Maldives failing to close gender gaps, finds World Economic Forum

The World Economic Forum (WEF) has ranked the Maldives 97th out of 136 countries in the gender gap index 2013, falling two spots from the previous year.

Whilst the Maldives scores highly in terms of educational equality, last week’s report shows it to be falling behind when it comes to economic and political parity between the sexes.

The WEF’s Global Gender Gap index captures the magnitude and scope of gender-based national disparities across four key areas: economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment.

Maldivian women are well-educated and enjoy relatively high standards of health, but they remain largely frozen out of the political and economic sectors, the WEF found.

Compared to the 2007 ranking, the Maldives has only moved two points up the scale in 2013, and continues to hover around the middle of gender gap index with a score of 0.66 percent – 0 representing complete inequality, and 1 representing full equality and the least gaps between sexes.

This mediocre score may stop the Maldives from being named as one of the worst countries to be a woman in the world, but the low ranking reflects the fact that it is failing to close the gender gaps preventing the country from achieving gender equality – one of the two remaining development goals the Maldives is yet to reach before 2015.

In the educational attainment category – which looks at literacy rates and access for men and women to basic and highest level education – the Maldives achieved a perfect equality score of 1.

On “health and survival”, the Maldives also scored relatively strongly due to high female life expectancy (77 years) and balanced sex-ratio figures.

However, when it comes to the “economic participation and opportunity” category of the index which looks at female labour force participation, salaries and access to high paid positions, the country’s performance is pitiful.

Economic disparity

Maldives ranks 99th out of 136 countries in terms of economic equality between sexes, far behind that of some under-developed and poverty-stricken states in Africa such as Burundi and Malawi.

The economic inequalities faced by women have been flagged in the 2010 ‘Household Income and Expenditure Survey” report, which concluded that two thirds of unemployed people in the Maldives are women, and that working women earn a third less than their male counterparts in the same jobs or positions.

According to a UNDP report – ‘Women in Public Life in the Maldives’ published in 2010 – a “considerable gap” exists in the opportunities for women to take an active part in economic and political life” while “there were no policies in place that provide equal opportunities for women’s employment.”

Also missing are childcare facilities, flexible working hours, maternity leave, protection from unfair demotion or termination, and initiatives to support women to re-enter to job markets.

Restriction on women’s mobility and reluctance from family members to allow women to travel alone to other islands for work is also a key obstacle to employment.

While the tourism industry contributes indirectly to over 70 percent of the national income, a report published in September 2011 found that social stigma prevented women from working in the sector.

According to the study, ‘Women in Tourism: Challenges of Including Women in the Maldivian Resort Sector’, Maldivian women accounted for only three percent of all women working in the sector – which was already 92 percent male dominated

Political gap

Meanwhile, the political empowerment pillar of the index by far contributes most to the Maldives’ slippage in ranking.

Only 5 out of 77 parliament members are women and as of now only two women are in 14 seat-cabinet and the country has never had an elected female head of state. This brings down Maldives political empowerment ranking to 101, making it one of the countries with least representation of women in shaping and implementing national policies.

Looking at the regional performance, Maldives comes ahead of India ranked at 101, Nepal at 121 and Pakistan at 135 – the world’s second worst place to be a woman, next to Yemen. However, Sri Lanka (55th), Bhutan (75th) and Bangladesh (93rd) fare much better due to improvements in reducing economic and political gaps.

Elsewhere, Iceland ranks first – for the fifth consecutive year – with the smallest gaps between sexes. It is joined in the top by Nordic neighbours, Norway, Finland, Sweden and Denmark and a surprising number of less developed countries such as the Philippines (5th) and Nicaragua (10th), Cuba (15th) and Lesotho (16th).

“Both within countries and between countries are two distinct tracks to economic gender equality, with education serving as the accelerator. For countries that provide this basic investment, women’s integration in the workforce is the next frontier of change.” said Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum.

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Comment: Changing cheerleaders into leaders

Less than 48 hours is left before the ballot boxes open. On Saturday (September 7), the Maldives will choose its next president. The personalities and policies of four presidential hopefuls may differ from each other, but all do share one thing in common – they are all men.

And where are the women? They are standing behind their men.

Though no woman has a spot in the presidential race – dominated by four male candidates and their running mates – women have undoubtedly become an inextricable part of the elections.

As campaigning intensified over the past months, women and girls have been busy sewing more flags than they can count, cooking massive pots of Bondibaiy (sweetened rice) and spicy fish to quench the hunger brought on by mass rallies, and walking day and night to knock every door in order to win votes for their candidates.

Women are  also seen taking the front line at every political demonstration or march around the island – donning blazing yellow burqas, glittering pink t-shirts, or bright red blouses – colours synonymous with their candidate’s parties. Without the female presence, political events would have neither the same magnitude nor diversity as currently seen.

Participation of women of all ages is a highlight of this, the second ever multiparty presidential elections to be hosted in the country.

Out of all the major political parties contesting in this year’s elections, the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) stands out in particular for the scores of women that are participating in party’s events.

“Women have become a very important part of our campaign. Women are mostly involved in door to door campaigning – talking to the people, collecting crucial information we need for policy making and campaigning.” says Aminath Shauna, leader of MDP’s youth wing. “Most of the patch agents and campaign team is largely women.”

The MDP is contesting to regain power, following the controversial end to its three year old government after the resignation of former President Mohamed Nasheed on February 7 last year. The party vehemently contends that Nasheed was forced to resign in a coup.

In the wake of Nasheed’s resignation, massive protests led by his supporters against the new regime were suppressed using force and dozens were severely injured in the process – many of them women and girls.

A peaceful sit down demonstration by MDP female supporters outside the President’s Office was dispersed with water canons, while several women were beaten on the southern atoll of Addu – where women took the streets to protest against what they call a “coup government”.

Woman injured during a police crackdown of pro-Nasheed protests in Addu

But, since February 7, female supporters of Nasheed have braved their way against pepper spray, batons and water cannons and continued to take lead in an army of yellow supporters, determined to fight till end to bring Nasheed back to power.

Shauna believes that this unwavering support by women is a result of policies adopted by the MDP’s short-lived government which mostly “benefited women”.

“If you look into the social protection program over 100,000 people directly benefited from it. It was largely spent on elderly, single parents who are mostly women. Also programs such as Hunaru [vocational education] and Second Chance program [rehabilitation and reintegration of inmates] largely accepted by women because, although women do not bring income to the family, its women who make household decisions and look after the elderly parents, take them to hospital and look after the children. So the person who really understood and felt the benefits of these programs were women,” Shauna observed.

During the campaigns, two out of four presidential candidates have  announced women specific policies; including daycare centres, flexible working hours, online jobs and reserved seats, among other things.

Though MDP claims to hold the policies benefiting women, the party is one of the two that has not prioritised a policy towards achieving gender equality and improving women’s rights- one the  few remanining development goals the country has so far failed to achieve due to widespread violence against women and  low representation of women in political and economic life.

Second is Jumhoory Party’s Gasim Ibrahim. The party speaks of introducing a pregnancy allowance and ensure gynaecology services on every islands as policy on women. For a party backed by Islamist party Adhaalath which believes in strict enforcement of Sharia and patriarchal dominance within public and domestic spheres, having no progressive policies on women is unsurprising.

But why does MDP, a party which asserts to be an alternative to the rest, holding egalitarian and moderate views does not have a policy specifically aimed at women? The party has never been recognised for its suitable policies for women. In fact, MDP’s record of gender policies during its short-lived three year term does not score well either.

Take the issue of domestic abuse and gender-based violence in the country. With every one in three woman estimated to be a victim of physical or sexual abuse, it is one of the biggest challenge women face across all islands. However, Nasheed’s government and its parliamentary group failed to step up in bringing any necessary legal reforms while its rivals were instrumental in drafting, promoting and passing domestic violence and child abuse legislations.

Unemployment among women is double that of males, however, no day care centres, flexible working hours or economic policies specifically targeted to reducing female unemployment were introduced. Research suggests reasons behind female and male unemployment differs with young women finding more difficult to find work due to early marriage, household responsibilities, societal attitude.

Maldives holds the record of one of the highest divorce rates in the world with almost every one in two marriages falling apart. This often leaves women struggling to raise children under extreme financial hardship. The single parent allowance, despite the temporary relief it brings, is merely a band-aid solution for these families. Economic emancipation remains unachieved.

Meanwhile, women also continued to remain as a minority at state decision making level under Nasheed’s era. Any point in time, Nasheed’s cabinet were dominated by men and his female appointees made up less than a quarter of all political positions.

His party followed same track, or even worse.

Currently, women hold 5 seats in 77 member parliament and only 57 out of 1091 local councils.

MDP secured full seats in the city councils of Addu and Male’ – two of the most populated areas – but none of them were sadly women. The party did not take any public initiative in encouraging female candidates to these elected posts. They simply embarked on making laws, building cities and running the state without an equal say of women who make up half of the country.

But perhaps, this elections is a harbinger for change.

This week, Nasheed sat down with women to listen to their woes. He promised that his economic and social policies are targeted, though not directly, towards addressing the most serious problems women face. Including housing, jobs, education and healthcare.

However, he stopped short of promising women an equal representation in his government or party.

Several women are throwing their support behind Nasheed because they also believe in the values of equality and justice he preaches. Perhaps, it needs to be put into practice a little better.

A good place to start would be within the party itself.

Mariyam Zulfa, who served as Tourism Minister during last months of Nasheed’s rule recently gave a subtle warning to MDP’s main rival, Abdulla Yameen of PPM.

“Yameen please don’t have your eye on 2018, thats gonna be a year for women, we have waited patiently enough, like Hillary Clinton,” she posted on Facebook.

This status echoes an important message – MDP women are ready  to climb to the top rung of the political ladder.

But, amid an environment of highly competitive and machiavellian men jostling for power, women often find themselves at crossroads. Whether to challenge the male dominance and risk losing or just be happy with the little voice she has. Choosing the latter also makes it easier to juggle the personal life often sacrificed by women pursuing a career.

MDP Youth Wing leader Shauna at an anti-coup protest

Shauna is one the few young women who has bravely made it to the top tier of MDP, and she shared the challenges women face on the field.

“One of the reasons why we do not see women in elected posts is because women do not have access to campaign finance. We do not see many women in government senior posts because simply there is not policy that promotes it – working hours are not flexible for women with families, senior posts mean a lot of time and commitment. Working environment and hours do not give this women any flexibility. Harassment exists at all levels in the Maldives and there must be an end to that for more women to take up senior posts.” she explained.

These are problems can be resolved by changing  MDP’s current gender mainstreaming policies to a more direct women empowerment strategies such us quotas for women, setting up a budget for funding female candidates, running political leadership training programs. When more women take part in decision making, the diversity of opinions and ideas leads to better results in developing the country.

MDP also has continued to voice against rising extremism and the resulting backlash in women’s role in public life.

“There is also a movement towards conservative Islam that is a threat for women in politics and social sphere.” Shauna observes. “If there is no counter movement to conservative views of Islam, I do not think we can have a female president anytime soon.”

There is no better way in countering extremism than encouraging those subjugated by it to be free and exercise their power. Several women have already put their faith and support behind the party. It is time for Nasheed and his party to return the favour and let women have the equal space they deserves.

Should MDP hesitate, it is bound to create rifts through its existing female support base. But for now, women cheering for Nasheed seems to have his back.

All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to [email protected]

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Fourteen year-old girl latest victim in surge of rape crimes

Police are investigating the rape of a 14 year-old girl on Muli island of Meemu Atoll, the latest incident in an increasing number of sexual crimes against women and girls in the Maldives.

According to the police the incident was reported around 1.30am Sunday night, and a 19 year-old man was arrested on charges of rape.

The suspect has a history of criminal behaviour including assault and theft, police stated.

Rise in rapes

The 14 year-old’s rape comes less than two weeks after a 19 year old girl was snatched from the streets of Hulhumale’ and allegedly raped by a man believed to be an expatriate on the early morning of August 3.

More than 1000 expatriate workers have been searched and interrogated in the ongoing hunt to find the foreign national accused, according to police.

Just two days later on August 5, the police stated that two minors and two men have also been arrested in connection with the rape and filming of an underage girl in a house in Male’. The rape incident occurred on July 27.

Meanwhile, on July 30, the police arrested four men and one minor in connection with the gang rape of a 17 year-old girl on the island of Milandhoo in Shaviyani Atoll.

Police acknowledged that an increasing number of rape and sexual abuse cases had been reported this year.

“We urge parents to be more careful with children’s whereabouts, and check who they meet and hang out with,” a police spokesperson noted. “Parents also need to be careful of people who visit their homes.”

Surveys indicate that most of the sexual perpetrators are known persons, including family members and friends.

Last year three cases of rape incidents were reported to the police while in 2011 a total of 13 cases were investigated, according to the annual police statistics report 2011/2012.

Most cases were gang-rapes and the victims included girls as young as 13.

Tip of the iceberg

Sharing her concerns over the increasing number of sexual crimes against women, Assistant Representative of UNFPA Maldives Shadiya Ibrahim warned an increasing number of rape cases were just “the tip of the iceberg”.

She suggested that many of rape and abuse cases go “unreported and uninvestigated” .

“The culture of impunity is one factor why sexual violence against women and girls is increasing,” Shadiya observed.

While a number of rape cases are reported in the Maldives, few are prosecuted – especially if the victim is 18 or above.

Rape cases involving minors are prosecuted as child abuse cases with a maximum penalty of 20 years depending on the magnitude of the offence. In contrast, rape cases in which the victim is an adult, are deemed as “forced fornication” under the existing regulation on sexual offences, according to the Prosecutor General Office. To prove fornication – whether forced or not – requires a confession or four witnesses.

“Due to this burden of proof, proving rape cases becomes next to impossible,” a state prosecutor told Minivan News in an earlier interview on the subject.

Therefore, adult rape victim’s cases are detracted to a sexual assault or harassment offence, in which the four witnesses and confession is not required. However, penalty for sexual assault is only two to three year long imprisonment.

The amended penal code and sexual offences bill currently being deliberated by parliament committees provide a legal remedy to the problem of inadequate legal definition of rape, and if passed will ease the existing burden of proof, making it easier to prosecute rape cases.

Meanwhile, the UNFPA also named other underlying issues contributing to the surge in sexual violence against women; including gender-inequalities that makes women and girls particularly more vulnerable to abuse and secondly, men’s attitude.

“A recent survey based on men’s experiences of violence shows that entitlement is one of the main reason for men to rape,” Shadiya pointed out. “Men surveyed believe it is their right to rape and they can simply get away with it.”

She concluded that a huge shift was required in the attitudes of public and authorities in condemning violence against women as an inexcusable human rights violation.

“Parliamentarians, prosecutors, police and judges needs to be gender-sensitised to achieve progress in reducing violence against women.” she added.

Minivan News contacted the Gender Ministry but had received no response at time of press.

Earlier this year, Maldives came under international scrutiny following the sentencing of a 15 year old rape victim to 100 lashes on charges of fornication – a symbolic case reflecting the systematic injustices suffered by some rape victims.

Widespread international coverage of the sentencing has since led to over two million people signing an Avaaz.org petition calling for her sentence to be quashed, a moratorium on flogging, and reform of laws to protect women and girls in the Maldives.

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The culture of silence surrounding suicide in the Maldives

Six people have died in reported suicides so far this year.

The first case was reported on January 7. A 39 year-old woman from Kinolhas in Raa Atoll died after consuming a poisonous substance.

On May 21, a 26 year-old Indian teacher working on Eydhafushi island of Baa Atoll hanged himself.

On June 18, a young man aged 20 committed suicide by ingesting poison at the resort he worked.

In the latest three suicides, cases reported almost a week from each other, three men took their lives by hanging themselves.

Meanwhile, several more disturbing suicide attempts and self-inflicted injuries have also been reported, including one incident involving a woman who jumped into the water holding her five year-old child. Fortunately, the pair were rescued by bystanders.

According to Global School Health Survey of Maldivian students published in 2009, 19 percent of the those surveyed said they had “seriously considered attempting suicide”. A further 22 percent of these said they had made a plan on how to do it.

These scary figures are just a few among the many warnings underscoring the high prevalence of mental health woes and suicide risk factors among young people in the Maldives.

But, authorities have been to slow to recognise the problem.

In 2001 only a single suicide case was recorded in the Maldives, while over the years the rates of reported suicides have  jumped as high as 14 in 2007, 13 cases in 2011 and five last year. Suicide statistics have not been maintained by the police or any authority consistently, and more cases are likely to go unreported or undetected.

Speculating on causes

Anecdotal evidence suggest that most suicides or self-inflicted injuries among young people stem from bullying or neglect, according to medical officer at the Health Protection Agency, Dr Fathmath Nazla Rafeeq. She also cited a a potential correlation between suicide and drug use.

“We know that drug use in Maldives is much higher compared to even places such as Afghanistan. Research show that drug use can cause severe mental health problems among long term addicts. Drug use hampers a person’s capacity to cope with stress and due to that some people take their own lives.” Dr Nazla explained. Therefore, she said current drug rehabilitation programs already focus on dual diagnosis: providing rehabilitation and psychosocial support.

She also adds that urbanisation, congestion and unemployment in developing countries is believed to contribute to suicide rates, and suggested a similar pattern was emerging in the Maldives.

Over the years, people from remote islands have moved to the capital city Male’ resulting in uncontrolled urbanisation and overcrowding. One third of the Maldives’ 350,000 population lives in the capital while the rest is scattered in small island communities, some as small as 500 people. Unemployment is also widespread among young people.

Meanwhile, extended families are being replaced with small separate nuclear families due to poor housing conditions and other demographic changes, according to Dr Nazla.

“This definitely impacts relationships within homes and can have a detrimental effect on emotional well-being of people, especially children,” she observed.

However, she says it is difficult to ascertain specific reasons behind suicides in Maldives, as no studies have been so far conducted into understanding the prevalence of suicides or what causes it.

She also acknowledged the slow pace of expanding a structured mechanism to provide psycho-social support, despite evidence of high risk suicide factors.

“We are able to provide free medication to people with chronic mental illnesses. But, when it comes to normal people with mental health problems who sometimes need support such as counselling, we have very limited public support system – especially on the islands,” she noted.

According to Dr Nazla, the psychiatric centre at the state-run hospital IGMH is frequently overbooked and Family and Children Centres run by the Gender Ministry on remote islands respond only to cases of abused women and children, with little direct oversight from the health ministry.

As suicides are most frequent among young men and expatriate workers, she also pointed out the need for specific programs targeting these vulnerable groups.

Therefore, she says, talks are in progress with World Health Organisation (WHO) to conduct a joint study into understanding the prevalence of chronic mental health illnesses and various emotional health problems in the Maldives, and what can be done to expand mental healthcare facilities.

Understanding suicidal behaviour will be a major component of the study, Dr Nazla says.

However, she argued that best way to prevent suicides comes from strengthening relationships.

“Parents should be able to have honest conversations with children to let them know that they are always there to help. It is also very important for married couples and close friends to have open discussions and build trust.”

Stigma and silence

Though openly speaking about suicidal tendencies is considered a way of stopping it from happening, it is easier to be said than done.

The Maldives is constitutionally a 100-percent Muslim country and it is common belief that suicide is one of the religion’s biggest sins, akin to apostasy.

At the same time no legal penalty exists for survivors of suicide attempts under the Sharia-common law system in the Maldives, as opposed to many countries which have criminalised suicide.

But the sting of stigma that emerges in the wake of a suicide is far from forgiving. And it is the suicide victim’s family that bears the brunt.

A young woman who lost her 18 year-old sister to suicide, shared an account of the disturbing experience she and her family endured following her death.

“My sister was a very happy outgoing girl and her performance in school was outstanding. We don’t know till this day why she killed herself,” she said.

“Society didn’t even give us a chance to mourn her death in peace. When we took her body to the graveyard, no one wanted to join in for funeral prayer and we weren’t allowed to take her body inside the mosque. We had to bury her body far away from other graves because [graveyard staff] didn’t allow it,” she recalled.

“People said by committing suicide my sister had become an apostate. She is no longer a Muslim, so she cannot be buried near others.”

For months her family was tormented by neighbours and journalists swarming into the house.

“I was just 13 then. People stopped me on street to ask how my sister killed herself. What was she wearing. They kept asking if she pregnant, and was it related to a boyfriend problem,” she remembered. “There was no sympathy and people jumped to the worst conclusions in the most insensitive way possible.”

“I almost quit school too. My Islam teacher made me play hangman in class just few days after my sister’s death. She kept saying my sister would keep repeatedly dying in hell like this for eternity,” she recalled.

She says her family received no psychological support.

“My family coped with my sister’s suicide by erasing her from our lives. They pretend she never existed. My parents and siblings never talk about her.”

Promoting suicides

While families cope with suicide tragedies by keeping silent, some media organisations have also chosen not to report suicide incidents including public broadcaster TVM.

However some incidents are impossible to ignore – such as the case of the 25 year-old air traffic controller Ismail Mohamed Didi, who was found hanged from the air traffic control in July 2010.

Studies of suicide and the media in other countries have shown a pattern between careless coverage and ‘copycat’ attempts – sometimes leading to a suicide epidemic. Many foreign press associations have guidelines for reporters, such as including contact numbers for people in need of help, and being careful not to use language such as ‘an unsuccessful suicide’ when covering a failed attempt.

Maldives Broadcasting Commission President Mohamed Shaheeb said that during his time working as a journalist, suicide cases were rejected as “low-profile and not newsworthy”.

“This had nothing to do with religion”, Shaheeb said, stating that main reason for this practice was fear of “promoting suicides”.

“But news is news. Suicide is also news,” says Shaheeb. “When it is reported people know that it has happened. So there is no problem in reporting it. But personally I don’t believe a suicide should be reported every time, for example each time a Bangladeshi or Indian kills themselves. Unless it is a high-profile [victim], reporting it is unnecessary in my opinion,” he explained.

Ahmed Zahir, Editor of Sun Online, one of the few news websites reporting suicide incidents, disagrees.

He argued that reporting all suicides – Maldivians and expatriate – was necessary as these incidents helped to show “loopholes in society” forcing people to take such grave measures, and said such accounts can be useful for research purposes.

“Keeping silent definitely will not solve the issue,” Zahir said.

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Hope For Women publishes book on women rights in Islam to counter oppression, intimidation

Local NGO Hope For Women has released a book on women’s rights in Islam in an effort to counter what it has described as a growth in “conservative Islamic teachings or religious justifications, that use Islam as a tool to intimidate and repress women”.

The book, titled “Women’s Rights Through an Islamic Lens”, has been compiled by Hope For Women with support from renowned local Islamic scholar Dr Ibrahim Zakariyya Moosa.

Minivan News was told during the launch that the publication attempts to challenge a perceived emergence of more religious conservative viewpoints in Maldivian society regarding the role of women and gender equality.

Issues addressed by the book include polygamy, a husband’s right to beat his wife, inheritance and the right to divorce.

Hope For Women’s co-founder, former Gender Minister Aneesa Ahmed, expressed particular concern over the growth of conservative views that she argued were limiting the role of women in society to domestic spheres and portraying them as being inferior to men.

She recalled hearing an Islamic scholar preaching on television that women become a “property” of their husbands following marriage, and said such preaching has to be stopped.

“This kind of conservative views that belittle a person is a major obstacle to building harmonious relationships on which a strong family and society is built on,” Aneesa noted.

“Many of the problems existing in our society roots back to inferior roles women and girls have within their households,” she observed. “I hope these publications will clarify the rights and status of women in Islam and create more awareness within our society.”

The NGO has also translated three publications from the international organisation ‘Sisters of Islam’ – including “Are Muslim men allowed to beat their wives?”, “Are women and men equal before Allah?” and “Musawah Framework for Action”.

Musawah is described as a holistic framework created by a group of 12 Muslim activists and scholars from 11 countries on “promoting concepts of justice and equality in Islam, and the Muslim family in particular,” according to its website.

Hope for Women said it had “become incumbent upon all civil society actors to speak out and stand up against the widespread prejudices that encourage women to be relegated to a marginalised existence and sometimes subjected to extraordinary acts of violence.”

Speaking at the launching ceremony of the project yesterday (July 30), newly appointed Gender Minister Dr Aamaal Ali observed that “outdated ways of thinking are being preached today as the Islamic way, and this has resulted in a backlash against women’s role in society”

“My students tell me they hear a certain sermon when they get into a taxi. They face discrimination at some gatherings from other women and outside forces are influencing their family life. Some girls also tell me their husbands are pressuring them for a second marriage,” explained Dr Amaal, who has served as a teacher and principal at the all-girls Ameeniya School in Male’.

“Sometimes when I think, I wonder if women are seen as disposable, to throw away once they become old. Because women are today often being treated as disposable beings,” she added.

The minister noted that if young women in the country informed themselves about religion with education, as well as providing themselves with empowerment and economic emancipation, it would help reduce many of the problems they faced such as domestic violence.

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Parents seek help after baby born with huge birthmark on face

The parents of a baby girl born with an usually large black birthmark across her face are seeking donations for surgery to remove the scar.

The baby’s parents are from the island of Meedhoo in Dhaalu Atoll in the Maldives.

The father of the baby said doctors had advised him to go abroad to seek further medical assistance as there was little they could do to help in the Maldives.

“Doctors advised me to go for a plastic surgery,” wrote Ahmed Shareef on Facebook, posting a picture of his newborn.

“But plastic surgery is not available here in Maldives. And it costs a huge amount. Please help me in anyway you can if it is possible. Even I will appreciate your good prayers too,” he adds.

The picture has gone viral across Maldivian social media since it was posted on Thursday, and has been shared by over 5000 users. The local community – both online and offline – are rallying to raise money to help the girl.

Speaking to Minivan News on Sunday, Shareef said he had been in touch with doctors from abroad who had given a preliminary diagnosis of Congenital Nevomelanocytic Nevus (CNN).

A nevus – the medical term for a birthmark – larger than 20 centimetres in diameter only occurs once in every half a million newborns. This is the first such case reported in Maldives, which has a population of around 350,000 people.

The scar went undetected during ultra sound scans throughout the pregnancy, Shareef explained.

Although the scar is believed to be benign, there is risk of it further spreading across the baby’s face and causing complications as serious as cancer, according to the family.

“There is a chance of the scar spreading. Or even it may become cancerous. So most of the doctors are saying go for surgery,” Shareef explained.

The young couple, who also have a four-year old son, say they are extremely worried about their daughter’s future.

“Just imagine how can a girl will live here with that. Think about her future,” he said. “The only way I can help my baby is to take her abroad, consult a specialist and do the surgery. But my wife and I cannot afford the travel and costs of the treatment. Please help me,” he begged.

Shareef is a primary school teacher while his wife is a clerk at the island council office, earning less than US$800 a month between them.

Shareef said his wife also had a heart condition requiring prescriptions and regular check ups.

“Despite all this, my wife is very strong. I am doing everything I can to help my wife and daughter,” Shareef said, thanking the public for its generous support so far.

While Shareef is struggling to raise money, little support is available from the state as the national health insurance scheme does not cover expenses for plastic surgery.

The Maldives has a culture of families and friends helping to raise funds for medical treatment to save loved ones, increasingly through social media.

Recently, a young woman launched a search for a Maldivian donor for her husband whose kidneys had both failed. She recently announced that two matching donors had been found.

Similarly, parents of a child born with cleft lip and palate ran a successful campaign called “Help Lisa Smile”. The family raised money through T-shirt sales, in addition to generous donations, and the operation was successful.

For more information on this story contact Ahmed Shareef on Facebook

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Comment: Can the World Bank end gender-based violence?

This week, the World Bank South Asia Office gathered government officials, civil society, parliamentarians, academics and journalists from around the region  in Kathmandu to discuss the issue of violence against women. This is the first time in the bank’s 60 year history that it has joined the global cause to end gender-based violence.

Violence against women has been long recognised as a serious issue on the global development agenda. The United Nations (UN) General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women in 1993 and since then international community have unanimously agreed on gender-based violence as a serious human rights issue and public health priority.

However, despite the international spotlight and years of support from UN agencies to advance women’s rights, the number of women and girls killed, beaten or raped around the world remains astoundingly high.

South Asia world’s “most gender-insensitive region”

Opening the panel discussion on gender-based violence at the annual spring meeting in Washington last April, the World Bank Vice President for South Asia Isabel Guerrero said “we cannot keep silent” in the face of such “horrific acts”.

“We have to add our voices,” she emphatically noted.

She was referring to the gang rape of a 23 year-old in India and the shooting of 15 year-old Malala Yoosuf by extremists in Pakistan. Both incidents are a striking reminder of the pervasiveness of violence against women in the region.

According to a 2003 UNFPA report, South Asia is the world’s most “gender-insensitive” region with one in two woman found to be a victim of physical and sexual abuse in their homes. Other forms of violence are also rampant.

In India a woman is raped every 22 minutes, 22 women are killed each day in dowry related violence, and 50 million women are ‘missing’ due to sex selective abortions.

In Nepal, 7000 women and girls are trafficked for sex every year, while in Bangladesh every week more than 10 women are attacked with acid. In Pakistan more than 450 women and girls die every year in so-called ‘honour killings’ while in Sri Lanka, 78 percent of victims of grave sexual abuse are women and girls.

Because of these atrocious forms of violence, the South Asian women’s fundamental right to health and bodily integrity has been severely eroded. They live less, work less and even eat less.

According to an OXFAM 2004 report, gender based violence has severely limited women’s choices in practically all spheres of life and explains the uniformly poor gender-related development indices of South Asia in crucial sectors like health, nutrition, education, political participation, and employment.

Ending the pandemic levels of violence against women remains one of the key challenges in achieving development in the region which has more than 500 million people living in extreme poverty.

So can the World Bank’s entry into the fight to stop violence against women make a real difference?

The bank’s leverage

At the Kathmandu discussions, several participants asked the bank what it could do to stop violence against women.

Undoubtedly, the World Bank is one the most influential global players with the power and resources to prompt changes.

Tahseen Sayed, Nepal Country Manager for the World Bank, acknowledged the bank’s lack of presence on issues such as gender-based violence, and described the conference as an effort to show its determination to change this approach.

Sayed revealed that the bank would be “leveraging our role as one of the largest development partners with the countries we are working on, at the policy level”, in addition to advancing research to identify the economic and social costs of violence and expanding funding to related projects.

However, she stopped short of explaining how exactly the bank will use its leverage as a development partner.

“I cannot tell you how precisely we are going to do this,” Sayed pointed out.“But the fact that we have two of our vice presidents here, and managers here at the World Bank in this room, we will be taking this forward and see how best we can bring this into our discourse on the concrete areas we work on whether it is assistance to the countries, whether it is regional dialogue or global dialogue.”

This is a critical announcement as the World Bank, similar to the IMF, has the power to deny assistance to countries that do not meet its conditions or requirements.

Feryal Ali Gauhar, political economist and feminist writer from Pakistan believes that denying bank’s assistance to countries where the state is deliberately neglecting to protect the the most vulnerable groups can certainly be effective in creating change.

“When the bank is the agency to deny or grant a loan, it can use data provided by credible institutions, which would indicate whether the state is fulfilling its responsibility to end gender-based violence or protection of most marginalised and vulnerable groups in society.” Gauhar noted.

“If [the World Bank] can make decisions to extend or not extend loan on political issue, why cannot they exercise or exert that same kind of pressure for other loans they are extending?” she asked. “Certainly money would a ring a bell.”

Flogging in the Maldives

The Maldives, despite its admirable progress in the areas of education, health and reduction of poverty, still continues to be plagued with widespread physical and sexual abuse of women and children. One in three woman aged between 15-44 the victim of sexual or physical abuse.

There is little or no access to sexual and reproductive health education and as a result,, unsafe sex, early marriage, unwanted pregnancy, abortion and a lack of reproductive health rights are highly prevalent among young people. These realities are reflected in the gender indicators which show low female enrollment in the higher education system, double the rate of unemployment among females, and under-representation of women at a decision making level.

The World Bank recently granted US$10 million in aid to expand the higher education system in the Maldives. The decision came just weeks after Maldivian authorities were slammed for sentencing a 15 year-old rape victim to 100 lashes on charges of pre-marital sex under the country’s Sharia-based legal system..

Ninety percent of those flogged for fornication or adultery in the Maldives are women and underage girls. The United Nations and international human rights organisations have called for the Maldivian authorities to end this degrading form of punishment disproportionately meted to towards women and girls.

Other strict Sharia penalties such as capital punishment and amputation were suspended half a century ago.

But despite the calls from United Nations, human rights group such as Amnesty International and a global petition with over two million signatures, the Maldivian authorities have consistently shied away from changing their stance on imposing a moratorium on flogging. Much of this is due to their fear of voter backlash from rising conservative groups and their supporters in the country.

“It would be political suicide,” said a parliamentary member currently overseeing the revision of penal code, which includes flogging as a punishment. “We want to remove it as well. But, our hands are tied. Only public pressure can stop it.”

However, there is little visible support from the Maldivian public. In contrast, conservative groups are staging mass protests calling for flogging, beheading, stoning to death and amputation to be reinstated. The few who dare speak against these extremist views are slammed as “Laadheenee” (un-Islamic) and harassed online and on the streets.

So in this politically polarised climate, can a global player such as World Bank pull the plug on flogging in the Maldives by denying assistance to the country, unless it stops degrading and discriminatory practices such as flogging?

A civil society activist from Sri Lanka also highlights a recent case in which the world bank’s partner, International Monetary Fund (IMF) approved a US$2.6 billion loan to Sri Lanka despite the widespread accusations of human rights abuses committed during its civil war.

“There are several reports and evidence of women and girls being raped during the conflict. Several more civilians, including children have been killed” he noted. “But the IMF still approved the loan, against the calls from human rights organisations because Sri Lankan government has done little to investigate these abuses and protect the rights of Tamil minority”

So can the bank, and IMF use its leverage as a donor to push negligent governments into taking meaningful action to guarantee the rights of women and other vulnerable groups?

A South Asian diplomat is skeptical.

“Unless we can shift the society’s view at grass roots level, no sanction is strong enough to stop violence against women,” he said, on condition on anonymity.

“If Maldivian public doesn’t want to stop flogging, how can the World Bank stop it?”

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Rape victims punished, failed by Maldives justice system

The Maldives court on Tuesday sentenced a 15 year-old girl to 100 lashes and eight months’ house arrest, for having pre-marital sex with a man.

At any given time in the Maldives, thousands of female tourists are on the country’s beaches in bikinis, with their male counterparts. Many of them are straight and gay couples, married or unmarried, enjoying sex on rose petal-covered beds in water bungalows. For them, this chain of islands with white beaches and blue shimmering waters is a short escape to heaven.

While they enjoy a piece of paradise on a luxury resort vacation, just a few miles away 300,000 locals face the grim reality of a struggling democracy and increasingly radicalised interpretation of Islam.

Women and girls are bearing the brunt of this. Calling it sheer hypocrisy would be a gross understatement.

The 15 year-old girl  is from Feydhoo island in Shaviyani Atoll, one of the 200 remote islands in the country with less than a thousand inhabitants. She was arrested last year on the island, when police discovered a dead newborn buried in an outdoor shower area in the yard of the house. The investigation uncovered a disturbing yet common reality in the capital and isolated islands of Maldives: sexual abuse.

The girl’s stepfather had been raping her for years. Her mother assisted this gruesome abuse by turning a blind eye and deaf ear to her pain and cries. When the girl became pregnant as a result of rape, they pulled her out of school afraid that the community would find out the family’s dark secret. They waited patiently for nine months, and killed and buried the newborn after delivery.

Soon after the baby’s body was dug up, the parents were arrested and charged with murder and abuse of a minor.

While any authority with professionalism and common sense would be expected to protect a child who has suffered such horrifying abuse and provide help of a psychologist, the Maldives police and prosecutors had a different plan.

On the contrary, the girl was arrested, interrogated and charged with fornication within a few months by the authorities. They claimed that she had confessed to having consensual sex with another man – not the stepfather. The identity of this man, who has not stood up, been found, arrested or charged to this date, remains a mystery.

And yesterday, despite the ongoing debates challenging the legitimacy in pursuing fornication charges against victims of child sexual abuse, the court issued its ruling to flog the girl 100 times. A conviction against her abusive step father, and neglectful mother is still pending.

This case is just the latest in a series of unashamed attempts by the Maldivian Sharia-Common Law based judicial system to punish sexual abuse victims, instead of providing protection and justice.

While, several in and outside the country are taking to the social media to condemn this ruling as morally wrong, cruel, degrading, and a violation of human rights and protection guaranteed to children and victims of sexual abuse under national and international laws, the police who arrested her, the PG office that charged her and the court which sentenced her have not even flinched.

In fact, shortly after reversing its decision to withdraw the fornication charges, the Prosecutor General stated that they have found “no substantial reason to withdraw the charges” and allowed the trial to continue. They repeatedly emphasised the case is “unrelated to the rape”. Furthermore, both the PG and courts repeatedly defended the decision in media, claiming that there is nothing illegal or wrong in this case.

Under Sharia Law, both men and women – adult and children alike – can be punished with 100 lashes and house arrest if they are found guilty of having pre marital sex or adultery. Of course, the tourists are exempted – they are free to have sex, eat pork or drink alcohol as much as they wish, on islands designated as “uninhabited”.

Flogging is the one remaining Islamic Sharia penalties that continues to be practiced in Maldives, despite the century old moratorium on other Shaira penalties such as stoning, capital punishment and cutting off hands. UN Human Right’s Commissioner Navi Pillay and other international organisation’s calls for the moratorium of flogging have been rejected by current and past governments, amid mass protests from conservative factions of society.

As with any other Sharia offence, fornication is only proved with a confession or four witnesses. Notably, ninety percent of those flogged are women, accordig to the 2011 Judicial statistics report. It revealed that out of the 129 sentenced to 100 lashes, 11 were minors – 10 girls and one boy.

However, in 2010, the parliament passed a legislation to prevent corporal punishment  of children in sexual related offences and provide stringent punishments for child abusers, as a response to curb the widespread cases of incest and child molestation in the Maldives: one in seven children is reported to be a victim of sexual abuse. The legislation for the first time paved an easy road for the prosecution of child sexual abuse cases by reducing the Sharia-based burden of proof, which otherwise makes it impossible to prove the sexual offences without a confession or four witnesses.

This legislation, as part of the common law practiced alongside Sharia, set the precedent that no child below 13 can consent to sex and that any sexual relations will be deemed as child abuse. The same law also adds in clause 25 that no child between 13 – 17 can consent to sex either ,”unless proven otherwise”.

It must be noted that hundreds of children have been protected under this law, and several child rapists and abusers have been put behind bars for decades since it came into effect. However, in this specific case, the authorities report that the girl confessed to having consensual sexual relations, and that therefore it cannot be treated as a case of abuse.

But what is highly questionable is the failure by the state to provide a motive that can justify pressing charges against an abused victim, especially a child, with utter disregard to the mental trauma she has suffered in an endless cycle of abuse.

In the past, the court had sentenced a man for abusing a 16 year-old girl. However, the same girl was sentenced to 100 lashes and house arrest after being found guilty of confessing to having consensual sex with the same man who was found to have abused her. This conflicting ruling, stands out as clear evidence that fornication charges against minors in sexual abuse cases are being pursued by authorities, simply because its legally possible to do so with a confession, regardless of whether the victim is abused or not.

In the face of growing international pressure over such incidents, the government claimed in media that it would review and “correct” laws that victimise young women and minors who have suffered sexual abuse. However, no information was made public of any such attempts apart from this public condemnation.

Another issue worth noting is also the significantly low rape convictions in cases where the rape victim is an adult. Annual judicial statistics report show that in past three years, zero cases of rape have reached a positive verdict. This year alone, three rape cases have been reported,while 1 in 3 women aged between 15 – 49 are found to be victim of physical or sexual abuse – a statistic that is a reminder of a justice system that is failing women in every way possible.

According to Human Rights Lawyer Mohamed Anil, rape is defined as ‘forced fornication’ in the currently practiced outdated laws. The aforementioned legislation provides special provisions in child abuse cases, however, he explained, rape and sexual assault victims aged 18 or above, are denied justice because of the Sharia’s burden of proof – confession of the rapist or four male witnesses – is required to prove fornication, whether forced or consensual.

A state prosecutor once commented that proving rape is “next to impossible” despite the most prudent investigations, because the only two kinds of admissible evidence is never available. Both lawyers have said that this cannot be changed unless the amended penal code – which includes rape as an offence-  is passed by the parliament, where it had been stuck for more than half a decade.

Alternatively, the parliament could pass the sexual offences bill submitted by MP Mohamed Nasheed. This bill defines actions to be taken against specific types of sexual offences, including rape, spousal rape, prostitution, sexual trafficking, bestiality and incest etc. While submitting the bill, Nasheed echoed the immense need for an updated legislation to deal with the modern day sexual offences to bridge the shortcomings, especially related to proof and evidence and leniency in the current legal structure.

Meanwhile, in recent years reports of infanticide and baby dumping have increased to alarming levels, as women and underage girls – including those who become pregnant as a consequence of rape – are forced to take desperate measures, such as self-induced abortions, infanticide or leaving babies abandoned. Such was the case with the 15 year old girl in question.

With an unforgiving system and laws stating that is a punishable offence to give birth outside of marriage, driven by a thirst to punish the victims rather than protect them, victims find themselves alone, helpless and forced to remain silent.

These are just a small fraction of the many deep-rooted gender issues in the justice system of Maldives, that ripple outward from the branches of justice system into the entire society.

In her recent visit to Maldives, UN Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers issued a statement in which she commented “all members of the justice system should be sensitised to gender equality and women’s rights to make access to justice a reality for women in the Maldives.”

She also also expressed concern over low representation of women in the judiciary. There are currently no women sitting on the Supreme Court and only eight women sitting in the High Court, the Superior Courts and the Magistrate Courts. It is arguable that the gender issues in the system are arising due to lack of a diverse representation in the court benches and decision-making bodies.

When women and girls are stripped off their dignity and rights for having sex or being raped, it is not an issue that can be simply ignored. Meaningful action is needed by the authorities to remove the gender issues through legal and structural reforms, and prevent the culture of impunity currently enjoyed by sadistic perpetrators such as rapists and child molesters.

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Judicial statistics show 90 percent of those convicted for fornication are female

Almost 90 percent of the people found guilty of “Zina” – fornication – and sentenced to flogging in 2011 were female, according to new statistics published by the Department of Judicial Administration last week.

A total of 129 fornication cases were filed last year and 104 people sentenced, out of which 93 were female. This includes 10 underage girls (below 18), 79 women between age 18-40 and and four women above 40 years.

Of the 11 males who were sentenced, only one was a minor, with the others aged between 25-40.

Compared to 2010, the overall sentences in fornication increased by 23 percent in 2011, but the number of males sentenced for flogging decreased by 15 percent while the women increased by 30 percent.

According to Maldivian law, a person found guilty of fornication is subjected to 100 lashes and sentenced to one year of house arrest or banishment while a minor’s flogging is postponed until she or he reaches 18.

It takes four witnesses or a confession to prove the offence in court based on Islamic Sharia. The Maldives’ legal system consists of elements of both common law and Sharia.

Earlier this year, the Maldives made international headlines when a 16 year-old girl was sentenced to 100 lashes and eight months house arrest by Hulhudhufaaru Magistrate Court in Raa Atoll, for fornication while the 29 year-old man  was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment after finding him guilty of sexually abusing the girl.

Being a minor, the court stated that the girl’s sentence would be implemented when she turned 18.

After visiting the country in November last year, UN Human Rights Chief Navi Pillay called for a moratorium on corporal punishment, describing it as “inhumane and degrading.”

“This practice constitutes one of the most inhumane and degrading forms of violence against women, and should have no place in the legal framework of a democratic country,” said Pillay.

However, her statements and calls for discussion on the issue were met with outrage from the opposition and religious Adhaalath party, giving rise to protests and demonstrations. The Foreign Ministry itself dismissed the calls for discussion on the issue, stating: “There is nothing to debate about in a matter clearly stated in the religion of Islam. No one can argue with God.”

Minivan News could not verify if all the people sentenced last year had been flogged at the time of the report’s release, although former Former Minister of Gender and Family Aneesa Ahmed confirmed that the sentences were being carried out.

The Judicial Sector Statistics Report 2011 highlights the sheer scale of the long-known and unaddressed issues of gender bias in the justice system.

A 2004 UNICEF study titled “Gender issues in the Maldives Criminal Justice System” raised serious concerns over cases of ‘Zina’ – both consensual and non-consensual alike.

As rape was at the time and is still defined as “forced fornication”, as with any other fornication case, four witnesses or a confession is still required by the court to prove rape.

“In these cases a woman’s accusations need to be verified by two men or four women, thus, rape and sexual violence remain impossible to prove in virtually all cases,” the 2004 study noted.

The prosecutor general’s office had earlier confirmed that as these two necessary elements are almost impossible to find, in all rape cases the suspects are charged with forced sexual misconduct, which carries a lesser punishment.

However if the victim is a minor, the PG says that such cases are tried under the 2009 Act on Stipulating Strict Punishment for Child Abusers.

This is the major reason why no rape cases were found in the new statistics revealed by the judiciary despite the high number of reported rape cases. It is also likely that rapes involving minors have fallen into the category of child abuse while others have been categorised under forced sexual misconduct.

However, its also noteworthy that in 2010, eight men were convicted for forced sexual misconduct but the following year the sentenced decreased by 50 percent. Out of the men charged with forced sexual misconduct in 2011, six walked free while only four were sentenced.

The 2004 study further added at the time the current law establishes a minimum age limit of 18 for a person to receive adult punishments, but one of the three exceptions is “if the woman has had a child.”

The Judicial report 2011 says that 10 females were convicted for “giving birth outside a wedlock”, including a minor – a criminal offense which explicitly is directed at women and carries a sentence of maximum one to two years house arrest.

The UNICEF study explained that the current law allows for a young woman under the age of 18, who has been a victim of sexual abuse and is consequently pregnant, to receive lashings in a public setting.

“The victim must then endure the pain and public humiliation of her situation, both the illegitimate pregnancy and the public lashings, which have significant ramifications for her subsequent life opportunities. The perpetrator, on the other hand, is likely to remain publicly unidentified.” it noted.

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