NGO urges government to address “inadequate” child protection measures

A Maldivian NGO has criticised child protection measures currently in place in the country as “inadequate”, while urging government authorities to incorporate several key human rights obligations into domestic law.

Local NGO Advocating the Rights of Children (ARC) told Minivan News today (April 21) that although the Maldives has signed and agreed to be legally bound by the provisions in the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and its Optional Protocols, the commitments have yet to be adopted into law.

ARC said it therefore “strongly urged” the Maldivian government to ratify the CRC Optional Protocol on a Communications Procedure as soon as possible to “enhance child protection measures in the country and to uphold its international legal obligations and responsibilities under the convention.”

ARC today claimed that provisions outlined in the CRC had not been fully adopted by the state into domestic legislation, thereby limiting the promotion and protection of child rights.

“Even though there is work being done to protect children, it is not enough,” the organisation said.

“The CRC’s optional [communications] protocol allows individuals, a group of individuals or their representatives to submit complaints to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child claiming to be victims of a violation by the state, of any rights enshrined in the convention or any of its optional protocols which the Maldives is a party to.

“What is very important is that children themselves or their parents can submit complaints if domestic [legal measures] have been exhausted,” ARC added.

ARC cited the recent example of the 15-year-old rape victim from the island of Feydhoo in Shaviyani Atoll who was convicted of premarital sex at the Juvenile Court in February and sentenced to 100 lashes and eight months of house arrest.

“The recent case of a 15-year old girl, whose rights were violated and abused by her step-father is a clear example of how domestic judicial and legal mechanisms failed to address and rectify the violation over a substantial period of time, at different levels,” ARC said.

“This is a situation where an individual complaint to the UN Committee could hold the government accountable even if the ‘domestic remedial system’, including judicial and legal mechanisms, fail to address the issue of abuse.

“Ratifying this optional protocol will help protect the rights of children as it could help reduce the number of cases in the Maldives where a lack of legislation, clarity and commitment to international human rights law allow serious injustices to proliferate,” ARC added.

Council heads and senior civil society figures have previously slammed the judiciary, state authorities and welfare groups over their systemic failure to protect the 15 year-old girl, despite her history of alleged sexual abuse dating back to 2009.

The 15-year-old’s case has brought international attention to the Maldives’ legal system, including the launch of an online petition signed by over 2 million people that has threatened to boycott Maldivian tourism.  The sentencing of the minor has also come under high-profile public criticism from British multi-billionaire Sir Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin group of companies.

Former Attorney General Azima Shukoor has already appealed the court’s sentencing decision against the minor.

ARC said it hope ratifying the treaty in the Maldives would instill “a sense of transparency on child rights issues and encourage the government to be more accountable to its obligations.”

“The protocol is specifically designed to allow members of the public to submit complaints to an international body if children’s rights have been violated,” ARC added.

ARC said it had been informed by the Maldivian government that the ratification process had been started and was hoped to be concluded  “at the earliest opportunity”.

UNICEF’s view

The UN General Assembly adopted the CRC’s optional communications protocol (treaty) in December 2011.  Tt was first opened for signature in February 2012.  Currently only four countries have ratified the treaty, agreeing to be legally bound by its terms.

UNICEF Representative Zeba Tanvir Bukhari explained to Minivan News that the CRC’s optional communications protocol would require a minimum of 10 ratifications before the treaty enters into force.

“Signatures usually happen faster than ratification, however what is signed should be ratified to help enable implementation,” said Bukhari.

She added that achieving societal change in attitudes to child rights was difficult, but there were “many ways of managing” it in the Maldives.  Bukhari pointed to maintaining civil society pressure and media attention on the Maldivian government to ratify the CRC optional protocol, as two notable examples on how to secure such changes.

UNICEF previousy backed a study published by the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives (HRCM) in January of this year highlighting numerous policy deficiencies in children’s participation and protection.  These deficiencies were highlighted in the report as potentially putting Maldivian children at serious risk of harm.

Ultimately the report recommended that government and civil society organisations “push for a radical change in the traditional thinking which dominates Maldivian perceptions of children: children should be seen and not heard.”

The Maldives has ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child (February 1991), the Optional Protocol on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography (May 2002), and the Optional Protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict (December 2004).

Legal obligations

A senior legal expert with experience of working under both the present and former governments spoke with Minivan News earlier this year about how minors were identified and viewed in the eyes of Maldivian law.

The legal source stated that the culpability of children was identified in a regulation called ‘Kuda kudhin kuraa kushuge masala thah balai, thahugeegu koh, insaafu koh, adhabu dhinumugai amalu kuraane gothuge gavaidu’.

The legal source said that the culpability of minors is specifically dealt with in section five of the regulations.

“According to section five, children above the age of 10 and below the age of 15 are criminally responsible for five offences, which are apostasy, treason, fornication, falsely accusing fornication and consumption of alcohol,” the source said.

“Children above 15 years are criminally responsible for their actions. With children who are below 10, parents are required to make good any damage because of a criminal act. There is no criminal liability for below 10.”

Meanwhile, neglect and abuse of children were reported to have increased to an “alarming level“, compelling the the Maldives’ Ministry of Gender, Family and Human Rights to submit an amendment (April 7) that would transfer parental guardianship of children in cases of negligence.

Earlier this year, ARC called on the Maldivian government to pass legislation concerning the treatment of sexual abuse victims. The NGO 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.

ARC has identified a lack of specific legislation protecting rights for children and adults – despite the Special Measures Act 2009.

The NGO also previously 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.


Under-age rape victim convicted of fornication, sentenced to 100 lashes

A 15-year-old rape victim from the island of Feydhoo in Shaviyani Atoll was convicted of premarital sex at the Juvenile Court today and sentenced to 100 lashes and eight months of house arrest.

In June 2012, the girl gave birth to a baby that was discovered buried in the outdoor shower area of her homeHer stepfather was later charged with child sexual abuse, possession of pornographic materials and committing premeditated murder.

Her mother was meanwhile charged with concealing a crime and failing to report child sexual abuse to the authorities.

An official from the Prosecutor General (PG)’s office told Minivan News in January this year that the fornication charges against the minor were related to a separate offence of premarital sex that emerged during the police investigation. The charges were filed on November 25, 2012.

In its verdict delivered today, the Juvenile Court ordered the state to transfer the girl to the Children’s Home in Villigili to enforce the sentence of eight months house arrest, according to local media reports.

The girl reportedly confessed at the trial to having consensual premarital sex.

The Islamic Shariah punishment of flogging would be administered when the girl turns 18. However, the sentence could be implemented earlier should the minor request expedition, a court official explained to local media.

In late January, the PG’s Office told Minivan News that it was reviewing the decision to press charges against the minor. Two hearings at the Juvenile Court were subsequently cancelled upon request by the PG.

However, the trial resumed after the PG decided earlier this month not to withdraw the charges.

Officials from the PG were unavailable today to clarify whether the male offender faced the same charge of premarital sex.

The case of the 15 year-old had prompted concern from the executive following international media coverage. The government announced last month that it would review and “correct” laws that victimise young women and minors who have suffered sexual abuse.

President’s Office Spokesperson Masood Imad told Minivan News that from government’s perspective, the 15 year-old girl was a victim who needed to be protected, not punished by authorities.

“We will be talking with the Ministry of Islamic Affairs over this manner and will review and correct the problem,” he said.

Masood said that the Maldives had experienced a number of similar cases of late where young women had been victimised and punished by authorities – a situation he said the government was looking to prevent.

“We are reviewing this right now and if we have to go to the extent of changing existing laws then we would look to do this,” he said.

“Absolute outrage”

The criminal charges against the minor was slammed by Amnesty International last month, which called the prosecution “an absolute outrage.”

“This is an absolute outrage, regardless of the reason for her charges. Victims of rape or other forms of sexual abuse should be given counselling and support – not charged with a crime,” said Abbas Faiz, Amnesty International’s Maldives Researcher.

“We urge the Maldivian authorities to immediately drop all charges against the girl, ensure her safety and provide her with all necessary support.

“Flogging is a violation of the absolute prohibition on torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment. The Maldivian authorities should immediately end its use regardless of circumstances. The fact that this time a 15-year old girl who has suffered terribly is at risk makes it all the more reprehensible,” said Faiz.

“Flogging is not only wrong and humiliating, but can lead to long-term psychological as well as physical scars.”

In response to a Minivan News report in 2009 of an 18 year-old woman fainting after a 100 lashes, Amnesty International called for a moratorium on the “inhumane and degrading punishment.”

Of the 184 people sentenced to public flogging in 2006, 146 were female, making it nine times more likely for women to be punished.

In November 2011, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay urged the authorities to impose a moratorium on flogging and to foster national dialogue and debate “on this issue of major concern.”

“This practice constitutes one of the most inhumane and degrading forms of violence against women, and should have no place in the legal framework of a democratic country,” the UN human rights chief told MPs during a maiden visit to the Maldives.

Her remarks sparked protests by Islamic groups outside the UN building and drew condemnation from the Islamic Ministry, NGOs and political parties.

According to statistics from the Department of Judicial Administration, almost 90 percent of those convicted of fornication in 2011 was female.

Of 129 fornication cases in 2011, 104 people were sentenced, out of which 93 were female. This included 10 underage girls, 79 women aged 18-40 and and four women above 40 years.