Recent statistics show that the total divorce rates in Gulf countries have reached 20% (2008) in Saudi Arabia, 24% (2007) in Bahrain, 25,62% (2008) in the UAE, 34.76% (2009) in Qatar and 37.13% (2007) in Kuwait. "Statistical data indicates that divorce rates are almost equal to marriage rates within the 20–29 age group, reaching a ceiling in the 30–39 age group, suggesting that young couples are more likely to divorce often in the first years of marriage," said Dr. Mona AlMunajjed, Senior Advisor with the Ideation Center. What is causing this disturbing rise and what can be done to stop it?
Modernization and Tradition: Causes for Divorce
The period since the first discovery of oil 78 years ago has seen an accumulation of vast wealth, industrialization, accelerated transition from a nomadic to a sedentary and urbanized existence, infrastructure development, the expansion of education, and the appearance of satellite television and the Internet, all of which have contributed to a major transformation of the region that is affecting both societal and personal norms of behavior. This has caused two divergent forces that run GCC countries: modernization and tradition.
"Unfortunately, evidence suggests that modernization including urbanization, could be subverting some of the traditional values and practices that once held families together, and imposing new demands on married couples. At the same time, some long-held traditions and social practices may be undermining marriages in the Gulf's modernizing environment," said Dr. AlMunajjed. Women's education and economic participation in the GCC region's workforce are also among the greatest catalysts of change in Gulf societies. As a result of their advanced education and labor market participation, many women today have a mobility they did not have in the past and greater social, financial and psychological independence. All of these factors combined have resulted in a dramatic increase of divorce rates.
Steps to a Resolution
Although divorce can be a good thing in the case of abusive marriages, in general, it can be damaging to the family model and as a result, society at large. Today, there is an increasing awareness in the GCC region of the widespread increase of divorce and its negative effects. Individual GCC countries have taken various legal and social steps to halt this rise such as considering the implementation of new laws that would prevent husbands from recklessly pronouncing talaq, the words of divorce, and organizing programs to promote awareness of divorce's disruptive impacts.
Women are even more negatively affected by divorce than their male counterparts. Women in GCC countries are still subject to discrimination in divorce cases due to the lack of legal enforcement mechanisms to ensure the implementation of women's legal rights. GCC countries have also started taking some steps to ensure more protection for women in divorces. The recent appointment of female judges and lawyers makes it more likely that the interpretation of family law will give more consideration to women. In Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar the first female judges in the GCC region have already been appointed. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwaiti have also starting taking various steps to help women by giving them some financial and custody rights.
The above mentioned steps are beneficial yet more can still be done. Governments could increase research on the divorce phenomenon in each of the GCC countries and include the establishment of statistical databases on different social groups, as well as surveys of judges, divorced men and women, schoolteachers, mental health professionals, and social workers on relevant themes. Some of these tools might include courses on family relationships and social bonds in secondary schools, and government and non-governmental organization awareness campaigns to foster a better understanding of equality between the sexes and the importance of family life.
Governments could also establish advisory centers for couples to seek counselling before and after marriage and divorce. These centers would encourage family dialogue and organize pre-marriage training sessions. "Another emphasis may be to strengthen legal protection for women and children and enforce the implementation of laws preserving the rights of divorced women. GCC states should bring their national laws into conformity with their international commitment to gender equality," concluded Dr. AlMunajjed.
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