Additional reporting by Ahmed Naish
Child prostitution in Laamu Atoll has become so “common” the underage victims of such crimes consider it “normal”, a private clinical psychologist has revealed to Minivan News.
The practice, believed by multiple sources interviewed by Minivan News to be prevalent across the Maldives, ranges from male benefactors grooming children with ‘gifts’ to parents actively selling the sexual services of their children – some as young as 12.
Acknowledgement of “systemic” child sexual abuse in the Maldives, particularly prostitution, remains highly taboo, with few government institutions willing to confront the problem.
Minister of Gender, Family and Human Rights Azima Shukoor made the first official acknowledgement of the practice in a statement to mark Children’s Day on May 10.
“The abuse of children is on the rise. Children being used as sex workers, where the children are sent to places as a means to pleasure people and to gain an income from such a trade. This is being practiced in the Maldives today. Both boys and girls are being used in this trade,” she stated.
Consultant Clinical Psychologist Maldives Institute for Psychological Services, Training & Research (MIPSTAR), Dr Aishath Ali Naaz, conducts psychological profiling of sexual abuse victims, as well as preventative awareness workshops, and recently completed a study focusing on Laamu Atoll.
She explained that child prostitution has become so common among minors that it is considered a normal activity, with victims even boasting about their sexual exploits at school.
“When many people do something it’s not [considered] wrong anymore. In some atolls I’ve seen this, especially in Laamu Atoll. It’s not accepted by the whole population but [it is] among the young people,” she told Minivan News.
“The children say in class ‘So you do it, you do it too, and so on, so what’s the big deal?’” Dr Naaz explained. “Some children have accepted this as something normal and as a way of life.”
Child prostitution is considered a type of sexual abuse because victims are minors under 18 years-old.
“It’s not just incest, which is happening, because in my practice I have come across cases of close relatives [who] have pushed children into prostitution,” Dr Naaz said. “Children as young as 12 or 13 years-old have been forced to partake in sexual activities,” explained Dr Naaz.
“This is sexual abuse, but people are not aware that there is sometimes monetary gain for somebody,” she added.
“Child prostitution is happening in a very subtle way. Most of the time there is an adult who is pushing the child; it may be a parent or a relative who is pimping the child,” said Dr Naaz.
Hidden in plain sight
Two cases of child prostitution in Laamu Atoll have been reported to police so far in 2012, a police source familiar with the incidents told Minivan News, on condition of anonymity.
The cases were “isolated, very difficult to [investigate]”, and there did not appear to be gang involvement or organised child prostitution ‘rings’, the source explained. The victims of child prostitution in the atoll were “typically 16 or 17 years-old”.
An island council official in Laamu Atoll told Minivan News child prostitution was resorted to by the “poorest of the poor” as a means to earn money to “fulfill basic needs of living.”
Child sexual abuse and incest occurring within some families has led to the practice being passed down through multiple generations, a civil society source researching the matter explained to Minivan News.
This history of sexual abuse has been exacerbated by overcrowding in homes following relocations after the 2004 tsunami, which in combination with severe economic hardship has led to the exploitation of children via prostitution.
During a visit to Laamu Atoll, Minivan News spoke to 51 year-old former atoll chief Abdul Wahhab Abdulla about the practice in the atoll.
Wahhab served as island chief of Gan for 25 years, atoll chief from 2008 to 2010, and was director general at the national administrative office of the South Central Province from 2011 to March 2012. He was subsequently demoted to island council director after March 2012.
Reported cases of child prostitution in the atoll were “very rare”, Wahhab said, “perhaps one case a year.”
There have been cases of middle aged or elderly men providing financial support to young girls for basic necessities “and then taking advantage of the position [of benefactor],” he explained.
“It is less child prostitution than sexual abuse,” he continued. “I think it started after the tsunami after affected people from Mundhoo and Kalaidhoo [islands] migrated here.”
There were about four such cases of sexual abuse reported a year, he said.
In the past, Wahhab explained, island communities were smaller and people knew each other very well, making it difficult to hide crimes such as prostitution.
Reported cases typically involved low income families “with four or five children”, he said, with adolescent girls aged 16-17 often targeted.
“The children have basic needs that are not being fulfilled, so the elderly man will first gain the child’s trust with small gifts,” he explained.
“At that point he becomes her benefactor. Then he gets closer and tries to take advantage of the girl. And the girl does not have the capacity or courage to resist,” he said.
The gender department and police child and family protection services had attended to reported cases promptly, he added.
Atoll sex behaviour survey suppressed
In 2010, the gender department conducted a biological behaviour survey in Laamu Atoll focusing on child sexual abuse, homosexuality and drug use, explained the former atoll chief.
The results of the survey – which were never made public – suggested that the incidence of child abuse and homosexuality were much higher than previously expected, according to Wahhab.
The survey did not distinguish that child prostitution was occurring in Laamu Atoll at the time, he added.
Systemic exploitation nationwide
While children prostitution is more pronounced in some atolls than others, it is “a systemic problem” across the country and remains “a very, very hidden activity,” Dr Naaz explained.
The almost 10,000 participants of her sexual abuse and violence prevention workshops over the past two years had expressed particular concern that child sexual abuse, including child prostitution – is “a common problem”.
Communities from the far north to the south of the Maldives – including Male’, Haa Dhaal, Raa, Lhaviyani, and Addu Atolls – have also been affected, she said.
“People quite frequently talk about child sexual abuse, but we are not comfortable facing the finer details of this reality,” said Dr Naaz.
It was a misconception to think that Maldivians were not involved in the child sex trade, as it was “hidden and difficult to capture,” she said.
“There are people who are using young Maldivian girls in this trade, but it may not be happening at a guest house,” she explained.
Instead, this sexual exploitation occurs “more on [the victim’s] own familiar ground, in rooms and houses”, making it difficult for the authorities to identify cases, collect evidence and intervene.
The involvement of young boys in child prostitution “cannot be ruled out”, however the practice “may be even more hidden”, she added.
Children are being forced to cater to both Maldivians and expatriate workers, she said, however the rates varied with Maldivians paying upwards of MVR 700 (US$45.60) while foreigners such as Bangladeshi labourers paid MVR 150 (US$9.77) “for sexual everything”, explained Dr Naaz.
“These girls have described that the people who pay for sex with them are often very young – 21 to 25 years-old – but sometimes include elderly people,” she continued, noting that the practice had increased in the past decade.
Sophisticated industry in Male’
In the capital Male’, child prostitution has reached a “sophisticated level” and encompasses different types of sexual abuse, explained Dr Naaz, with an even split between families pimping out their children for economic gain versus gangs facilitating the trade for girls suffering from substance abuse problems.
Rather than being gang-led phenomenon, families struggling to make ends meet and economic hardship had led to the rise of a generally ad hoc child sex industry.
“There are instances where family members may hire a room for rent, keep the children in there, and then use them to generate money through sexual activity so they can support their stay in Male’,” explained Dr Naaz.
“Many times the parent, uncle or sibling may be involved in drug abuse and in order to get money they introduce the children to the trade,” said Dr Naaz. “On the other hand, you have people deliberately using and recruiting young girls into this and involving them in sex.”
“Sometimes – and I don’t want to put the on blame them, because it’s not every gang – there are youth groups who may keep a few girls whom they pimp.”
She also highlighted instances of mentally disabled children being abused for sexual activities by adults.
“They’re vulnerable so they’re not able to protect themselves,” she said.
Other cases were said to involve groups of women renting rooms in Male’ and “recruiting vulnerable young people who may not have their parents [in the city],” she explained. In some cases, young girls with intellectual impairments “are taken in by these groups of women.”
She identified a “gradual process” of minors being “groomed” by adults via the internet and/or social media, with children taken to known “spots” and introduced to those involved in the sex trade.
In other instances, the minors are pushed to provide nude photos, and then emotionally blackmailed with threats that the pictures will be posted on the web, and ultimately recruited into prostitution.
“In Male’, there have [also] been instances where a parent gets angry and tells the child to get out on the street, with the child picked up by somebody [because they are] in a helpless state,” said Dr Naaz. “Then they are taken to a guest house and used for prostitution, group sex and things like that.”
A school health counselor in Male’, who claimed to have encountered numerous cases of child prostitution, said poverty was one of the root causes of the abuse in Male.
“Mostly cases involve single parents – mums and dads – who come from the islands and try to survive in Male’,” said the counselor. “Cases where the mom lives in a guest house and facilitates prostitution for the whole family are common in Male’.”
In one specific instance, a student in Grade 7 (aged 12-13) and her sister were earning money from prostitution and giving the earnings to the family, with the parent’s knowledge, the source said.
“Children are [also] trafficked to the islands from Male’. The gender ministry cannot do anything regarding the kids because this happens at the family level and at the school level. They have no authority to say anything and are neglecting the issue,” the source alleged.
A civil society source currently investigating the practice told Minivan News that underage girls were being “groomed” by “benefactors” in Male’ and then sexually abused by the same men, which included both Maldivians and foreign nationals. The source said it is common to see teenage or adolescent girls with older men who were trying to buy sexual favors at particular shops in Male’ at the beginning of the month, around payday.
After being lured into prostitution, the children were then taken by some men to neighboring countries to engage in sexual acts, added the source.
Generations of damage
Some of the children exploited by the sex trade seek help, but the condition they are in is “very very sad”, lamented Dr Naaz. “It’s unbelievable for the Maldives.”
“Sometimes they are psychotic, mentally retarded, and they are the victims of rape, gang rape, group sex… and the child feels ‘I have no choice but to be there’ because their intellectual capacity is not [developed enough] to address that. They don’t have the skills [to get out of the situation],” she explained.
Some children also showed symptoms of sexually transmitted diseases and were being advised to seek testing and treatment, she added.
A comprehensive study is needed to determine exactly how many children are affected by this type of sexual abuse, emphasised Dr Naaz.
“I don’t think we would be different from most other societies, but the exact percentage we should determine from good research that determines the root causes,” she said.
While the exact root causes behind child prostitution – and other forms of sexual abuse – in the Maldives still need to be determined, there are some factors in addition to economic hardship that may be contributing to the practice.
“Many times Maldivians are living in very crowded environments in households where they are exposed to adult sexual activities and children learn, children get to know,” Dr Naaz speculated. “So the environment in which we are living could be one factor.”
Furthermore, “in the Maldives girls start having boyfriends at a very young age, grade 5 or 6, which is quite early. It seems more like people are indulging in sexual activities at a very young age,” she explained. “Sometimes these boyfriends may be on drugs and these boys may also be recruiting the girls into sexual activities. Young girls need to be very careful so they don’t get pushed into this.”
Children’s rights violated
Children are not aware of their rights and are not being taught or given opportunities to develop the proper social skills to protect themselves from attempted sexual abuse, including child prostitution, multiple sources emphasised to Minivan News.
“Young people should know their body is theirs and that nobody has a right to violate it. No one – no one – can violate it and there are other ways to earn money,” said Dr Naaz.
“We have to tell young people it’s not alright if your aunt [or anyone] says ‘go to that room with this boy’. Children need to be taught that this is wrong, that these are their rights that are being violated,” she emphasised. “Sometimes children don’t know this, or that they have the right to report [abuse].”
“Parents have a huge role to play, we have to monitor where our children are going. If they’re missing for long hours, we need to know where they are, and whether someone is abusing the freedom their parents have given them,” she continued.
“The child is a minor, so they may not be able to say no if they get pushed into this,” she added.
A ‘Happy Star’ program, created by Dr Naaz, details how parents can communicate to their children – in a language appropriate to children – to improve awareness about the dangers of being lured or forced into child prostitution.
She emphasised that relevant programs must be developed to protect children and teach them about their rights.
“There is a general erosion of values. People don’t seem to know where to set their limits or draw the line. We need to get back to our old values,” she said.
“When a young boy is going to school saying ‘I can’t even say my mum is not doing it, my mum is sleeping with my friend’, that reflects an erosion of values,” she said.
The civil society source investigating the practice of prostitution among young people emphasised that parents and children are “not prepared to deal with these things”.
In addition to no effective sexual education taking place, “There is also no social education occurring and when children get older they rebel because they are not given the chance to be children – instead they are forced to take tuition from age four instead of having play time,” said the source.
“There are parents trying to bring up good kids, but the victims drag other children into their bad behavior,” the source continued.
“We are neglecting the issue, making it worse because no one is dealing with these things. Hiding the issue encourages the practice to continue,” the source declared.
“This has to come out and we have to think ‘out of the box’ to stop the root causes – not just do the same things over and over,” the source added.
Authorities, government uncooperative
The Maldives Police Service had not responded to an emailed series of questions at time of press.
Meanwhile, despite stating earlier this year that the abuse and neglect of children had reached “alarming levels“, the Gender Ministry failed to respond to multiple enquiries from Minivan News regarding child prostitution over the course of this investigation.
Further interviews arranged with relevant authorities in Laamu Atoll were curtailed by the Ministry in Male, with Minivan News ordered to submit a formal letter of enquiry to the office in Male’ requesting authorisation for its staff to speak.
Minivan News submitted such a letter to the Ministry on June 16 seeking “all relevant information regarding the occurrence of child prostitution” in Laamu Atoll and nationwide, as well as a copy of the Laamu Atoll survey conducted in 2010. At time of press, the Ministry had made no response.
Minivan News also contacted Minister of Gender, Family, and Human Rights Azima Shukoor, who did not respond to calls or text messages.
State Minister Dr Aishath Rameela was also not responding to calls at time of press. Minivan News attended her office to set up an appointment directly on Wednesday (June 19), but was informed by Dr Rameela’s secretary that she was unavailable for interview because she was “very busy”.
Victims or suspected victims of sexual abuse, including child prostitution, in Laamu Atoll, can reach the Hadhdhunmathi Family and Children Service Centre on Fonadhoo Island via 771-1721 ,or by calling the Maldives Police Services at 119.
Additionally, a 24 hour toll-free Maldives Child Helpline is available on 1412.