A little-noticed trend is spreading in many of the world’s emerging economies: More and more people are getting divorced. Outside of North America, Europe, and Oceania, two-thirds of the countries for which the United Nations has data saw rising divorce rates from 2007 to 2011. According to the UN, the divorce rate in Mexico has climbed from 0.3 to 0.8 per thousand people since the late 1970s. In Brazil, where ending a marriage was illegal just 30 years ago, the divorce rate is now about 1.4 per thousand people. Rates have climbed dramatically in China, Thailand, Iran, and South Korea, which has seen more than a fivefold increase in divorces over the past few decades.
In Western countries such as the U.S., which has a divorce rate of 3.6 per thousand people, the prevalence of divorce is most often viewed as a regrettably common fact of life; evidence suggests it can be a factor in juvenile crime and declining child welfare. In Asia, Africa, and Latin America, however, divorce is both an indicator of and force behind social changes that have improved prospects for women, reduced gender inequality, and fueled development. All of which suggests that the more people are able to get out of bad marriages, the better off their societies are likely to be.
Many of the same countries with rising divorce rates have also experienced significant economic development in recent years. Take China, Thailand, and South Korea—all have seen increasing numbers of divorces alongside impressive social progress. South Korea is now a member of the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development club of rich countries. In 1990 about 3 percent of China’s college-aged kids were enrolled in university; today that number is 27 percent. Thailand’s infant mortality rate is about one-third of what it was in 1989.