The Maldives economy is largely dependent on tourism, which provides the majority of its foreign currency income. It also accounts for one third of the country’s GDP. It is hard to imagine now that tourism did not exist here four decades ago.
Maldives – Long Read

The highest divorce rate in the world

Photo by Jochem Wijnands

Maldives – Long Read The highest divorce rate in the world

The Maldives is a collection of some 1,200 islands in the Indian Ocean and home to one surprising record. It has the highest divorce rate in the world. The average local 30-year-old has already been married and divorced three times and is ready for the fourth. Ironically, it is also a favorite destination for newlyweds looking for romance on their honeymoon.

Jochem Wijnands
Jochem Wijnands Founder / photographer

I spoke with a young woman named Humila who told me her story. “My first husband was my high school sweetheart. We got married right out of school. We invited people from our village to our house, we got lots of presents and the next day I moved in with my parents-in-law. After three days I had an argument with my mother-in-law. She said I was messy, (which I was) and a bad cook (which I wasn’t) and moody (well, ok) and that I had to shape up and behave. I responded that that was the way I was. I said that she was not my mother and that she’d better get used to it because I was here now. Her son loved me and I was his wife.

“Of course I was too aggressive for her, and I was a bit arrogant – they were fishermen while my family was a family of merchants. Unfortunately, my husband overheard the whole thing. He jumped out from behind a curtain like a circus clown. But what he said was not funny. He said, ‘I divorce you! Leave the house!’ And that’s how my first marriage ended, after three days and two hours.”

After her first marriage, Humila studied for two years to become a bookkeeper and later was employed by a shipping company. There she met her second husband. He was ten years older and already had two children from a previous marriage. The kids were with their mother. Humila and her new husband went to live in a small apartment in the capital, Male, and soon after she became pregnant.

Within three years she had three daughters. Then one night her husband walked in with a friend and said: “I divorce you!” No reasons given. Humila has her own theory. “It was because of the financial burden of having a family,” she says. “We were not rich and I could not work, so all of the money he earned was spent on us.”

His wife didn’t want to live with him

Humila returned to her family with her daughters but after a year her mother asked her to start looking for a new husband. Being unmarried is not looked upon favorably in Maldivian society, to say the least. She heard from a friend about a man working in a nearby resort, someone who worked as a guide leading the daily tourist excursions to her village. They were introduced even though he was already married to someone in Male. But his wife didn’t want to live with him at the resort.

In fact, as it turned out, he was looking for a wife nearby. So he got divorced and married Humila. She lived on and off at the resort, while her children stayed with her mother. It was a perfect arrangement. But then he was transferred to another resort, and the convenience of having her family and children nearby ended. She soon became very lonely and homesick and she was the one who asked for a divorce. Luckily for her, he felt pity and agreed. Humila is now a 24 year old single mother with three children and three ex-husbands. She says she feels old.

Velizinee Aisath (Vel) listens unimpressed. “That’s typical,” she says. I am meeting up with Vel because this radiant 30something Maldivian is an authority on family affairs and human rights. She studied politics and women’s issues in Australia and completed her masters in development studies in the Netherlands. She worked for the government at the Ministry of Family and Gender Issues, before becoming a journalist and a writer for opposition newspaper The Adduvas Weekly.

In 2004 she founded Hama Jamiyya, the first Maldivian Human Rights organization. In 2009 she became a Member of the Judicial Service Commission (JSC). “The high number of marriages is a practice that started a long time ago and has become part of our culture,” she says. “We are an Islamic country and men can have several wives at the same time. For them it is very easy to divorce. They just have to say, ‘I divorce you’, and it is done. Women don’t have that possibility.”

Men can have four wives at a time

The Maldives is tiny. The total land mass is only 298 km2. The population is tiny, around 300,000. Only the number of islands is impressive: almost 1,200. The country was run for three decades by a dictator called Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and during his reign political reform was a dirty word. Islamic law (Sharia) rules public life as in most Muslim countries. Hence polygamy is legal and men can have four wives at a time.

But this does not explain the high divorce rate. If it did, other Islamic countries would have equally high divorce rates. What makes the Maldives different? “In other Muslim countries divorced women are stigmatized, and because of that are no longer able to remarry,” says Vel. “This is not so in the Maldives. Being divorced has no stigma. Instead the stigma is associated with being single. Then you’re branded and become a social outcast. Something must be wrong with you, right? That’s why so many women marry the next possible candidate, who is not always the most suitable one. Result? Another divorce.”

I visit the family court in the busy capital Male. It is a square office block five stories high. In the hall I find a large number of people waiting, mostly dressed in jeans and flip flops. Everyone looks bored. Nobody talks. They are all very young. They look like they are there to pick up their first driver’s license. In fact, they are all waiting to get married.

A door opens and all are waved into a small room, where a glum civil servant is seated behind his desk. He checks if everyone is present, recites a text from the Koran and then asks each couple, one by one, to come to his desk to sign their marriage contract. The whole ceremony is over in 15 minutes. No one smiles. As they leave, the newlyweds must pass the little square reserved for public whippings. Almost a weekly occurrence, those who are found guilty of adultery receive 100 lashes.

Tomato ketchup is provided for taste

I catch up with Mohamed and Sanfa, both in their early 20s. They agree that they are rather old to marry for the first time. “Our marriage was arranged years ago and Mo had to finish his education first,” says Sanfa. That night the couple invite friends and family to the house. Not being rich, it is a watered-down affair: lemonade from plastic cups and rice on plastic plates. Tomato ketchup is provided for taste. People come, shake hands, hand over a present, eat, and leave. Not much of a celebration. But Mo and Sanfa are content. It’s what they had expected.

Although some do celebrate more elaborately, with a photo shoot perhaps, a wedding is not the big milestone it is in most other countries. In fact, second, third, and fourth marriages are often not celebrated at all. “I feel that for many the marriage carousel is actually a form of dating,” says Shamla (31), herself happily married to her high school sweetheart. “Many Maldivians will have had a number of partners through marriage before they are 25 or 30. When you are 18 you are often too young to settle for life. But our social values state that marriage is honorable, and sex outside of marriage is not.”

“It’s not a harmless phenomenon,” says Vel. “On the contrary, the high divorce rate is causing real suffering. Of course, when a young, childless couple breaks up, the damage is limited. For women the effect on their position in society is especially devastating. We become interchangeable, like a throwaway product. We raise our voice once or express an opinion and our husband divorces us. It is a form of punishment. A means of suppression, and we have learned to keep quiet and be careful.

“To make matters worse, the majority of women are financially dependent on their spouse. In our society, there are very few jobs for women. A divorce automatically means financial problems. The man should pay alimony, but it is never enforced. When pressed by relatives for support payments it is not uncommon for the man to go into hiding and lay low for a while. So what is a woman to do, broke and responsible for her children, but become a burden to her family! She marries again, as soon as possible! That’s the only way out. But the real victims of this crazy situation are the children. Apart from all of the practical and emotional problems, they lack the role models that teach them values such as love and respect.”

There are the so-called ‘chain breakers’

The high number of marriages and divorces leads to very strange situations unseen and unheard of elsewhere. There are the so-called ‘chain breakers’. Although it is not a job as such, it is certainly a way to generate some extra income. It works like this. It is quite common for a man to divorce and remarry his wife for no other reason than to show that he is angry with her. Maldivian law, however, prohibits a man from marrying the same woman for a fourth time in a row.

This is where the chain breaker comes in. He marries the woman and spends one night with her, as Sharia law prescribes, divorcing her the next day. This allows her initial husband to re-marry her for the fourth time. Chain breakers are held in high esteem because they provide a valuable service and can be trusted not to force the woman to have sex, to which they have a legal right. These complicated situations are common and can be found in all ranks and classes of the population. The then-president of the Maldives, Mr Gayoom, asked one of his ministers to act as a chain breaker after he divorced his wife for the third time, and nobody thought it was strange.

In my quest for some answers I started to look at this marriage-go-round from the man’s point of view. Men, too, must suffer from the broken families, from not seeing their children grow up, and from the lack of friendship and intimacy. So what are the motives then?

On the island of Dhidhdhoo I meet Mohamed Nooh, almost 40 years old and married for the fifth time. His present wife is 24 year old Tauma, who is married for the first time. Mohamed is an important man on the island. Apart from being second to the chief, he is a teacher and runs one of the only shops.

The wives will fight among each other

“We can be married to three women at the same time, but no one does it because it is really very expensive,” he says. “You have to provide an equal income for each of your wives. Apart from that, the wives will almost certainly fight among each other. Before you know it your house is a battleground.” Later he adds, almost in a whisper: “By law we are entitled to more than one woman.” Serial marriage seems to be the answer for Maldivian men, or serial polygamy, as Velezinee calls it.

Then I meet Shirham who is the marketing manager for Universal Resorts. “My father divorced my mother and left us when I was only six months old,” he says. “He is now in his fifth marriage. I can’t imagine that he understands the impact his decisions had on our family, and on me. He found another wife, a younger one and walked out, without taking any responsibility for his actions. I once asked him: ‘Dad, describe love for me, tell me what it is.’ But he couldn’t. He doesn’t know.”

Shirham is in his 30s and has a wife and two children. “I love my family and will never leave them; they are the most important thing in my life. I don’t want to make the same mistake my father made. But if I look at my friends, I don’t see any change. Maldivian men don’t value a long lasting relationship or being a good father to their children. They appreciate their wife until she delivers her first child. Then they don’t find her attractive anymore and go looking for a younger model.”

The government of the Maldives is not proud of holding the world record in divorces. The country has been successfully attracting tourists over recent decades and it is realizing that this is a dirty mark on their record. But there is another, more urgent reason for change. The Maldives is promoting romantic holidays and receives multitudes of requests for official weddings which they have to reject.

A family law was passed by parliament

By law a foreigner is not allowed to marry on the islands. Under immense pressure from the tourist industry, this law is about to change, although strongly opposed by some religious groups. This raises the question about the Maldivians’ own way of handling wedding contracts. As early as 2001 the first changes were made to fight the high number of divorces, and a family law was passed by parliament. This law is supposed to make it more difficult for anyone to obtain a divorce. It raised the minimum age from 16 to 18 and made unilateral divorce illegal.

Vel explains it this way: “Where once a man could divorce his wife merely by telling her that she was divorced, now both partners must go through court to initiate it, and a divorce is only granted when reconciliation attempts fail. If the husband alone initiates divorce and does not want reconciliation, he has to pay $500; which is about two month’s income. No surprise then that the days before the law came into effect, hundreds of men were lining up at the family court to file for divorce. The process of divorcing has been made more complicated.

“A fine may discourage men who want to dump their wives without any further consequences, but what is the point of forcing people to stay together when they marry for the wrong reasons in the first place? The only thing the government is interested in is improving the statistics.”

The future doesn’t look so bleak

Fortunately for the Maldivians, from an objective point of view, the future doesn’t look so bleak. I met quite a few young, educated Maldivian men and women like Shirham who show the tides are changing regarding marriage and family values. True, the new family law does not improve the quality of marriage, but it does, for the first time, raise a critical view of divorce and it is likely to be the beginning of more laws aimed at divorce. Pre-marriage counseling is needed, as well as improvements to the position of women in society, including better education and more job opportunities.

“So far not much has been done. It’s hard to see how this country can really change without any political reform,” says Vel. But many signs point to changes in the future. Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who was president of the Maldives for 30 years, was finally voted out of office in 2008. The Democratic Party, headed by the new president Mohamed Nasheed, introduced a new constitution that for the first time guarantees fundamental human rights. “Things can only get better, but it is not going to happen overnight,” says Vel.

In the Olhuveli resort, Adrian and his Russian wife Elvira are celebrating their mock wedding on the beach, in the same spot where shells have been collected by previous newlyweds. In the middle of the ceremony a tropical rainstorm blows up and everybody runs for shelter. What was supposed to be a romantic event turns into a wash-out. Although quite typical for weddings on the Maldives, the irony is lost on Adrian and Elvira.

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