A study recently published by the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives (HRCM) highlights numerous participation and protection policy deficiencies putting Maldivian children at serious risk of harm.
The report, Child participation in the Maldives: An assessment of knowledge analyses how much the Maldives – as a fledgling democratic state and society – knows of children’s rights to participation, and assesses the mechanisms in place to protect their fundamental human rights.
The UNICEF-backed report, which was finished in 2011 but only published in January 2013, discusses children’s rights in regard to situations of violence, healthcare, family, media, and play. Children consulted were primarily from Male’ and various alternative care facilities located near Male’.
Ultimately the report recommends 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,” as this study states.
“If children are not heard today, who will speak for the Maldivian democracy tomorrow?”
The wide gaps between policies, legislative instruments, and their actual implementation are limiting the realisation of “progressive” measures that have been developed to enable and protect children’s rights, according to the report.
These shortcomings occur as a result of a lack of resources, political will, qualified professionals, and deliberate obstruction due to political polarisation.
In one example the report highlights the lack of a tracking system for the Ministry of Education to monitor nationwide attendance records. Thus, without the cooperation of the parliament, education cannot be made compulsory.
“The Ministry of Education is concerned with the remarkably long period of time it is taking for the parliament to pass the education bill (pending from 2009 onwards),” the report states.
The Juvenile Justice Act is another piece of legislation parliament has yet to be enacted, despite the establishment of a Juvenile Justice Court.
“This has meant that minors who commit offences, however major or minor, enter into the country’s criminal justice system, and have to be dealt with as adults.”
In practice this has led to sentencing being delayed until the child has reached 18 years of age, despite “substantial changes in behavior”. There are no separate detention centers for adults and minors, and “reformatories” are only available for boys.
“This is a form of gender discrimination at the state level that should not be occurring, and which the state should address as a matter of urgency,” the report added.
“We feel that we don’t have any rights to speak”
Focus group consultations with children as well as interviews with youth in “alternative care” facilities demonstrated how these policy shortcomings are harming Maldivian children.
The political polarisation paralysing parliament has prevented concepts of “democracy, human rights, and active citizenship,” as well as current affairs, from being discussed in schools, the report states. As a result many children are unaware of their legal rights and try to seek information outside of school.
“When we ask about issues that are talked about in parliament, we don’t really get an explanation. Also, if we become unruly and loud in the class, we are seen as ‘becoming the Majlis’,” said one child.
In a related issue, school administrations are preventing children’s participation in civil society organisations by either banning it outright or requiring school permission.
“Please let me go” – 13 year-old ETCC Maafushi resident
Government alternative care institutions intended to provide shelter, rehabilitation, or “restorative justice” suffer from the “large gaps between policy and reality,” the report stated.
Acute staffing and budget shortfalls combined with the lack of children’s rights education and the exclusion of children’s feedback have “deprived [residents] of their liberty”. Staff caring for the children are often excluded from important decisions impacting children’s quality of life at the facilities, the report said.
It cites the conditions at the Maafushi island Education and Training Centre for Children (ETCC) run by the Ministry of Education as an example.
“None of [the children] are properly informed of the reasons why they are at the centre, nor are they given any clear indications as to why they have been detained, how long they can expect to be there, and what the procedures are for leaving.
“Many were left completely in the dark by their families about their intentions to send them to Maafushi—some children only found out en route or once they arrived at the centre,” the report added.
Similar circumstances exist at the Kudakudhinge Hiyaa (Children’s Shelter) on Villingili island. The limited access to resources creates a gulf between the government’s Minimum Standards for Alternative Care Institutions and actual quality of life at the centre, the report found.
Feydhoo Finolhu Detention Centre
“A fundamental problem with the facility” exists at the Correctional Training Centre for Children on Feydhoo Finolhu island – run by the Juvenile Justice Unit (JJU) of the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Maldives Police Service’s Child Protection Unit.
“None of the children who are at the facility have been charged with a crime, let alone convicted of one,” stated the report.
The children held in “administrative detention” at Feydhoo Finolhu are identified by police as “dangerous to the wider society and themselves… because they possess the potential for committing serious offenses,” the report added.
Police officers in civilian clothes care for, guard, and teach the children. The centre reports that its success rate for correcting antisocial behavior is 80 percent.
However, sources familiar with the facility alleged to Minivan News that two juveniles detained at the facility were beaten by police officers and chose to swim to Male’ rather than stay in the facility.
Children’s rights marginalised
No state or independent institutions are mandated solely to protect children’s rights, and no coordinating body exists for the various government agencies to address different children’s issues. “Lumping” children’s rights with issues pertaining to other vulnerable groups has marginalised them, according to the report.
“[This] reinforces the general perception of children as no more than another segment of society that needs protection… thus children at large – not just their views and opinions – are very often neglected or pushed to the bottom of the state’s list of priorities.”
Few policy and legislative mechanisms exist that “formally require” children participate in decisions that will affect their lives. Both the 2008 constitution and the Law on the Protection of the Rights of the Child (91/9) lack such a provision.
Instead there is a tendency to focus on protections while excluding “positive” rights, such as children’s right to be heard, to information, and participation in political and social affairs, the report notes.