The president’s office has said it will reassess article 14 of the Child Sex Abuse (Special Provisions) Act, which some have argued could provide a means of evasion for paedophiles.
The long overdue Act categorises child sex offences for the first time in the Maldives and contains harsh sentences of up to 25 years for those convicted.
But under article 14, if an adult is legally married to a child under Islamic sharia, none of the offences specified in the Act will be considered a crime.
Although the Act was ratified earlier this month, the contentious article has elicited a strong reaction from NGOs and children’s rights activists for potentially providing a loophole for child sexual abuse.
President’s Office Press Secretary Mohamed Zuhair said today the government would reconsider the article as the Maldives was signatory to international treaties such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).
“It’s a concern for us and the government will work to revise it and overturn it,” said Zuhair.
Although MPs did not deliberate the contentious article during the parliamentary debate on the bill, it was brought to public attention on Thursday by Mansoor Ali, Unicef representative to the Maldives, and Vice President Dr Mohamed Waheed.
“MPs like everyone are scared to approach any subject to do with religion and refute anything to do with religion,” explained Zuhair.
At an event to mark World Day for Prevention of Child Abuse, the vice president said he hoped article 14 would be re-examined. “If someone tried to take advantage of a loophole in the law to do this, it’s an even bigger crime,” he said.
Mansoor told Minivan News today that during his speech on Thursday, he appealed both to the government and to MPs to review the article, which he believed was in conflict with the CRC.
“I am not trying to challenge religion. My concern is that this goes against the spirit and content of the CRC,” he said.
He added the legislation should be linked to the Family Act, under which child marriage is admissible.
While the national age of marriage is 18 in the Maldives, as a Muslim country, girls below this age can marry with parental and state consent.
For many who Minivan News spoke to today regarding article 14, child marriage was the larger issue at stake. For the president, said Zuhair, child marriage was a matter of great concern.
Former Attorney General Azima Shukoor said she supported Unicef’s appeal for the article to be re-evaluated although not necessarily deleted.
Azima said the chief judge of the family court had recently expressed concern about young girls being taken out of the Maldives for marriages which were not recognised inside the country.
“How can a 12 or 13-year-old give consent to being married? My concern is that it defeats a lot of the purpose of the bill,” she said.
In July, four local NGOs made recommendations to a parliamentary committee reviewing the bill.
In their recommendations, Maldivian Detainee Network, Rights for All, Madulu and Transparency Maldives, called for the removal of article 14.
The NGOs said that as consent for sex was required even within a marriage, any kind of non-consensual “touching” of a child should be considered an offence under the Act.
But, MP for Kulhudhufushi South Mohamed Nasheed, who submitted the bill, told Minivan News today, that legislation could not “encroach into a lawful marriage”.
As underage marriages are permitted, “child marriage cannot be put under a child sexual abuse bill,” he said, adding that there was no legislation for marital rape in the Maldives.
Nasheed said that it would be necessary to find out the number of underage marriages and how many of them were to children below the age of 16.
“If it’s a serious concern and we realise there are people marrying young children for a short time for a certain purpose, then we have to revise the Family Act,” said Nasheed.
In agreement was Mohamed Shaheem Ali Saeed, state minister for Islamic affairs, who said article 14 was not in conflict with the law.
While the ministry would strive to combat child abuse, he said, underage marriage was legal in the Maldives.
“The principle in Islam is that the child has to mature physically and sexually and there has to be the financial means to look after the family,” said Shaheem.