Baroness Deech of Cumnor: Our divorce laws are unfair to men and degrading to women

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It is surprising that feminists have remained silent on the issue of divorce, where one might expect a clear and demanding female voice. There has not been one since Baroness Summerskill opposed the 1969 divorce reform.

Presumably it is because women have diametrically opposed personal interests in ease of divorce. For every woman abandoned by her husband, there is another who is glad to have the opportunity to marry or live with a divorced man.

Yet it is clear that if women ought to be protesting as a sex against anything, it is against easy divorce and a high divorce rate. The law claims to "protect" them through maintenance, but it is not that sometimes illusionary financial protection that is needed, but the presence of the complete family.

If we are serious about the need to hold or reverse the rise in divorce, then there are two ways forward. One is by education of young persons still at school. The advantages and disadvantages of educating young people about smoking and food have been explored. They certainly hear the messages, even if they do not heed them, and some may say that it has done some good.

There is no reason not to try the same approach in relation to divorce. Marriage education could be coupled with the existing sex education programmes, each reinforcing the other. A marriage education programme could focus on the factors that are known to make for a happy or unhappy marriage, the financial costs of splitting up, the dangers to children of broken marriages, the paternal role, and the career prospects and post-divorce situation of women.

It is not necessary to antagonise teachers or public opinion by attaching any particular political or religious agenda: one need only let the facts speak for themselves. Sadly, these changes will take a long time to prepare and to take effect.

The other remedy is to tighten divorce procedures by insisting on a delay before freedom to remarry in divorces based on the adultery or unreasonable behaviour grounds, which can be processed so quickly at the moment.

This is an edited extract from a lecture given by the crossbench peer to Gresham College yesterday, part of an ongoing series

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