When I started inviting people to join the launching session of “Lets Talk” program on Monday night, my expectations for the turn out were not too unrealistic given the history of people’s poor participation in most social events organised by civil society.
Let’s bring at least 30 people, I told my friends at the Friendship Association of India Maldives (FAIM) ,who backed the concept of “Lets Talk”: a monthly forum with people from diverse backgrounds to have discuss various topics and issues concerning society.
So with the table, chairs, projector and coffee to keep people awake, FAIM was ready at Social Center seminar room, eagerly waiting for its first round of talkers.
As the clock’s hands ticked their way to 9:00pm – the planned starting time – only five or six people had arrived, of which most were the special invitees – officials from Labor Relations Authority, police and immigration. They were prepared to talk and answer any question the participants had regarding the chosen topic: sexual harassment, abuse and discrimination faced by both local and migrant women working in Maldives.
I panicked. “What if no one comes?” kept dancing through my head. It was indeed a stressful moment.
“Why did you organise it, when people are not coming?” one person asked as I kept ringing the people who had promised to attend the event.
At one point, in a desperate attempt, I almost dragged in a group of women from the gym class next door, but of course they were quite busy with their aerobics.
Fortunately, however some more familiar faces showed. The talkers slowly reached 22. That was fewer than the targeted audience but delighted, I began with the introduction and ice breakers. Soon the participants were all actively engaged in the discussion.
Local girls and ladies from Britain, the US, and Holland shared their experiences of being the targets of constant sexual harassment on the streets, and the “helplessness” they felt in such situations.
One female participant asked” “Are we to ignore and just walk away when they call us a “s**y b***h”,”beautiful tits” or ask us “how much?”.
They also complained of lack of police follow up, even after harassment cases were filed.
Though the forum attracted only one talker of Asian descent, the participants unanimously agreed that it was mostly Asian women working in Maldives who bore the brunt of sexual harassment.
A women from the Phillipines working as a resort rep who had talked to me prior to the forum said: “I always get teased on the streets. Mostly by young boys, but old men do it too. They whistle at me, pass comments about my body or ask me “how much”. It’s very difficult to walk on the streets when I know that people think of me as a prostitute. It’s very upsetting.”
Police officers present at the forum acknowledged the “seriousness” of the problems and encouraged the participants to report such incidents, offering assurances that sexual harassment cases would be taken more seriously.
Meanwhile, a more serious concern was raised: the increasing number of migrant women who are being trafficked into the country, exploited by employers, and often forced into sex work.
Responding to the questions on the subject, immigration officers admitted that the lack of legal provisions and non-existence of victim support mechanisms prevented the institution from protecting the rights of those women and other victims of trafficking. The only option was deportation or repatriation.
They explained that institutional efforts were underway to help victims of trafficking, but without support from the grass-roots level, change was difficult, they said.
“We are witnessing the presence of mass xenophobia in the Maldives. There is a widespread hatred towards foreigners of certain ethnicities. They are not even regarded as human beings,” one officer explained. “We need to educate and create awareness to change people’s attitude.”
Meanwhile, few members from Indian community who participated also highlighted the suffering of Indian expatriates working in Maldives, of whom many are women, and who are being intimidated and exploited by employers.
Their passports are withheld, salaries are not paid and in some circumstances they are not even given the leave to attend the funerals of family members, according to one participant.
Foreign women (and men also) are harassed, mugged and threatened, one Indian participant observed, adding that “if such crimes continue, these women – who are working as nurses, teachers and doctors – will no longer come to the Maldives.”
Despite the low turn out, the honest discussion and sharing of experiences made the soft launch of Lets Talk program a “good start”, if not a success.
UK national Sarah Harvey, who participated in the forum, said: “It was really great that I got the chance to share my own experiences and listen to others as well. Foreign women are facing sexual harassment on a daily basis. It very upsetting and intimidating, and a lot of girls don’t feel comfortable walking down the streets because of it.”
“We are putting effort into adapting to the culture and following appropriate dress codes. I just hope that people recognise that,” the British writer noted.
She also added that foreign women would work in Maldives for longer if they did not keep having these horrible experiences: “It’s one of the major downsides of living here,” she contended.
Marketing director Sanne Wesselman, from Holland, described the forum as “a great effort”, but suggested that “It will take a lot more than these events to raise awareness of the problem.”
Wesselman is right. Following the two-hour long discussions and personal accounts of discrimination and harassment, participants were asked to write one recommended action to solve these problems.
These recommendations included; educating and encouraging a culture of respect for women of all ages and race, and through awareness raising programs, conducting sensitisation program for school students on zero-tolerance of racial discrimination and violence against women and girls. Suggestions also included establishing a helpline for women and girls to report abuse, exploitation and provide counseling advice on request.
Telecasting short advertisements promoting zero-tolerance of harassment and discrimination, hanging posters with such messages in restaurant and streets, and letting respective embassies, high commissions and consulates open safe deposit boxes to keep passports instead of allowing employers to retain the documents were also suggested, among other recommendations.
The Friendship Association of India-Maldives said the recommendations will be forwarded to the Maldivian government through the Indian Embassy, and the NGO will provide support with implementation.
The organisation is meanwhile preparing for its second session of talks, with the hope of attracting a large and diverse group of talkers.
The Friendship Association of India-Maldives (FAIM),is an NGO jointly run by Indians and Maldivians to build a strong bond between the peoples of India and the Maldives through economic, social & welfare initiatives. Please write to [email protected] to join or support the organisation.