A child rights NGO has called on the Maldivian government to pass needed legislation concerning the treatment of sexual abuse victims, on the back of several high-profile court cases involving minors.
The Advocating the Rights of Children (ARC) NGO told Minivan News it was concerned about a lack of legislation in the country to protect victims of abuse. The NGO has also raised concerns over the potential impact on the state’s ability to prevent sexual offences following reductions to the state budget approved by parliament in December 2012.
The comments were made as the government reiterated a pledge over the last month to review and amend laws on sexual abuse that it has claimed, in certain cases, treat sexual abuse victims as perpetrators.
A spokesperson for the President’s Office confirmed Thursday (February 7) that authorities would be holding a one day seminar with the Islamic and gender ministries over the next two weeks on legal reform over concern at cases such as a 15 year-old girl being charged for fornication.
Acting Minister of Gender, Family and Human rights Dr Mariyam Shakeela was not responding to calls from Minivan News at time of press.
Civil society concern
Addressing these commitments by the state, a spokesperson for ARC said it hoped the government would not delay in fulfilling its “pledge to try and review sexual abuse laws with regard to how victims are treated.”
“In addition, we also believe that further steps need to be taken to such a review. [These include] reviewing and strengthening the current institutions and existing services,” the NGO spokesperson said.
ARC has also called for reforms of the juvenile justice system and reform of the current protection mechanisms provided to minors who are kept in state run institutions, such as homes and foster programs.
A spokesperson for the NGO claimed such reviews would be vital to help ensure the protection measures are “gender sensitive, non-intimidating and safeguard children’s access to justice.”
“We concerned that the government budget for 2013 saw a huge decrease in the area of social protection, which will strongly impact work in this field,” the spokesperson added.
ARC identified a lack of specific legislation protecting rights for children and adults – despite the Special Measures Act 2009.
The spokesperson for ARC said a lack of a comprehensive laws on child’s rights, coupled with a general reluctance by witnesses and professional to testify in court, highlighted wider challenges affecting reforms to abuse cases.
“ARC believes that in the event that a need for testifying in a court of law is required, every person should make this a moral obligation/duty to give their full cooperation to the authorities/courts,” the spokesperson said.
According to the NGO, another important challenge urgently needing to be addressed was a perceived disparity between how child abuse cases were being investigated in the capital Male’ compared to the country’s outer atolls – particularly in regards to the use of evidence and psychological support.
In cases where the police or judiciary were dealing with minors, ARC said more training was needed to ensure children were being dealt with sensitively during investigations or trials.
“It is imperative that if the child has to be taken for questioning to a court or by police officers, it has to be ensured that the surroundings are child friendly and that all officials dealing with the child have received adequate training and experience to sensitively deal with children,” said the NGO spokesperson.
ARC said it hoped the government would provide greater room for civil society to play a role in shaping future legislation, adding that NGOs themselves needed to show greater cooperation on key issues.
“While it is encouraging that more civil society groups are being active on social issues such as this, there needs to be a stronger collaborative mechanism between them, particularly in efforts to raise awareness,” the NGO spokesperson added.
ARC said it had been conducting ongoing awareness campaigns to make the general public aware that child abuse was not just related to physical or sexual attacks, but also verbal and emotional torment that could have long terms impacts on the development of a minor.
“While child abuse cases have been increasing, it is also important to recognise the many numbers of unreported cases. We have placed billboards in Male’, and will soon air a public service awareness [advert] to emphasise that suspected child abuse must be reported and not overlooked, and also familiarise people with the reporting numbers of both the child helpline and police helpline,” stated the ARC spokesperson.
“We have also highlighted that people can maintain anonymity when reporting, which is often one of the reasons people hesitate to report such cases, particularly in a small society like the Maldives.”
High profile cases
Just last week, the Maldives high Court rejected a request to take a local man into custody over the alleged abuse of an 11-year old relative, despite the male suspect having previously been held under house arrest at the same property in which his alleged victim lived.
The Prosecutor General (PG’s) Office confirmed that following a remand hearing on Tuesday (February 5), the suspect had been released from house arrest – with no restrictions placed upon his movement ahead of his unscheduled trial.
The remand hearing took place at a time when the PG’s Office is already facing government criticism for pursuing a case against a 15 year-old minor on charges of having “consensual sexual relations”.
The 15 year-old presently facing charges of having “consensual sexual relations” has also been identified as the victim of child sex abuse in an unrelated criminal case also being pursued by authorities.
The two cases are the latest in a line of high profile sexual abuse trials concerning minors, which have been met with international condemnation.