Fathimath Leena* was 15 when her boyfriend raped her. Having grown up in the conservative city of Malé – where sex outside of marriage is seen as a sin and punishable by law – Leena felt obliged to marry her boyfriend when she turned 18.
“I held very conservative values at the time. Since we had already had sex, I felt like I had to marry him to legalise sex,” the slim, curly haired woman said over a cigarette and coffee.
The marriage lasted one month.
“He would frequently lock me up in our room. I was not allowed to see or speak to my family. He beat me every day. Once, he even burnt me with an iron. He had always been possessive, but I did not expect that kind of violence,” she said in a matter of fact tone.
“I did not have the courage to tell my parents. They were quite happy I had settled down. But one day, he started beating me in public in a shop. I ran out, he followed me into his parents apartment and in a fit of anger he told me I was now divorced,” she recounted.
Since then, Leena, now 29, has been married and divorced twice more and has a child from her third marriage.
According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Maldives ranks highest in the world with 10.97 divorces per 1000 inhabitants per year. Maldives’ divorce rate is twice as high as second placed Belarus.
“Maldives may rank highest in the world for divorces, but at least the ease in getting a divorce ensures women or men do not stay in abusive or unhappy relationships,” Leena said.
Ease of divorce
Obtaining a divorce is relatively easy under the Maldives’ mixed Shari’ah and common law system. A man is allowed to divorce his wife out of court simply by saying he was divorcing her. He is also allowed to revoke the divorce within three months.
A woman can only seek divorce through the courts, and if the judge decides the grounds for divorce are justified.
According to the Department of National Planning, 5,699 couples got married in 2012, but 3,011 couples got divorced in the same year.
The Family Court in Malé says it processed 784 cases of divorce in 2013. Of the 784, 360 were out-of-court divorces, and 262 cases were women seeking divorce through the court.
According to a family court official, who wished to remain anonymous, the court has imposed a MVR 5000 (US$ 324) fine to mitigate the high divorce rate and ensure couples seek reconciliation before obtaining a divorce. However, in 2013, only 14 couples sought reconciliation.
The family court is at present conducting an analysis of reasons for divorce, the official said.
Leena believes most couples get married young in order to legalise sex. According to a 2011 UNFPA study on reproductive health, knowledge and behavior of young unmarried women in the Maldives, Maldivian youth are sexually active outside of marriage despite existing social belief systems, which consider sexual behavior outside of wedlock to be unacceptable.
“Parents and society frowns upon unmarried couples spending time together alone and press for marriage even though the couples may not be financially independent,” she said.
Leena said she had married her second and third husband for love. However, living in congested households with extended families had strained both marriages.
“People get married without financial independence and when they are not emotionally mature. There is no privacy to solve the smallest issues. So they escalate. Also, most couples live with their children in the same room and this can strain marriages,” she added.
A 2008 Human Rights Commission of the Maldives (HRCM) study said 12,000 families living in Malé do not have their own housing and are forced to share accommodation with other families.
Historically high divorce rate
State Minister for Gender and Family Dr Haala Hameed said a lack of research on Maldives’ high divorce rate made it difficult to pinpoint exact reasons for divorce.
She said that Maldives had historically had high divorce rates, but believes recent increase in divorce rates may be due to stress within families as women enter the work force.
“In this globalised era, more and more women are entering the work force. High standards of living necessitate women supplement their husband’s income. However, there are no childcare facilities. And certain religious elements see women in the workforce – or active in public space – in a negative light. All of this can create stress within families and lead to divorce,” she speculated.
A myriad of problems emerge when divorce becomes common, she said. “Children tend to bear a huge loss when parents separate. Children from broken families are often neglected. They then tend to become school drop outs, engage in drug abuse or resort to violence,” she said.
Meanwhile, Leena said she had no regrets over her three marriages.
“It’s life. What can we do but live and learn from it? I have no regrets. Relationships do not last forever. When the time comes, I am ready to settle down again.”