US State Department critical of women’s rights in the Maldives

Human rights in the Maldives have “continued to improve from the previous year, although some issues remain” according to the 2009 Country Report on Human Rights Practices published by the United States’ Department of State.

The report, published on 11 March, describes a case reported last September by detainees at Maafushi jail to the Human Rights Commission Maldives (HRCM) where “members of the Emergency Support Group (ESG)… indiscriminately attacked detainees.”

President of HRCM Ahmed Saleem said they have “received less complaints than in the past” regarding abuse of detainees.

Under the heading of “Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment” the report reads “the law prohibits such practices, although there were reports of mistreatment of persons by security forces.”

Saleem said the Maldives had endured “a culture of torture” for many years, “but things have changed and are still changing.”

On the unequal treatment of women, the report cites that “In 2008 the Ministry of Gender and Family released data showing an increase in the reported cases of violence against women, although NGOs believed that most cases remained unreported.”

Saleem said “in this country women enjoy more rights than in other countries,” noting that “women have been voting here for as long as I can remember.”

Saleem added that the United States still hasn’t ratified the international Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).

“Ninety-nine countries have signed it,” Saleem said, “but not the United States.”

The report also states that “Under [Maldivian] law, spousal rape is not a crime” and “There are no laws in force regarding domestic violence against women or workplace harassment, nor were there firm data on the extent of violence against women.”

Saleem responded to this by saying that “domestic violence is a crime anywhere” and reiterated that the “population of Maldives is unique” and women enjoy many rights that women in other countries do not have.

Another point of concern shown in the report was that of the judicial system releasing known pedophiles back into the communities of their victims.

The report reads “The [Judicial Service Commission] JSC did not publicise deliberations or make recommendations on the hiring, dismissal, or discipline of judges during the year.”

The report says that according to the Maldives Police Service (MPS) “from January to March, 34 cases of child sexual abuse were reported, and 23 pedophiles were arrested.”

It also stated that there was an increase in the reporting of child abuse cases, which the MPS attributed to growing public awareness.

Saleem said the HRCM “is not in favour of the government releasing any criminal unless they are fit to live in society” and have been through a rehabilitation programme.

He added that the HRCM is “sending reports” to change these practices and “things are happening. But it’s not as quick as we want it to be.”

The Department of State’s report further reads “The law does not provide for freedom of religion and significantly restricts it” but only cited one case suggesting that a lack of freedom of religion could be seen as a human rights issue in the Maldives.

The report said that as the Ministry of Islamic Affairs has sole authority to grant preaching licenses, they requested the police investigate an independent prayer group led by unlicensed preachers. This could be seen as an infringement on the group’s rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association (section 2b of the report).

The Ministry of Islamic Affairs said the reason for the investigation was the threat of religious extremism.

The last major concern in the report was the rights of workers, mainly foreign labour workers.

According to the report, the HRCM had reported “some domestic workers, especially migrant female domestic workers, were in some cases trapped in circumstances bordering on forced labor in which employers used threats and intimidation to prevent them from leaving.”

The report adds that “In December 2008 the government established a Labour Relations Authority and a Labour Tribunal to implement the new Employment Law.”

The Tribunal did not begin functioning until April 2009 due to budgetary constraints and lack of office space.

When asked what he thought of the changes in human rights practices in the country, Saleem said “as far as civil rights go, we are a changed country.”