Support for women’s equality has experienced a “significant drop” despite overall progress in improving the human rights situation nationally, a Human Rights Commission of the Maldives (HRCM) second baseline survey has concluded.
“The ‘Rights’ Side of Life” [report] studied knowledge, behaviours and attitudes regarding human rights in the Maldives and reinforced many of the findings from the 2005 survey,” according to the UNDP-backed report released by the HRCM in December 10, 2012.
However, fewer respondents than in the first study believed that women should have equal rights to men in all seven of the areas surveyed (inheritance, divorces, work, politics, family matters, courts, custody), the report found.
“Despite the freedoms that the constitution has provided for women, attitudes towards women’s empowerment show a negative trend,” stated Andrew Cox, the recently-departed UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP representative in the Maldives.
“Alarmingly, the study also suggests that there has been a regression in people’s sensitivity towards domestic violence and gender based violence,” he added.
Male attitudes have become “more conservative” regarding women’s rights issues, whereas female views have become more supportive of rights in some areas, the report stated.
“Women have undergone a significant shift in attitude,” according to the HRCM survey.
In a reversal from the 2005 study, more women than men now consider it inappropriate for men to hit their wives.
However, significant numbers of respondents stated where there was a “substantive justification” – as opposed to something trivial – “violence against wives was justified,” the report determined.
Both genders in the Maldives were also found to believe that in the husband/wife relationship, women should play a “subordinate role”.
“It is widely considered among stakeholders and experts in the field that violence against women is based on such inequality,” the report stated.
Survey respondents mentioned sexual abuse and violence against women most often in regard to improving women’s equality and saw a need to focus on this controversial issue.
“There was some comment that the growing assertion of Islamic values might be resulting in changes of attitude in some areas covered by ‘The Rights Side of Life,’ [survey], such as those on attitudes to family and ideas about acceptable behaviour in the home, justifications for men hitting their wives,” quoted the report.
Furthermore, over a fifth of the women surveyed said they had been sexually harassed, with offensive or obscene sexual comments and behaviour, as well as men grabbing their hands in public being the most likely occurrences.
Regarding sexual harassment in the workplace, “more intimate forms of harassment” have decreased overall compared to the 2005 survey, but there is a “relatively high level” of sexually suggestive/obscene language. Both of these sexual harassment issues happen more often to rural women than urban women, the study found.
In response to sexual harassment at work, a woman’s most common response was to do nothing.
“The main reasons for this lack of action was their fear of not being believed; fear of people knowing/ bringing bad name to the family; and embarrassment and shame,” said the report.
In a related issue, sexual abuse of girls is considered a “serious problem” by 99 percent of women.
Additionally, sexual abuse of boys is viewed as a “serious problem” by both more women and men than in the previous HRCM study.
Women’s support for the right to participate in politics and government has risen, while men’s support has declined from nearly 73 percent to less than 58 percent.
Ultimately, a majority of women consider the country’s democratic reforms unsuccessful.
Their primary reasons for dissatisfaction according to the report were:
- Ineffective politicians/government/executive
- Influence/interference with the parliament or judiciary
- Mistrust among political parties/ineffective parliament
- Lack of public understanding of democracy
More men than women respondents regarded the democratic reforms as successful. Less male respondents claimed to have voted compared to women in the 2011 local council elections and overall turnout was lower than the 2009 parliamentary elections. This was consistent with Electoral Commission findings, according to the HRCM report.
The primary grievances with the recent elections included, “mismanagement or incomplete voter registration; lack of voter education; aggressive campaigns along party lines; insufficient duration for voting; and last minute court election rulings,” the report stated.
“Human rights not in conflict with religion”
A “large majority” of people surveyed thought a copy of the Maldivian constitution should be given to every household by the government.
Furthermore, half of respondents believe that human rights do not conflict with religion.
Among the 10 most important human rights nominated by respondents included freedom of opinion, conscience and religion, which were not listed in either the 2012 or 2005 reports.
Of those who did think there was a conflict between religion and human rights, the most frequently mentioned concerns were “women’s right to equality, freedom of expression, child rights and Islamic punishments such as cutting off hands for theft, in that order,” the report determined.
Rural respondents and women were more likely to think there was a conflict between human rights and religion. However, there were many non-responses to the question and “vast majority” were unable to respond because they did not know whether such a conflict actually exists, the report stated.
The survey questions regarding religion were considered controversial, with several new questions added to the study regarding: family planning/contraception issues; the importance of women’s right to seek “safe and legal abortions” as well as the incidence of abortion; the right of foreigners to practice their religion; and the right to voluntarily decide if and when to marry and have children.
Reproductive rights were more strongly supported by men and women alike, including “abortion to be [made] legal to save the life of the mother or the baby, but not in other circumstances”.
Approximately 25 percent of women and 16 percent of men surveyed said they knew someone who had an illegal abortion, the report noted.
While many respondents did not think human rights were in conflict with religion or were unsure, there was little support for migrant workers having to right to practice their religion within the Maldives.
“Overall, less than 10 percent considered migrants should be able to practice their religion in public or private, about a quarter in private and nearly 60 percent not at all,” the study found.
Women were strongly of the view that migrant workers should not have the right to practise their own religion in the Maldives.
Freedom of expression and access to services lacking
Satisfaction levels regarding access to services – particularly regarding the realisation of economic and social rights – were said to be a prominent concern and have undergone an overall reversal since the first HRCM human rights study was released.
“For example, the main areas not working well in the police/security system were listed (in order) as: corruption; can’t get police when we need them; political influence; lack of fairness/ bias; and torture,” the latest report concluded.
Respondents ranked the most important human rights as access to education and healthcare, adequate standard of living, and freedom of expression.
However, the most mentioned human right was freedom of expression, while women’s equal rights rose from 8th to the 4th most mentioned issue.
The most frequently raised topic – particularly in rural communities – was the escalating crime rate.
“Criminals have more rights than ordinary people,” the study quoted a respondent saying.
Crime victims were found to be primarily young, male, and likely from the respondent’s community, the report claimed.
Children, elderly, and disabled vulnerable
Other vulnerable groups within Maldivian society include children, the elderly, and the disabled.
The vast majority of respondents reported that the level of protection of children’s rights was satisfactory – over 50 percent were dissatisfied.
The main areas in need of improvement regarding children’s rights included violence against children, having better access to education, drugs, gender stereotyping/ discrimination, and crime and or gangs, the study found.
“For older people, neglect; inadequate attention to health status of older people; abuse (physical or mental); lack of legislation and/or policies to protect older people; and inadequate housing for older people were concerns mentioned most often,” highlighted the report.
Lack of access to services were the primary issues discussed by the disabled, such as special needs schools for children and facilities within existing schools for them, education opportunities generally, inadequate healthcare including mental health services, employment and related services, stereotyping and discrimination.