Almost one in seven children of secondary school age in the Maldives have been sexually abused at some time in their lives, according to an unpublished 2009 study on violence against children.
Gut-wrenching details of heinous child sexual abuse cases grabbing headlines in the past few years eventually gathered enough public pressure in the Maldive for the authorities to pass a law stipulating stringent punishments for sexual predators.
Since the passage of “Stringent Punishments for Perpetrators of Sexual Violence Against Children Act’ in 2009, several pedophiles have been incarcerated for 10 to 20 years of life.
According to Prosecutor General Office (PGO), 46 cases of sexually abusing a minor were submitted to the courts in 2011. In 2010, 35 cases were submitted. The year before, 41 cases.
Some high profile cases make headlines but often cases go under-reported. With no public statistics on the number of incarcerations, the total figures on how many cases are successfully prosecuted and who has been put behind bars are unknown.
Yet, more cases are being reported and investigated.
In 2010, the magistrate court on Ungoofaaru island alone convicted eight people in relation to 10 different child abuse cases from Raa Atoll. Among them were fathers who raped their daughters, a mother who hid her husband’s sexually deviant crimes, and men who abused little boys no older than 10.
Do you know who they are? No – but it is definitely your legal right to know.
Article 77 of the aforementioned legislation not only obligates the authorities to publicise the identity of the offenders convicted under the law, but also tells the authorities to create a website through which the can public know who the sexual offenders are.
Were the system stated in law to be established, people can even retrieve information on sex offenders by sending a text. Almost four year after the law has been passed, the Gender Department says the system “is still under maintenance.”
According to Police Sergeant Abdul Jaleel fromt the police Family and Children Protection Department (FCPD), discussions are underway between the authorities to create the database of offenders. He admitted, “the delays are unfortunate and we need to make it a priority issue.”
Stressing on the importance of such a database, Jaleed recalled an incident in Meemu Atoll where a man who had a record of child abuse was found to have committed the same crime against another child.
“This man was banished to an island onto an island in Meemu Atoll. When we were investigating a child abuse case in 2009, we found that this man was responsible and he even had a previous record of abusing children.” Jaleel noted. “But the islanders did not know that.”
He noted that the dispersion of the 300,000-strong population over 190 islands made it easier for perpetrators to switch islands, and blend in among people unaware of their crimes.
“Therefore, a central website where sex offenders can be tracked, monitored and public can find about the convicted offenders is crucial to safeguard children and adults from such perpetrators.” Sergeant Jaleel observed.
“It would also definitely expedite our investigations with better coordination between authorities on different islands.”
Several countries worldwide have adopted such measures.
For example, the National Sex Offender Public Website (NSOPW) in the US, provides not only an opportunity for several states to participate in an unprecedented public safety resource by sharing public sex offender data nationwide, but provides a platform for parents and authorities to collaborate for the safety of both adults and children.
However, often arguments are taken against such public registries as it may be defamatory and makes life difficult for a person identified as a “sexual predator”.
Jaleel agreed that the idea of a public sex offenders registry is new to the Maldives and may face similar challenges.
However, he argued that legislation can be made clarifying who can be included or not depending on the magnitude of the crime. “If we look at domestic violence cases, the perpetrator’s name can be avoided depending on whether it was first offence or the matter is solved if its between a couple.”
“But in heinous crimes such as sexually abusing a child, there should be no excuses,” he contended. “And repeat offenders must be made public too.”
He also said provisions can be made whereby police or authorities can decide to release a name of a person not convicted for the sexual offence, should they have reason and substantial evidence to believe the person is a threat to society.
Aishath Ibrahim, the mother of a five year old working as a teacher in Male’ says, “It will be very easy for parents to identify potential threats and protect our children if we can know who the offenders are.”
“Today we don’t even know who is our neighbor,” she added.
In the crowded capital Male’, people live closely together in rented housing or shared apartments within large family units, a factor that has been identified as contributing to instances of child sexual abuse.