Trigger warning: mentions of sexual abuse, assault and rape.
In early January 2020, Maldivian news outlet Sun.MV published a horrific case of the abuse of a two-year-old infant at the hands of her father, grandfather, and great-grandfather. The abuse had occurred while the victim’s mother was hospitalized for a drug overdose, and the child had been placed in the custody of the father. Both the grandfather and great-grandfather were known sexual predators within the community, and the father of the victim had also been previously accused of rape.
Family members contacted the Gender Ministry upon realizing the abuse was taking place, and the victim was immediately hospitalized. Medical examiners reported that the child had suffered “irreparable injuries” and was deeply traumatized. Authorities reported that the victim’s great-grandfather was previously detained for sexually harassing a minor but was released out of consideration for his old age. Though the perpetrators were eventually arrested, many criticized state institutions for their lax efforts in protecting children and holding abusers accountable.
Not long after the case was publicized, outraged citizens lined Male’ City streets to demand action against the perpetrators of the crime. Dozens of protesters gathered at the victim’s father’s residence, which quickly turned violent when police intervened. Witnesses reported police arriving in riot gear and using pepper spray on protestors, resulting in a female protestor being assaulted by one officer.
The state’s responses and action
The case circulated widely across social media channels and garnered responses from various parliament members and government officials. The Maldivian President acknowledged the State’s negligence in preventing children from being abused, after weeks of public criticism against Maldives Gender Ministry and Maldives Police Service.
“Every moment which passes when such cases drag on due to negligence of court of laws and some State institutions, serves as an incentive to child sex offenders to continue to predate on children.”President Ibrahim Solih
Also, concerns were expressed regarding the slow progression of trials relating to sexual offenses against children. The Chair of the Human Rights and Gender Committee submitted a legislature to amend the Criminal Procedure Code and re-categorize sexual offenses against children as a major crime. Many called for the resignation of the Gender Minister for their dereliction of duty.
Though politicians and the government administrations possess the upper hand to pass bills and legislations that help victims, they have little understanding of women’s rights and sexual violence. While they are aware that violence is wrong, the laws and actions that are passed to help these victims are not entirely in the victim’s favor and do not have the adequate resources in place for their aid. Due to the corruption of the current administration, their efforts to stop sexual violence have been proven as nothing but performative. Most recently, a case of sexual assault of an expatriate worker was reported, where one of the two perpetrators was dismissed because of their connection to the head of the government. This case, in particular, is a golden example of how the influence of elitist politicians can prevent justice for victims of sexual violence.
Emerging patterns of impunity and tolerance
The publicity of the case shed light on the patterns emerging in how the Maldivian government acts against sexual offenders. Most of the time in cases of sexual offense or violence, perpetrators are not charged as heavily as they should be and victims are often left to live in a society that allows their abusers to roam freely. Even in the midst of condemning the father, grandfather, and great-grandfather that abused the child, the State had been active letting a deplorable number of sexual predators walk free.
In February, perpetrators in alleged gang rape of a minor were released and per the findings of the Human Rights and Gender Committee, Maldives Police Service had let off some alleged sex offenders with only mere warnings and had filed away their cases. One such case included a Maldivian actor who was accused of sexually abusing his underage cousin but was not detained due to lack of evidence. Most notably, in 2018 after taking office, President Ibrahim Solih had pardoned a fellow party member, who was convicted of sexual conduct with a minor.
A rise in sexual abuse cases
Within a week of announcing the rape of the two-year-old, a number of similar accounts were publicized and there was a reported surge in sexual abuse cases. An investigation conducted by the Human Rights and Gender Committee presented that only 390 out of a total of 3,100 of all child abuse cases reported to the police reached a conviction. Additionally, due to delays in police investigations and court procedures, 70% of all concluded cases from the last 15 years took over a year to complete. While achieving justice for victims is prolonged and often deferred, it is evident that there is an ongoing culture of impunity and tolerance regarding the mistreatment and abuse of women and children in the Maldives.
By the third quarter of 2020, Maldives Police Service reported investigating over 300 cases of sexual offences, many of those which were against women under the age of 25. The published report also noted the escalation in cases of domestic and gender-based violence, where victims were primarily women and children. Nevertheless, only a limited number of these cases are often reported by the media and even fewer received the attention of the public. It is also worth noting that while some cases are sharply pulled into public scrutiny, it isolates many other cases from receiving the same level of coverage as well. As a result, many victims do not receive justice.
An ongoing culture of misogyny
There was also a significant difference in the number of cases geographically as well. Though a number of them had occurred within the capital city of Male’, a majority of the cases were reported from other islands. They are generally under-developed and lacking inadequate resources and facilities.
In a survey published by the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives (HRCM) in late 2020, respondents believed that the rights of the child were the most important from a provided list of twenty-one human rights. Furthermore, women’s right to equality was identified as the second most important human right, according to the respondents.
Contrastingly, when discussing the attitudes relating to family and acceptable behavior at home, most respondents believed that good wives submit to their husbands, even in disagreement. An increased number of women were also shown to agree that problems within the family should not be revealed to outsiders and that it is the wife’s duty to have sex with their husbands even if they do not feel like it. In addition to this, many female respondents also believed that a husband should be able to hit his wife if the wife fails to submit to him.
It should be emphasized that most of these sentiments were strongly agreed upon by island residents, compared to those residing in the capital city or nearby. Additionally, it is also highly plausible that these beliefs are continuously reinforced today as the islanders may not possess the progressive mindset adopted by Male’ City residents, due to extensive government centralization.
Gender-based violence in the Maldives and the obstruction of justice
One of the many reasons women and children do not receive justice for sexual violence is that the legal system is deeply flawed. Gender-based violence is prevalent in society, and when a legal system discriminates against victims of abuse, it is impossible to seek justice for them. In the Maldives, domestic violence, violence against women and girls are what constitutes gender-based violence. A majority of sexual and domestic violence cases are not taken seriously because of minor factors that hinder justice. Victims of abuse often do not speak up due to nepotism, corruption, silencing victims when they seek justice, victim-blaming, and the integration of religion and state. These factors are essential to understand and consider why victims of abuse fail to achieve justice.
The language exercised in discussing sexual violence is somewhat distorted due to remarks from politicians, commentators, and religious scholars. These remarks lack empathy and are often based on misinformation regarding these matters. Such dismissals towards the victims of abuse create a lack of trust and confidence in the administration and other senior officials while effectively silencing victims. It also enables an environment where victims are blamed for what happened to them at the hands of their perpetrators.
When the details of the abuse of a mother and three children were released, it was evident that the police failed to protect victims of abuse once again. The woman was abused by her husband and a religious practitioner who believed that she was being possessed by a demon and advised her husband to perform an exorcism on her. The mother and her children were physically abused, deprived of food and water, and the child was sexually abused by the religious scholar, all under the pretense of religious practice. By integrating religion and state, it makes it impossible to seek justice for the victims as many view religion as a justification to control and manipulate women and children. Though it is reprehensible to use religion as a means to abuse people, such beliefs have been consistently embedded in Maldivian society.
Demanding action to ensure the safety of women and children
Many have demanded the introduction of policies and bills that work to ensure the safety of women and children and provide them with access to relevant healthcare and facilities. But even by creating initiatives that help these abused women and children, these demands are either being delayed or lack sufficient funding. Social media activists created campaigns called #JaagaEhNei (roughly translated as ‘there is no space for women’), #MinivanehNoon (translated as ‘not free, not independent), and #FundOurSafety and started a conversation about these obligations and demanded the administration to make some changes to the laws and legislations.
During the JaagaEhNei protest, which was held on June 12th in response to the rape of an 11-year-old girl at the guest house, these demands were circulated on social media platforms. This protest called the administration to put aside funds to build safe houses, a protection centre for women and children and provide more funds to social workers. Also, another campaign called MinivanehNoon was created in response to the impunity enjoyed especially by powerful men who are perpetrators. A hashtag called #FundOurSafety pressed for immediate actions from the administration. Both of those campaigns were created by a collective of women and led by the public to exercise the following measures as part of social protection:
- Fully implement all the existing laws and stop impunity.
- Guarantee law enforcement and independent oversight of law enforcement authorities.
- Create and fund programs for the prevention of sexual offenses.
- Decentralized social protection to have the presence of social workers on every island.
- Trained professionals with adequate salaries and demand to pay commission to make a uniform salary structure so that social workers can have adequate pay.
- Establish fully functional safe homes for survivors.
- Create and fund rehabilitation programs for perpetrators.
- Reform clemency rules for sexual offenses to impose mandatory rehabilitation first.
- Improve access to quality healthcare response to gender-based violence.
- Fund to make legal aid accessible to all survivors of gender-based violence.
In an online protest, #MinivanehNoon posted information that instructs that, as per the Regulation of Prevention of Sexual Abuse and Harassment 2014, sexual harassment complaints have to be shared with the public. This protest also noted a list of government institutions that failed to disclose sexual harassment complaint forms or details to the public.
The importance of these protests was to highlight the fact that it was held in the middle of a global pandemic which made women and children vulnerable. By addressing these demands at a protest and online, its aim was to highlight how important it was to make these changes as soon as possible.
Are there resources for social protection?
It is critical for safe houses and protection centers to be provided for victims of abuse and violence. Moreover, the provision of funds for trained professionals, healthcare, and other resources are also highly necessary in ensuring the safety and well-being of the victims. Having an adequate measure and framework would also aid in dealing with cases that involve domestic and sexual violence and, most importantly, providing the necessary protection.
A prominent issue with family protection services is the lack of social workers. The department is severely underfunded and overburdened with the rapid increase in cases. The department has a total of 80 social workers, and 30 are based in the capital, and they are unable to cover all of the cases. Nufoshey, a platform that sheds light on sexual abuse and harassment in the Maldives, posted a tweet on the number of child abuse cases that have increased since 2017, and an average social worker has 76 active cases. Since the pandemic started, the Ministry of Family, Gender, and Social Services have received over 600 daily calls, 340 people have been given temporary shelters, and 45,000 meal packs have been provided. The department does not possess the adequate funds or resources to offer pandemic-related support for the victims of child abuse and domestic violence.
According to Nufoshey’s tweet, the 2020 budget for economic and industrial development and the military and defense increased, while the budget for social protection faced a significant decline. In 2019, there were numerous reports of sexual and domestic violence against women and children, which begs the question of why the budget allocated for their protection is insufficient. Furthermore, when the 2012 Domestic Violence Prevention Act was passed, authorities were responsible for providing shelter and housing with adequate staff and facilities to prevent sexual and domestic violence and provide temporary safe spaces for victims of abuse and violence. But without the necessary funding and the lack of trained professionals and facilities, it is questionable what exactly the administration is doing to help these vulnerable people.
Maldives’ CEDAW’s obligations
The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) was formed to eliminate sexual and domestic violence of women and children by urging the administration to implement new laws and legislations that discriminate against victims and survivors. The aim of the Convention is to monitor women’s rights and highlight the important areas of concern of the legislations that were passed by the parliament. The work includes defining the framework of discrimination against women and helping women in areas where they are not equal to men.
The treaty demands certain obligations that need to be fulfilled and urges the State to consider implementing them immediately. Some of these obligations include removing barriers that stop women from reporting gender-based violence and disclosure of shelter locations for survivors of rape and sexual violence, especially in islands. The lack of rehabilitation centers for women survivors is another major issue in the Maldives as well. The treaty also calls to inform survivors about reparations, rehabilitation, and consultations and ease the process of lodging complaints regarding gender-sensitive procedures. There is also a need to inform the public on the budget and human resources allocated to the Gender Ministry and Family and Child Services. Lastly, it was demanded that the government provide free legal aid to all women suffering from gender-based violence.
These obligations were shared on social media to make it more accessible for the public to view and understand what the administration needs to do to create a safe environment for women and children. However, the efforts to fulfill them have yet to be heard and met.
The fundamentals in unlearning patriarchal norms
With several issues and obstacles still surrounding the growing culture of violence against women and children, many are helpless and unable to rely on the current justice system. Perpetrators of violent and sexual offenses are still able to escape the legal repercussions of their actions due to reinforced corruption and nepotism within the system at the expense of the lives of innocent women and children. It is critical that the governing bodies within the Maldives enforce the necessary laws, regulations, and measures to protect those without power and develop the means for social protection for survivors of violence and abuse.
Survivors of rape, sexual assault, and other forms of violence should be provided proper counseling, as well as the necessary empathy and consideration. The culture towards survivors of violence is treated with much speculation on whether their stories are true or not. Every aspect of their stories is dissected towards challenging and silencing them. These survivors, especially women, are treated as promiscuous people, which leads to further stigmatization. Maldivian culture deems sex as an inappropriate topic for young people to learn, as it promotes pre-marital sex. Nevertheless, the provision of sex education would pave the way towards destigmatizing gender-based taboos, as well as make room to unlearn patriarchal norms.
To move forward, the Maldives must become more proactive in working towards a society free of gender stereotypes, victim-blaming, and other patriarchal teachings. Only by imposing these measures will the Maldives get on the right track to safeguard their women and children and establish a strong foundation towards eradicating countless gender-based social issues.