age gap between spouses is an important factor of marriage dissolution, but this information is not available, and further research is required. There are certain limitations of cross-sectional data—causes and consequences of divorce (psychological health of women and their children, financial support) cannot be studied. For a comprehensive study of causes and consequences of marriage dissolution, time series or longitudinal data are required.


1 This study excludes incidents of spousal death and of “currently married but gauna not performed,” as these are not failure events (marriage dissolution). In the gauna tradition, practised in north India, a young bride lives with her parents after marriage—for a few months or years—until a ceremony is performed and she leaves her natal home to live with her husband (IIPS and ORC Macro International 2007).

2 Details of all the covariates used in survival analysis are given below:

Age at marriage is included to study the relationship between marriage dissolution and women’s age at marriage. To know the probability of getting dissolution by women’s age at marriage, whether there is a significant difference between those who are getting married at early ages (before completing age 18) or those of the later ages.

Marriage cohort is included to see the relationship between marriage cohort and marriage dissolution.

Place of residence is included to see the probability of divorce by place of residence—rural and urban. Studies have found mixed type of correlation (positive and negative) between marriage dissolution and place of residence.

Educational status of woman/husband is included to see the probability of divorce by education level.

Number of living children by their sex is included to study the likelihood of marriage dissolution by the number and sex composition of living children. Our review of the literature suggests that it is an important factor of marital life.

Religion and Scheduled Caste/Tribe are included to see the probability of marriage dissolution by religion and caste.

Wealth index is included to see the probability of marriage dissolution by household affluence. Although it is the current level of affluence, we assume for analysis it was the same at the time of dissolution.

Region is included to study dissolution by culture. The regions are north, central, east, north-east, west, and south. The north comprises Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, Chandigarh, Uttarakhand, Haryana, Delhi, and Rajasthan. The central region comprises Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and Madhya Pradesh. The east comprises Bihar, West Bengal, Odisha, and Jharkhand. The north-east comprises Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura, Mizoram, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, and Sikkim. The west comprises Goa, Maharashtra, Dadra & Nagar Haveli, Daman & Diu, and
Gujarat. The south comprises Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Lakshadweep, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Puducherry (Pondicherry), and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.


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