Ling Ya is fighting a challenging battle to protect young girls forced into sex slavery in Cambodia. She is a survivor of the sordid crime which is destroying lives of thousands of young girls in the turbulent region.
Khadija is among several lobbyists in Pakistan who are tirelessly working to push authorities to expedite the endorsement of stalled legislations on ending the sexual harassment and domestic violence Pakistani women are suffering.
Bothaina from Jordon is fighting with a system that allows a man to kill his wife for suspected infidelity and escape harsh punishment. Similar to several other Muslim communities, Jordanian young girls and women are forced to marry their rapists or abusers while some parents often dictate decisions for daughters who have to oblige in silence or face unimaginable consequences.
These are just only few stories shared by participants at the UNiTE Global Youth Forum held in Bangkok with a focus on strengthening the youth movement in ending gender inequality and violence against women and girls.
Forty participants aged 18-30 from 29 countries participated and shared their experiences and challenges they faced in ending violence against women and girls. The forum began on May 22 and came to a close on May 24 with all participants pledging to carry forward the UNiTE Campaign in their personal and professional lives.
Listening to these horrifying stories at the workshop, I was naturally prompted to ponder on the comparative successes my small island nation has achieved in ensuring the rights of women and girls. Indeed, we have come a long way forward.
Progress in Maldives
In the Maldives – despite our religious conservative exterior – women can choose their spouses, marry, get divorced and even re-marry more easily than anywhere else in the world, while openly engaging in relationships outside marriage is not so taboo.
Not only do Muslim women and girls have equal access to education, health services and opportunities in Maldives – but these rights are guaranteed under the country’s constitution.
Women are also encouraged to be economically active in small and medium scale businesses to jobs in public officesor private companies. They receive equal protection under laws and are subjected to same punishments as men.
There is no institutional discrimination or barriers to political or social activism, thus allowing women to be teachers, police officers, judges, parliamentarians or even the President should she choose to be.
Accessible healthcare to mothers and newborns in Maldives have drastically reduced the maternal deaths and child mortality rates. Today, Maldives ranks as 45th best place to be a mother among 80 developing nations compared in international NGO Save the Children’s 13th State of the World’s Mothers report.
Participants from other countries noted the aforementioned legal frameworks, equal legal provisions and opportunities as some key solutions to solving several problems faced by women.
Perhaps it is these positive approaches that drive some people to ask, “What rights don’t women have in Maldives?” whenever the issue of women’s rights is raised here.
However, I was not surprised when a facilitator commented, “All things we say are needed for ensuring women’s rights are already in Maldives, but the numbers are yet so disturbing.”
What are these disturbing numbers?
Widespread domestic abuse and child molestation
Although the Maldives’ women development performance has been admirable with long standing pro gender equality policies, statistics available from multiple sectors indicate gross violations of women’s rights.
The country is faced with major challenges in addressing gender inequality and combating the widespread violence perpetrated against women and girls while growing religious conservatism is threatening the pace of women’s progress.
The first numbers showing the magnitude of women and girl’s suffering in Maldives was found in a 2007 survey named Maldives Study on Women’s Health and Life Experiences which revealed that one in every three women aged 15 to 49 have experienced some form of physical or sexual violence during their life time.
Half of the women had experienced ‘severe’ injuries, such as gashes, fractures, broken bones or internal injuries while 6.3 percent women, who have ever been pregnant, reported having been physically abused during at least one pregnancy. Of those, 41 percent were punched or kicked in the abdomen.
“He (my husband) tied me up “face down” on a bed with a woven rope. I was eight months pregnant then…I had to stay like that for four hours. When he untied me, my hands and feet were swollen and cut. My stomach hurt really badly because I was tied “face down”…I cried. I had a stillborn child and the midwife told me that it was probably due to the violent act of my husband,” a respondent reported during the survey.
The survey also flagged that the violence is not limited to intimate relationships either.
Girls reported that male family members, particularly father or step-father perpetrated ‘physical violence’ while family friends, work colleagues and strangers ‘sexually abused’ them.
Meanwhile, the statistics analysed in the report also substantiated the high prevalence of childhood sexual abuse.
“We found that 12.2 percent of women aged 15-49 had been sexually abuse before the age of 15,” the report read. “Approximately 10 percent of women reported that their first sexual experience was either coerced or forced and that the younger the girl at the first sexual encounter, the more likely it was that sex was forced.”
The data also reflected the fact that girls are at greatest risk of sexual abuse by male family members and male acquaintances – this, and several sordid cases of inter-familial or incest cases prompted the authorities to endorse a legislation in 2010, stipulating harsher punishments for child abusers who are in a “trusted position” or otherwise guardians of victims.
However, the enactment of the Domestic Violence Bill in April has filled the gap in the legal system, which has been a great challenge in preventing violence against women and providing justice and protection to survivors of domestic violence.
However, we are yet to witness the positive outcome the important piece of legislation brings while much is needed to raise public awareness on it.
Little or no economic emancipation
Although the 2008 constitution has removed the bar on women from holding the highest political office and there is no institutional discrimination against women in politics and decision making per say—the numbers show a grim reality.
Only five out of 77 elected parliament members are women and 57 out of 1086 elected island and atoll council members are women. Even among the few women who are currently politically active, almost all are notably linked to high status families, or have been appointed to the position.
Only a staggering two percent of the economically active women hold senior decision making position compared to the eight percent of men while, according to planning department, the the unemployment rate for women is nearly double compared to male counterparts.
Over one third of working age women are economically inactive due to the gender stereotyping that demands house work and child care from women, the 2006 Census found. The absence of childcare facilities makes it difficult for women to remain employed after they have children
“I was a teacher for five years. But I had to stop working after birth of my child. I always hoped to start teaching when my son turned four. I did start even. But stopped because my husband’s family complained about looking after my son all the time and there is no child care facility here,” a 28 year old woman with a degree in education told this author.
“Besides, I don’t think my husband will approve putting our son in child care,” she added.
Human Rights Commission of the Maldives (HRCM) has also reported that some employers discourage women from marriage or pregnancy, as it could result in employment termination or demotion.
Meanwhile, the Maldives has the highest divorce rates in the world, with up to 47 percent households headed by females and single mothers.
An audit of the courts found that large amounts of money received as child support has not been distributed to the recipients while some remains uncollected – indicating that single-mothers are bearing the financial burden of raising children.
A monthly allowance of Rf2000 (US$130) is distributed by state to single-mothers; however, flaws in the system and miscommunications leave many mothers empty-handed, especially in the atolls.
“I have a five year old son. His father has not provided child support since we got divorced. But I do not get child support because I am a civil servant. That is very upsetting because I can barely cover the costs,” a school supervisor working on Hithadhoo island commented.
Meanwhile, the high level of drug abuse results in many women co-dependent on drug users, the UNFPA Maldives says. It puts women at high risk of violence and abuse while those women who have experienced violence are significantly more likely to have health problems, emotional distress and thoughts of suicide.
Rising sexual health-illnesses
Reports also suggests that Maldivian women are greatly at the risk of reproductive illnesses due to unavailability of information on reproductive health.
Centre for Community Health and Disease Control (CCHDC) flagged high prevalence of Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) in a report released last year. Eighteen 18 HIV positive cases were detected and over 400 cases of STIs, of which 97 percent were women.
Detection STIs included chlamydia and gonorrhea – both conditions that can cause infertility if left untreated.
Rising STIs were associated with high risk behaviors such as increased sexual activities with reduced contraceptive use, lack of awareness and human trafficking for purposes including sexual entertainment.
Even though no specific statistics are available, anecdotal evidence additionally suggests that the number of unwanted pregnancies and unsafe aborions have dramatically increased – particularly among adolescents.
The current Health Minister Dr Ahmed Jamsheed acknowledged these disturbing trends in his blog last year.
Dr Jamsheed wrote on his blog in June 2011, “I believe that a high rate of abortion by our women, both in the Maldives and in neighbouring countries have been going on for some time.”
He made the comments following the discovery of three abandoned babies in the same year, out of which two were premature foetusus while the third was a dead new born.
“This is very much a public health and social issue, strongly related to societal values and faith. Criminalisation will never solve it and this will go on unless we address the root causes or have upstream interventions,” Dr Jamsheed argued.
Broader reproductive health should be taught in the schools, either incorporated to the curriculum or as a separate programme, he said. Furthermore, he contended, all barriers to access contraceptives must be removed.
He admitted: “I understand that some people would condemn this opinion, arguing that this will promote unlawful and out of wedlock sex. However, I don’t believe that the availability or non-availability of condom or contraceptives would ever be a factor determining whether two people who want to have sex will have it or not!”
UNFPA Assistant Representative Shadiya Ibrahim also echoed Jamsheed’s remarks contending that research has proven “sex education does not increase promiscuity”. Of 68 studies on family life and sex education in a scientific review, she said, 65 studies found no associated increases in sexual behavior.
“Young people taking part in such programs had higher levels of abstinence, later start of sexual activity, higher use of contraceptives, fewer sexual partners and/or reduced rates of STDs and unplanned pregnancy,” according to Ibrahim.
She added: “Non-health factors such as lacking education, lacking status in family, early marriage make girls highly vulnerable to unwanted pregnancy. It could be lacking basic knowledge and information about sexual and reproductive health and the means to prevent conception.”
“Other unintended pregnancies result from rape, sexual abuse and incest. Sexual education to boys and girls help reduce these instances and provide strategies for girls to reduce their vulnerability,” she observed.
Overwhelming majority of the married young girls are getting pregnant, which brings “high costs in lost opportunities, limited life options and poor health, according to her.
“It also affects the ability to provide opportunities for their children too. When young girls delay starting their families, they have better opportunities for further education and skill development and mean to fulfill whatever dreams they may have and contribute to productive integrated members of the society and economic development.” she further explained.
However, these contemporary strategies have fallen short from being transformed into concrete actions amid religious pressures in Maldives.
In addition, Education Ministry reported last year that girls are not being vaccinated and female school enrollment rates are falling. Both were associated with “religious reasons” which have been described as misinterpretation of religion by some Islamic scholars.
Meanwhile, claims that female circumcision is rising in practice in the Maldives also triggered alarm across the government and NGO sector in 2011.
“We are beginning to hear reports of this occurring, and I have heard on radio and television people justifying the practice. It is quite disheartening,” said President Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan, who was Vice President at the time.
Though he did not pinpoint a specific area where female circumcision was taking place, but attributed the “general trend” to “rising conservatism and traditional values imported from other parts of the world.”
These perceived influence from growing conservative religious groups in the country, according to gender experts, “are causing fear that recent gains in addressing gender equality could be reversed.”
Therefore, they argued that the authorities must prioritise gender mainstreaming to achieve the international goals of gender equality and also expand the efforts into eliminating all forms of violence against women and girls.