Sun, sand & separation: Maldives has world's highest divorce rate

Male, MaldivesWritten By: Umaima Rasheed HussainUpdated: Sep 05, 2016, 02:22 PM IST

It takes about a week to get legally married, a little longer to get divorced -- should you follow the law. Photograph:(AFP)

The Maldives, an archipelago of some 1,200 islands in the Indian Ocean, is a global tourist destination which is very popular with honeymooners. But a troubling statistic lies under the Maldives' white sand beaches and blue lagoons -- the country has the highest divorce rate in the world. 

According to the United Nations, the average Maldivian woman has already been divorced three times by the time she is 30 years old. The country has 11 divorces per 1,000 people a year, two times higher than Belarus which has five divorces per 1,000 people. The US, which has the third-highest divorce rate in the world, has four divorces per 1,000 people.

A Maldivian woman in her twenties who has been divorced twice told WION that getting divorced was a very common phenomenon in Maldives.

“It’s not that I want to be divorced. But for several reasons marriages ending up in divorce is common in this country,” she said.

According to figures from the judicial administration in Maldives, there were 3,332 divorces in the country in 2013 -- the country has a total population of 350,000 -- which went up 2% in 2014 to 3,414.

Figures from the family court in the capital city Male show 1,288 divorces were processed through the family court in 2015 alone.

The Maldives is a Muslim country, adhering to a mix of Shari’ah and common law. As per the Shari’ah, a man is allowed to divorce his wife simply by saying that he is divorcing her. Divorce is legal in Islam, but it is also strongly detested.

The Family Act was ratified in 2000. It does not allow the processing of a divorce outside of court. If a man should still do so, he has to pay a fine of 5,000 Maldivian Rufiyaa (USD 325) or spend six months under house arrest. Under the Act, women can also seek divorce through the court. And an amendment to the Act ratified this year allows for the equitable distribution of marital property after divorce.

The measures were meant to make divorce less appealing and force separation rates down but that has not really happened. 

The divorce rate did go down at first -- there were 2,742 divorces in 1999, which went down to 2,674 divorces in 2000 -- but it began to inch up again after a few years.

Why are divorce rates so high in this tiny country? Unfortunately, no formal study has been conducted so far but Dr Aishath Ali Naaz, clinical psychologist and researcher on psychological and social issues in the Maldives, told WION that a number of social issues could be responsible, and that reasons for divorce in the capital city might be different from those on the other islands.

Male is one of the most densely-populated cities in the world and with an area of less than six square kilometres holding up one-third of the country’s total population, it is an expensive city to live in.

“The congested households with extended families is a huge issue. In the capital city, mostly both the wife and husband have to work. Living expenses are high, families live in single rooms, with no privacy for couples. There also are joint family interpersonal conflicts. In the other islands, most men work away from home and families,” Dr Naaz said. 

Because of all of the above, said Dr Naaz, couples don't get to spend any quality time with each other, which affects the quality of their marriage.

She added that marriage and divorce were easy in the Maldives, as compared to other countries. The Maldives, for example, does not have laws or regulations which would make divorce (or marriage) a problematic process. It takes about a week to get legally married, a little longer to get divorced -- should you follow the law.

And she adds that marriages do not end in divorce only because of post-marriage problems; starting a marriage without being prepared is also a problem young couples suffer from.

“People don’t think much and do not plan before they get into a marriage. Once they are married, they struggle to face the challenges and most of them quit instead of trying to work things out,” she said.

Domestic violence, Naaz added, also plays a role. 

And when people have to bring children from an earlier spouse into a new marriage, that too becomes a challenge. 

Naaz added that it is important people realise the impact divorce has on their children.

On its part, the Maldivian government has been working with the United Nations to provide couples with counselling. An official from the gender ministry told WION that the Maldivian government was providing counselling services across the country.

“It’s not specifically focused on divorce. We are providing counselling to anyone who is in need of it,” he said. 

But the Maldives still needs to commission studies to identify specific reasons for the high divorce rate. For only when they have understood why it's happening can they find a way to address the issue.