Friday, October 31, 2003
Maldives divorce rate soars
A story released today by the Agence France Presse reports that with its quiet beaches and azure waters, Maldives is a magnet for honeymooners the world over. But for Maldivians a less romantic reality persists: the archipelago is plagued by one of the world’s highest divorce rates.
In 2000, Maldives registered 1,928 divorces and 3,829 marriages, a ratio just over 50 percent. The next year the Indian Ocean nation amended its Islamic law to make divorce more difficult to obtain, cutting the rate to 32 percent in 2002, according to government figures.
A 2002 study by the conservative US think tank the Heritage Foundation found Maldives had 11 divorces for every 1,000 people, far higher than any of the other 92 countries studied. Fellow Muslim nation Turkey saw only 0.5 divorces for 1,000 people.
The United States, with the highest divorce rate among major countries, has four divorces per 1,000 people, according to the US National Center for Health Statistics.
The standard explanation for Maldives’ sky-high divorce rate lies in the traditional fishing culture. Men would migrate to another of the 1,192 coral islands in search of a better catch, leaving behind their wives and starting new families.
Some Maldivians see a disconnection between Islam, under which a man can divorce his wife by telling her so three times, and a tropical society with a relatively relaxed attitude toward sexuality.
“In many Muslim countries if a girl isn’t a virgin before marriage that’s it. Here if a girl is a virgin a guy will think twice,” said artist Ahmed Abbas.
In 2001, amid the increasing prosperity generated by the luxury tourist industry, Maldives changed the law to let women seek divorces through the courts, which study each case and can order counselors’ intervention.
“More females are graduating from overseas universities. They have a more powerful consciousness and are demanding more,” said Hassan Saeed, a justice ministry official handling the new law.
A divorce now costs up to 400 dollars, about a sixth of the per capita income in Maldives.
The law sets 18 years as the age of marriage unless a court grants an exception. In 1979 at the start of the tourist boom, half of all Maldivian women married at age 15 or younger, according to a UN-backed study.
Polygamy, while not widespread in Maldives, is also targeted by the 2001 law, which orders courts to assess a man’s finances before letting him take another wife.
While the number of divorces has dropped, observers caution the figure could simply reflect the more lengthy process to leave a spouse.
And Saeed noted that the law’s side effects had not yet been studied; such as whether domestic violence is on the rise by men angered they cannot have a quick divorce.
“Divorce is a social problem and we have found a legal solution. My fear is that this could be a mismatch,” he said