TW: child abuse, sexual assault, grooming

The author of this article has chosen to stay anonymous.

There’s nothing more disappointing in the world than knowing your country has failed its children. Our children and young people deserve so much better. They deserve to be protected from predators and abusers. They deserve to live in a safe environment without worrying about who is watching them from afar. They deserve to be around people who do not take advantage of them. They deserve to be loved. What happens when their childhood is taken away, and their safety is compromised?

Child abuse and rape are a global issue. Hundreds and thousands of young children are victims of sexual assault from a very young age, and the lifelong scars that these children and young people have to bear are worse than any punishment the people that degraded them could ever receive. It is no secret that in our community, rapists and abusers are still evading punishment for their crimes using obvious loopholes in the law, such as child marriage. 

The frequent cases of grooming and sexual assault

In the middle of a global pandemic, there have been at least three reported cases of child sexual abuse in the Maldives. In all of these cases, the children are groomed, coerced, and blackmailed by predators. The victims were under the age of 18. In one of the cases, a 38-year-old man raped an 11-year-old at a guesthouse. The rapist had been grooming the child prior to the rape, according to the local authorities. 

In another case at the end of May, a 24-year-old man blackmailed and coerced a 16-year-old into coming to the capital city where she was raped. She was reported missing, and her whereabouts were unknown to her family. After authorities initiated a search operation, she was found in a guesthouse with the rapist. Both of these cases bear similarities reported a few years ago, where children and young people are being taken into guesthouses and being sexually exploited.

Lastly, the third reported case of child sexual abuse occurred in the northern part of the Maldives, where two men ages 28 and 37 sexually assaulted a young boy. According to the article, the boy was sexually assaulted three years ago by his Quran teacher. Later, that innocent boy was sexually assaulted again by his Islam teacher, whom he had gone to ask for whether his teacher could help him escape this trauma. The boy was sexually abused and exploited by two figures in the community that should have protected him from harm. 

According to the authorities, all of these cases are being treated as serious crimes. But how are they being treated as serious crimes when predators and abusers are not being prosecuted for these crimes? While the law states that it will protect children from people who exploit them by detaining them in custody during investigation and trial stages. It also states that after the offenders have served their sentence, they will be monitored under a specific monitoring mechanism. The law empathizes that it will punish anyone who abuses children, even those who participate in the assault. 

How does the detention of custody work?

Law no: 12/2009 (Special Provisions to Deal with Child Sex Abuse Offenders)

Under Part 5: Detention of Custody, the police commissioner will request the Prosecutor General to present to the court to arrest someone accused of inappropriate sexual behavior against a minor. Then the Prosecutor General reviews the request according to the guidelines and, lastly, submit the request to the court to obtain an order. Once the court grants the request, that person will be remanded in jail for further trials and investigations. 

During this time, the court will decide whether the accuser needs to be remanded in jail or not based on whether the circumstances meet certain criteria, such as whether the suspect has a criminal record, and the opinions of health, psychology and psychiatry professionals. A discussion of whether the victim was under the age of consent is considered and whether the severity of the crime is on the higher level to decide the punishment. There are a number of these matters that are considered by the court. Below is the list:

It is clear that there are loopholes in our justice system that hinders justice from being served rightfully and equally. One of the examples is the child marriage law that allows grown adults to coerce children under the age of 13 to participate in an illegal marital relationship. But the law clearly states that children under the age of 13 are cannot give consent unless they have marital relations with as per Islamic principles.

Is this not a loophole that clearly justifies child grooming in our justice system? 

What is grooming?

According to the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), grooming means:

“When someone builds a relationship, trust, and emotional connection with a child or young person so they can manipulate, exploit, and abuse them. 

Children and young people who are groomed can be sexually abused, exploited, and trafficked.

Anybody can be a groomer, no matter their age, gender, or race. Grooming can take place over a short or long period of time ─ from weeks to years. Groomers may also build a relationship with the young person’s family or friends to make them seem trustworthy or authoritative.”

NSPCC informs that groomers can take many forms. They can be mentors, romantic partners, or simply a dominant or persistent figure. Groomers can approach children and young people on social media, text messages, messaging apps, email, video chat, and even forums. Groomers can also use a false identity to talk to children and young people online. They start giving advice and being ‘understanding’ when the victim vents to them, buying them gifts and building trust and friendship. Groomers ask questions about their interests and keep notes of what they are doing on social media platforms.

Furthermore, NSPCC explains that grooming can have short-term and long-term effects on children and young people. In some cases, victims may not speak out about it if groomers are threatening them or were told to keep it a secret. It puts the victims in a dangerous situation. The effects may include anxiety and depression, post-traumatic stress, self-harm, feelings of shame and guilt, difficulty coping with stress, suicidal thoughts, and so much more. The victim might start to withdraw or isolate themselves from family and friends. 

If you know someone who is being groomed or has shared a story similar to these signs above, please listen to them carefully. Do not downplay their concerns by ignoring them. Assure them it is not their fault, and they did the right thing by telling you about it. Let them know you will do everything to protect them. 

Grown men are blackmailing and raping children and teenagers. They groom kids, winning their trust with favors and money, or simply extorting them. Anyone can fall victim to sexual grooming. It is important to understand what it is, how you can identify it, the short-term and long-term effects, and what you should if you know someone who is in this situation. 

Are children in a position to give consent?

Children and young people should not have to live in fear because adults cannot differentiate between right and wrong. We need new laws that do not protect predators and release them without justice being served. Allowing a charged, tried, and sentenced pedophile to be moved from prison to ‘house arrest’ to cohabitate with the victim of the crime is ridiculous. 

There are many questionable loopholes in the law that excuses sexual assault and rape, like if the child is married to the rapist. But according to the same law, under consent, children under 13 are not in a position to give consent under any circumstances. Even if the child agrees to it, it will be considered null and void. Then why is it that a child can consent to ‘marriage’, and then have sexual relations within that ‘marriage’?

Is this gross incompetence or simply complete disregard for children’s safety? Are these laws written to protect children, or to protect pedophiles? This level of religious fundamentalism is not present in other aspects of Maldivian law, such as in the tourism industry, so why are children’s safety being compromised?

Under the declaration of offenses, there are several examples of what would be punishable under the eyes of the court. If a person engages, forces, and aids a child to perform any sexual act, it is a crime and will be punishable with imprisonment considering the offense.

Are the facilities and resources enough to help the victims?

There are facilities and resources to protect children, but they are limited, and there are not enough caseworkers to cover all the cases that are being reported. Counseling and healthcare are provided by the Ministry of Gender, but are they effective enough? Once a child has been exposed, they take measures to ensure victims will not fall back into the same environment again, and yet some victims are still sent back to abusive households due to a lack of options because housing is hard to come by. Again, are these measures effective enough? Have they implemented these measures in any of the previous cases where predators were released after the charges of sexual assault were denied? 

Is the justice system corrupt?

The justice system works differently in each country, but why is it that in the Maldives, child sex offenders are exempted from any punishment if they are married to their victims? It’s not surprising that some people are unaware of consent, especially in regards to whether a child under the age of 13 can give them or not. Rape, coercion, kidnapping, and child grooming are part of a deeply misogynistic system that exploits and abuses young children and women every day. As a community, we have learned what is right and wrong, even if there are flaws in our justice system. 

The law holds child sex offenders somewhat accountable for their actions by publicizing their names on the Child Sex Offenders Registry. Is it enough? How do we know that these child sex offenders are not exploiting children under somebody else’s roof? Is there evidence that the offenders registry is a significant deterrent? What kind of message does it send to victims of sexual abuse? 

Religious leaders using religion to groom children

In the Maldives, religious leaders who pervert religion to sexually exploit children and young people have a massive influence. They have been known to sexually groom, psychologically manipulate and coerce young children under the guise of religion. They brainwash the adults around them into thinking what they’re doing is normal, and blessed. When a religious leader exploits young children to submit to their sexual acts, consent is absent because they manipulate children to believe that what they are doing is not a sexual act. It is only a religious ritual that they must participate in. This may not be the same situation as the case that happened earlier last month, but it is the reality that some victims face. 

Some people deny the existence of rape under the guise of religion. It is something that we do not freely talk about because we are under the misconception that religious leaders are infallible. By criticizing their actions, you are deemed irreligious, and it is ‘Islamophobic’ to question the faith that’s inextricable from the constitution. Isn’t it time we stopped holding religious authorities as sacrosanct and started questioning their decisions to block marital rape laws, preserving FGM, defending child marriage, and underplaying the severity of rape culture at the victims of said rape culture?

Sexual trauma and rape are global issues that women and young children face every day. The government needs to provide and fund the right facilities in order for victims to go back into society without losing their livelihoods. We cannot keep failing our children. Especially right now, with the overwhelming cases of child abuse and grooming that is extremely prevalent in our society. These laws that are meant to protect them carry few consequences for the abusers and a lot of harm for the victims in the long-term. 

Laws are meant to prevent these crimes as well as to protect and help victims. But the question is, is the government doing enough to protect the future generation? Their efforts seem questionable and frankly inefficient as their priorities seem to be elsewhere, while we are in the middle of a pandemic and fighting against a patriarchal system that harms women and young children daily. 

Young Maldivians who are impatient and intolerant of this government’s inaction protested against child brutality in the middle of a pandemic. This is the reality that we are facing today. It is absurd that people have to protest for equal rights, to be treated fairly, and to serve justice for the victims. Unfortunately, this is the only way that the government can hear our voices.