The Maldives — that scattering of 1,200 tiny islands, a long way south of India, that you’ve seen on a screen saver or two — might seem like paradise. Bungalows hovering above transparent waters. Palm trees with trunks bent perfectly for naps. The island of a thousand honeymoons. And … a thousand divorces.
According to the U.N., the average 30-year-old Maldivian woman has been divorced. Not once. Not twice. But three times. Three divorces before the age of 30 — and that’s just the average. Explanation? The Maldives has the highest divorce rate in the world. Indeed, the place literally holds the Guinness World Record.
By way of context, the second and third highest rates, in Belarus and the United States, respectively, are around four divorces per thousand, or less than half that. So now, the real question: Why?
“Horniness,” answers Anthony Marcus, chair of the anthropology department at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, in New York. Marcus wrote a book chapter on just this issue. The short answer is that the bikini-packed Maldives is actually a Muslim country, and that means there is a great stigma against premarital sex. Which leads a lot of teed-up 18-year-olds to suddenly see marriage as maybe the best idea ever. And getting married isn’t such a big deal in the Maldives. Marcus reports that people typically pay a judge $10, invite 10 friends to a restaurant and then rabbit away.
But like most decisions made at 18, many people quickly start rethinking their genius plan. Fortunately, the liberal divorce laws that govern much of the Muslim world also apply here. Under those laws, while only a man may initiate a divorce, all he needs to complete the act is to say it out loud in front of a witness. Forget the messy paperwork and drawn-out court battles. (For its part, the government, while not responding to OZY, has pointed to these laws as the main explanation too.)
Maldivians, of course, have come up with their own explanations for the high rate. First, many locals say the size of the place turns relationships into soap operas. (But, if true, small villages everywhere would also bear a super high divorce rate, and yet they don’t.) And second, Marcus reports that, when gathered at the bar, Maldivian men say they’ve been cursed with the most promiscuous women on the planet. So, there’s that. And keep in mind the country, at just 6 feet above sea level, is expected to be the first to disappear as a result of climate change — which, who knows, might create a sense of urgency?
But things might be changing. In 2001, the Maldives changed its law to let women seek divorces through the courts. With prosperity increasing under a get-it-while-you-can model of tourism on a sinking island, that shift could potentially, counterintuitively slow the divorce rate, as property division gets more complicated. And the U.N. and the Maldivian government are trying to help by offering marriage counseling classes to those horny 18-year-olds, the results of which are yet to be seen.
Chalk it up to easy come, easy go. In the Maldives, the courting period before having sex is two motorcycle trips around the island, Marcus tells us. And good news for those four-time-divorced ladies: While premarital sex may carry a stigma, divorce sure doesn’t.