Parents protest as disabled childrens’ school faces closure

The parents of pupils at Male’s Care Development Centre (CDC) gathered at the artificial beach on Thursday, imploring the government to fulfil its obligation to provide their children with an education.

Amongst the placards held aloft, some read, “Don’t deprive us of education”, whilst others asked “Should disabilities be a reason for being maginalised?”

More specifically, one sign read “Give the CDC a building”.

The Maldives’ only specialist school for disabled children is facing closure after the government failed to follow up on a verbal agreement to extend the lease on its new premises, Deputy Director of the Care Society Aishath Looba explained.

“All children with disabilities should be able to go to school, and the government schools don’t have the opportunity for all of them…a lot of children who come to the Care Society have severe disabilities and it is the only service they receive in the country,” said Looba.

“If the Care Society could not continue with the services provided at the CDC, a lot of the children would have no other place to go. The government are obligated to provide those services for them.”

With finances for the current premises only secured until December, the 41 children – of varying mental and physical disabilities – are facing a future without their constitutional right to an education free from discrimination.

Up until July this year, the Care Society had been running the school from a rent-free premises, but the ending of this agreement has seen the group forced to find an additional MVR48,000 (US$3,100) a month.

The government has provided a new building – just yards from the site of yesterday’s protest – but the extensive repairs needed have meant that the building is unsuitable without substantial investment.

“Renovation is not the word – we have to construct the building,” said Looba

With the lease on this new property set to expire in 2015, Looba explained that this uncertainty was deterring new investors.

“We have been trying to increase the duration of the period, a lot of people have said they could help if the period was longer – say 20-30 years.”

“There’s no choice left without the school”

One parent at today’s demonstration explained the great sacrifice she and her husband had made to bring her children to Male’ from Noonu Atoll to receive the education unavailable to them in the atolls.

“As a parent, I believe even children with disability have to become part of society,” said Ameena, who estimated that up to half of the pupils had been brought to Male’ solely to attend the CDC.

“There’s no choice left without the school. When the CDC closes, the only choice is to return to the island, there is no sustainability in Male’.”

Looba urged the government to decide whether it considered a specialised school important, regardless of who provides these vital services.

She went on to suggest that the verbal agreement for lease extension given earlier this year may have simply been a government ploy to prevent similar demonstrations.

Looba also cited political state of the country as one of the reasons why new sponsors for individual children had been hard to come by in recent months.

“Rent is secured up to the end of december – half from Universal, some from Bandos, and some from the Islamic Ministry. But if we have to try so hard to secure the rent, how can we run the programmes?”

“When we started we had to beg the parents to send their children to school, now the parents are coming and begging us to take their children to school. We have come a long way and the Care Society deserves more respect and support from everyone, especially the government,” she explained.

“There are so many thousands of kids who really require support and are not getting anything special in the islands. This is an example for all parents that they can be an advocate for their children, we want to see parents in the islands saying you should take our children to school.”

“We won’t stop it – even if we don’t get any support – we are going to continue that work.”

At the time of publication Minivan News was awaiting response from the Ministry of Education, whilst ministers from the Housing Ministry were not responding to calls.


Finance Ministry causes “crisis situation” for Care Society NGO

Lack of government support has caused a “crisis situation” for Care Society, the only institution providing schooling for a diversity of special needs individuals of any age and type of disability.

The Care Society was given a government-owned building in Male’s Heniveru neighborhood with a five-year lease agreement under former President Mohamed Nasheed’s government. The NGO has said it has been seeking a 20-year lease extension from President Waheed Hassan Manik’s government, to no avail.

The lease extension is necessary to secure private funds to rebuild the structure and expand services, but the Care Society has not received a definitive response from the Ministry of Finance and Treasury, despite the Ministry of Housing and Environment granting their approval, Care Society Director Shidhatha Shareef told Minivan News.

“Currently the Care Society works from a private residence donated by a Saudi Prince, but our lease is up at the end of May and we might have to shut down because we have no place to go. It will be a real loss for the children,” stated Shidhatha.

“We have not received any response from the government. The Housing Ministry approved the 20-year lease extension for the new building in writing, but the Finance Ministry has final approval and they still have not provided a definite response. We just want a yes or no answer.”

Shidhatha explained the Care Society has been seeking a “sustainable long term premises” since 2006 and has spent the last four years continually talking to and meeting with government officials. In addition to the Housing and Finance Ministries, they have been in contact with the President’s Office, Vice President Mohamed Waheed Deen, the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives (HRCM), and the National Disability Council.

“When we spoke to Finance Minister Abdulla Jihad about approving the lease extension he said he would ‘work on it’. Additionally, the Vice President Waheed Deen visited the premises and ‘expressed concern’ because the building is so old.

“Meanwhile, the engineers we’ve spoken to said the structure will have to be rebuilt, even the walls are not worth reusing. Care Society has a number of private investors interested in developing the building, however they are not willing to invest if the lease term expires in 2015.

“Ultimately, the government has an obligation to facilitate the process. They are mandated by the constitution and Disability Act to provide educational services to the disabled,” said Shidhatha.

Care Society has been working for the rights of the disabled for 14 years and established the Care Development Centre in 2001, a ‘special school’ for special needs individuals with all sorts of disabilities, including down syndrome, autism, cerebral palsy, physical disabilities, as well as the hearing and vision impaired.

This school provides services for any age, ranging from early intervention programs for one year-olds all the way to elderly individuals.

“Care Society runs the only school that caters to a diversity of special needs disorders and any age group,” Shidhatha explained.

“We work with 600 children and people with disabilities regularly, our school currently has 43 students and another 20 children on the waiting list, however we lack the space to accommodate them at this time,” she added.

Currently there are two government schools, Jamaluddin which only caters to the hearing impaired and Imaduddin which offers classes for the intellectually impaired. The problem is their age limitations, as once students exceed age 18 they are sent out of the school, Shidhatha said.

Additionally, the handful of other NGOs working with the disabled persons in the Maldives only address one type of disability or limit their target group age, Shidhatha added.

Care Society’s objectives include promoting rights of disabled people, rights of children and women, capacity building of CBOs and NGOs and assisting victims of natural disasters.

“Responsibility for ensuring disabled rights first falls on government”: Waheed

The Human Rights Commission of the Maldives (HRCM) began a “National Inquiry on Access to Education for Children with Disabilities” in January 2013.

The study was launched in November 2012 to “look into the practices, policies and laws related to the education for children with disabilities. HRCM will also inquire into the States role in providing for people with disabilities in a non-discriminatory manner, with a special focus on the educational needs of children with disabilities”.

According to the most recent study on the disabled conducted by the HRCM in 2010, there are 2250 children with disabilities in the Maldives that are registered with the government, while only 230 of these children attend school. Overall, 14,100 persons, about 4.7 percent of the population, were found to have permanent disabilities.

In July 2012, the Ministry of Gender, Family and Human Rights and the national Disability Council conferred the Disability Award 2012 to “individuals and organizations working for the rights of the disabled”.

Care Society received an award, which was presented by President Waheed.

Waheed “noted that the responsibility of ensuring the rights of the disabled first falls on the government, and assured that the government was always carrying out that responsibility as best as possible.”

Recent studies by the HRCM – primarily a women’s rights study and children’s participation study – found that lack of access to services were the primary issues discussed by the disabled.

Inadequate special needs schools for children and facilities within existing schools for them, as well as education and mental health service opportunities are of particular concern.

The Finance Ministry, President’s Office, and Housing Ministry were not responding to calls at the time of press.


Indian High Commission donates MVR 55,000 to three NGOs

The Indian High Commission has donated MVR 55,000 (US$3,567) to three local NGOs in recognition of their service to the community.

At a function on Thursday night at Iskandhar School to mark the India-Maldives friendship day, President Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik presented commemorative plagues to the NGOs –Care Society, Maldives Autism Association and Haemophilia Society of Maldives.

While Care Society and the Autism Association were gifted MVR 25,000 each, the Haemophilia Society was given MVR 5,000.

Senior government officials, MPs and Indian expatriates living in Male’ attended the ceremony on Thursday, which also featured entertainment.

The event was held to mark the 46th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between the two nations.


More than 1000 cases of child abuse reported in 2011

Between December 2010 and October 2011, 1,138 cases of child abuse were reported to the Gender Department from atoll family and children service centres.

1,005 cases involved minors while 133 cases involved victims aged 18 and above.

A majority of cases (348) involved children aged 11 to 15; 30 percent of these cases were classified as sexual abuse.

Approximately one-third of the 81 cases involving children less than one year old involved neglect. Sexual abuse was reported in a quarter of the 192 cases for age group one to five, and in a fifth of the 230 cases age group five to ten.

Acting Head of the Child and Family Protection Services Aishath Ahmed said the report said more about the record keeping system than the issue itself.

“I would say the statistics show an improvement in the reporting system because people are more aware of how to file a report. I don’t think the situation is getting better, as far as I know the number of cases is increasing,” she said, explaining the report only accounted for cases reported.

However, Ahmed said people are less hesitant about filing reports than they were five years ago.

“Back then people didn’t want to report the cases, they didn’t want to get involved in other people’s business. But now they can report anonymously,” said Ahmed, explaining that island residents were also filing reports more regularly.

“Before, some people believed that only sexual penetration constituted child abuse,” she explained. “Now, they know more about the different kinds of abuse. The definition of sexual abuse is also clearer, so they can distinguish.”

Child abuse cases are divided between four categories: sexual, physical, psychological and neglect. Statistics show that 57 percent of abuse cases reported were physical. Ahmed said the second most common form of abuse was neglect (17.4 percent).

Family problems such as domestic violence, runaways and complications due to divorce were identified in 14.1 percent of the cases. Behavioral problems including teen pregnancy, self-mutilation, attempted suicide and anger management accounted for another 14 percent of reported cases.

In it’s own report, Human Rights Commission Maldives (HRCM) yesterday said its offices had received 500 complaints of human rights violations in the past year, 74 of which involved the social protection of children, elderly and disadvantaged people.

HRCM is one of several organisations with which individuals may file a report on child abuse in the Maldives.

A report submitted to the United Nations by HRCM in July this year found that physical discipline in some schools qualifies as abuse.

“For instance, the investigation carried out by HRCM on Lale’ International School (2010) made apparent that number of students experienced physical and psychological abuse in the school. Some of the findings include abuses such as strangling and whipping children with belts. The findings of HRCM were further validated when the Criminal Court in August 2010 found the former principal of the school, guilty of assaulting children and sentenced him to pay Rf200 (US $12.97 ) as fine under article 126 of the Penal Code.”

Staff of Lale’ School, including the deputy principle, fled the Maldives in 2010 over allegations of child abuse and other misconducted, which was investigated by HRCM.

Article 10 of the Law on Protection of the Rights of the Child states that punishment in schools should be age-appropriate and should not affect them physically or psychologically.

According to Ahmed, child abuse has a lasting impact on the individual and the community.

The aftermath of abuse can vary by the age of the victim and the severity of the treatment. “If a child has experienced repeated sexual abuse, then as the child approaches sexual maturity she or he may have a difficult time adjusting within the age group. Physically abused children may also develop violent habits in their own marriages later in life,” said Ahmed.

Abusive behavior can also impact children’s social development. “It affects education as well. Children who have been abused sometimes can’t cope with their peers, and they might lash out or withdraw. They may have a hard time paying attention in school,” she explained.

HRCM’s report said the Ministry of Education (MoE) acknowledged that school monitoring and inspection was insufficient.

“Due to the fact that corporal punishment is existent in the education system, it is important that the MoE come up with a discipline policy where it could provide clear guidelines disciplinary actions/corrective measures in schools. It is equally significant that all staffs, including teachers are sensitized to the rights of the child and other related rights that are relevant while working in the education sector.”

HRCM’s action plan includes the public outreach campaign ‘Every Neglect is an Abuse’. The commission has also released handouts informing citizens of the United Nations’ Convention of the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), of which the Maldives is a signatory.

Last week, the Maldives recognised “World Day for Prevention of Child Abuse: Every Neglect is an Abuse“. Children’s festivals were organised by government groups and NGOs including the Child Abuse Prevention Society (CAPS), HRCM, the Ministry of Education, the Department of Gender and Family, Maldives Police Service, Care Society, Maldives Autism Association, Maldives Red Crescent and Tiny Hearts.

Vice President Dr Mohamed Waheed, who attended both events, said the efforts to raise public awareness of child abuse was an indicator of Maldivian society’s growing concern over the issue. Listing the four categories of abuse–physical, sexual, psychological and neglect–he urged parents not be overly-critical of their children.

When asked if there were sufficient resources for the Maldivian community to address child abuse, Ahmed said the network is growing.

“People can contact the police, NGOs, HRCM, and there’s a Family Protection Unit in IGMH [Indira Ghandi Memorial Hospital]. The cases are also forwarded to us, and we review them to see how best to address them,” she said.

Ahmed explained that a series of interviews, visits and follow-up reports are conducted to evaluate a claim. Sometimes the situation is not as severe as initially reported. “We may close a case when we feel there is no further assistance we can provide, but we rarely close a case.”

Child and Family Protection Services will be working to create more awareness throughout the year. A more specific action plan has not yet been drawn up.


Police celebrate 78th anniversary

Maldives Police Service celebrated its 78th anniversary yesterday with flag hoisting ceremonies across the country, the unveiling of a new police song and donations to Care Society and the Children’s Home in Villigili.

In separate functions in the morning, Sub-Inspector Ahmed Aleem of the Family and Child Protection Unit donated material to the Villigli orphanage while Deputy Commissioner Ahmed Muneer made donations to Care Society.

Police officers visited both facilities and inquired after the orphans and children with special needs.


President vetoes special needs legislation

President Mohamed Nasheed has vetoed the bill on protecting the rights of and providing financial assistance to people with special needs following an appeal from NGOs and advice from the attorney general that it would conflict with UN conventions.

Article 91(a) of the constitution states the president shall either assent to a bill within 15 days or return it for reconsideration.

The bill was passed on 21 December and would have automatically become law if the president did not ratify it today.

Mohamed Zuhair, president’s office press secretary, said the legislation was returned as the president believed it could lead to “social, economical and legal problems” if it was enacted.

Zuhair said Attorney General Husnu Suood advised the president that many provisions in the bill conflicted with international standards and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which the Maldives has acceded to.

Suood told the president that the bill would create obstacles for persons with special needs making decisions on their own and participating in society.

Zuhair added the ministry of health and family informed the president that social and economic difficulties could arise if the provisions in the legislation were implemented.

Moreover, the Human Rights Commission of Maldives as well as NGOs Care Society, Handicap International and Association for Disabilities and Development had urged the president to ask parliament to ensure that the law would protect the rights of people with special needs as required by the UN convention.


"Don't ratify the bill!"
"Don't ratify the bill!"

Care Society, the Maldivian Deaf Association and the Association for Disabilities and Development were joined by parents of persons with special needs at a gathering outside the president’s office this morning.

The NGOs and parents held up placards urging the president not to ratify the bill.

Speaking to Minivan News, Sidaatha Shareef from Care Society said the NGOs wanted a law to protect the rights of the special needs.

“But we had to gather today after working through a lot of different stages. When the bill was at parliament, we met parliament members and met members of the social affairs committee separately and made recommendations in writing and gave them a presentation,” she said.

The bill was passed without considering any of the recommendations, she continued, and the NGOs met with the president’s office, the HRCM and the health ministry to raise their concerns.

“But, since we have not got an adequate response, we are here today to see what decision is made,” she said, adding if the president ratified the bill it would be a “big failure”.

Among the main concerns with the bill was lack of health rehabilitation. “That is one difficulty that the parents here endure every day. It is a basic right that they should be getting,” she said.

She added the language of some provisions the “spirit of the bill” would “segregate” people with special needs or provide assistance as “charity”.

The NGOs wanted the bill to be “more inclusive, rights-based and in line with the UNCPWD”.

Shortly after Sidaatha went into the president’s office and was told to wait until the end of lunch hour, Hassan Afeef, political advisor to the president, came out and addressed the group.

Asked how the president would make his decision, Afeef said, “The president is considering doing it in line with your thinking.”


NGOs slam special needs bill

Several NGOs have criticised the recently-passed bill protecting the rights and providing financial assistance to people with special needs.

The bill, which was passed on 21 December, states that disabled people will receive financial benefits of Rf2000 a month. In addition, persons found mocking people with disabilities could be fined from anywhere between Rf5000 to Rf10,000.

However NGOs such as Care Society have strongly criticised the bill.

Sidaatha Shareef from Care Society said “this bill is not in line with the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) that the Maldives has signed.”

The UNCRPD is an international human rights convention pushing a rights-based vision addressing issues concerning people with disabilities.

The Maldives signed a UNCRPD act in 2008. According to this Act, a country must have a specialised bill that focuses on the rights of people with disabilities.

“The term ‘special needs’ is a very board category. We wanted this bill to be specifically for the rights of people with disabilities,” continued Sidaatha.

“We’re not trying to downplay other issues, they are just as important, but we want to get rid of the confusion caused by the bill. People with special needs and people with disabilities are very different.”

Care Society said a revised bill was important because people with disabilities were a marginalised group, and therefore it was important to make sure a proper bill was passed that would give rights to these groups.

Sidaatha also said that in the future “we must carefully think about signing such conventions such as the UNCRPD.”

Former minister of gender and family Aishath Didi said that providing monthly financial assistance was not enough.

“We need to focus more on prevention and screening,” she said. “Screening during the first three months is crucial in early detection of disabilities, and once detected the proper assistance needs to be provided.”

Didi also mentioned the importance of including things like speech therapy in the bill.

The bill is currently with the president who has a week to ratify it before it becomes law.


Legislation passed for special assistance for the disabled

Parliament today passed legislation to provide financial assistance and protect the rights of people with disabilities.

Of the 53 MPs in attendance, 52 voted to pass the bill, while one abstained.

Presenting the committee report, Fuahmulah South MP Ahmed Maseeh Mohamed, said a bill proposed by the government in July to protect the rights of the disabled was combined with a bill submitted by Vilufushi MP Riyaz Rasheed on providing monetary assistance to people with disabilities.

A sub-committee selected to review the legislation consulted with the Maldivian Thalassemia Association, Care Society and senior officials of the ministry of health as well as the attorney general’s office.

Once ratified, a council will be formed and entrusted with compiling a national database on the disabled, protecting the rights of the disabled, overseeing monitoring centres, formulating guidelines for their operation, addressing complaints and compiling an annual report.

The government will provide financial assistance of a minimum of Rf2,000 (US$155) a month for disabled persons.

The law states that the disabled should be given special protection in work places and cannot be discriminated against in the provision of employment.

It further calls for the establishment of a special educational centre for the disabled and for the government to provide free education for disabled persons up to the age of 18.

All government schools will be required to establish facilities for the disabled and no one shall be denied an education due to a disability.

Persons found guilty of harassing or mocking disabled persons are liable to be fined between Rf5,000 (US$389) to Rf10,000 (US$778).

Further, public places, such as supermarkets and parks, are required to have facilities such as ramps to enable access for disabled people.

Maldivian citizens with disabilities are among the most marginalised people in society. A study conducted in 2008 found that 25 per cent of children with disabilities in Haa Alifu and Haa Dhaal never left their homes.

The bill was passed today with three amendments proposed by Kelaa MP Abdullah Mausoom of the opposition Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP).

Among the amendments were making people with disabilities on the national registry eligible for the monthly benefits without evaluating the extent of their disabilities.

Mausoom’s most contentious amendment was to make children with thalassemia eligible for the monthly benefits.

During the debate on the two bills, several MPs supported providing financial benefits to families with thalassemia children.

“Parents will have the option of not including their children on the list or registry,” said Mausoom.

The amendment was passed with 35 in favour, two against and 19 abstentions.

During the final debate before the vote, MPs on the committee said the thalassemia association objected to including thalassemia patients in a bill for persons with disabilities.

Maseeh, chairman of the committee, said the bill was based on article 35(b), which states “disadvantaged people are entitled to protection and special assistance from the family, the community and the state”.

He added the bill clearly specified people with disabilities in terms of psychological and physical disabilities who face difficulties in society.

“The bill is formulated to provide financial and special assistance to people with disabilities,” he said. “That is why the Maldivian Thalassemia Association said they do not want children with thalassemia to be given that label.”

Defending his amendment, Mausoom said the purpose of the legislation was providing “special assistance”, which includes families facing financial burdens to treat their children with thalassemia.

Thulusdhoo MP Rozaina Adam said the title of the legislation would not matter to families of children with thalassemia.

Most MPs spoke of the importance of allocating funds for the financial benefits in next year’s budget to ensure that the laws are enforced.