Divorce and Domestic Violence

Last updated August 2012

Divorce is frequently seen as the only option for women fleeing violent husbands. However, it is often extremely difficult for women to obtain a divorce and keep herself safe during the process. Divorces are often costly for women. "[W]omen bear the costs of feeding and clothing the children (a task made especially difficult given the lack of enforcement mechanisms for child support and alimony payment) and also bear the burden of locating a new home." From MAHR, Domestic Violence in Macedonia 24 (1998). In Moldova, for example, women reported that lack of housing alternatives and severe economic circumstances deter women from seeking divorces, and countries throughout the world are experiencing similar problems.

The "most likely predictor of whether a battered woman will permanently separate from her abuser is whether she has the economic resources to survive without him." Divorce laws that ensure equitable divisions of marital property and provide for child support and maintenance further women's ability to protect themselves from violence by providing them with the resources to become financially independent of their abusers.

In many countries in the CEE/FSU region, women are required to participate in mediation or joint counseling with their husbands or undergo a waiting period before a divorce is granted. These requirements place women in jeopardy because they prevent them from separating from their husbands at a time when the danger of severe and lethal retaliation is at its greatest. As the Family Violence Prevention Fund explains, there are a host of problems associated with mediation when domestic violence is an issue. Mediation and couples counseling imply that both parties are responsible for the perpetrator's violent behavior, a message that blames victims and fails to hold offenders accountable for their crimes.

Mediation also presumes that both parties have equal power and can negotiate a mutually agreeable settlement. Where there is domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking behavior, however, one party has controlled the other through sexual, physical, emotional and/or economic abuse. Even the most skilled mediator or therapist cannot shift the balance of power when one party has abused or assaulted the other, making mediation and joint counseling dangerous and ineffective in such cases. Betsy Mcalister Groves et al., Identifying and Responding to Domestic Violence: Consensus Recommendations for Child and Adolescent Health, Family Violence Prevention Fund 28 n.5 (September 2002).

Women in Moldova and Poland, for example, reported that courts may postpone hearings on divorce cases to encourage reconciliation. This approach has extremely dangerous consequences for women since research shows that during the period directly following a woman's decision to leave her abuser, the risk of serious, even lethal, violence increases. From MAHR, Domestic Violence in Poland 39 (2002); MAHR, Domestic Violence in Moldova 34, 35 (2000).

In countries where women must show fault to obtain a divorce, details of abuse may become part of the proceedings. In cases where fault is not at issue, judges may nonetheless see signs of abuse during the proceedings but not address it.

Domestic violence advocates, however, have recognized the importance of civil law remedies for battered women and in many places, have accomplished significant reform in the areas of family law and divorce.