Discovery of dead baby in outdoor shower a distressing reminder of the Maldives’ failure to address unwanted pregnancies

The police have recovered the body of a newborn infant buried in the outdoor shower of a house on Shaviyani Feydhoo island. The baby’s mother was identified as a 15 year-old school student.

This incident is a reminder of the pervasiveness of underage and out of marriage pregnancies in Maldives, and the subsequent acts of infanticide and abortions – a distressing flaw in the social fabric of the island nation which continues to be unacknowledged and under-addressed by authorities.

According to local news outlet Sun, Feydhoo island girl was allegedly sexually abused and impregnated by her own stepfather. The allegation has not been confirmed by the police.

Media official Sub-Inspector Hassan Haneef said “the case is sensitive” as the girl is a minor, was being investigated in collaboration with the Gender Ministry. He also refrained from confirming local media reports that the girl is now under arrest.

However, he noted that four people, including the girl’s legal guardians, mother and step father, were now under police custody in relation to the case. He added that the suspects resisted arrest, causing a scene on the island of approximately 700 inhabitants.

“We are investigating allegations of  giving birth outside wedlock, killing and burying the baby,” Haneef explained.

Doctors confirm the baby was already dead when found by the police at around 6:30pm, he observed, adding that the police are investigating the cause of death as well.

However, without post-mortem services and an absence of visible wounds on the infant’s body, proving infanticide in the Maldives is almost impossible without a confession from the suspects.

In 2006, the Juvenile Court acquitted a woman from Dhabidhoo island, who police alleged killed her newborn and threw into the lagoon, ruling that her three confessions contradicted each other. The woman gave birth out of wedlock in 2008.

Tale of illegal pregnancies and throwaways

Due to the conservative exterior of the Maldives  and the deep-rooted culture of blaming the victim, the stigma of having a child out of wedlock drives women to desperate measures.

Mothers helplessly hide the growing bump for nine months and endure the pain and struggle in silence until an abortion is possible, or else abandon the newborns after birth – dead or alive.

Abortion is illegal and unavailable to most mothers, unless it is proved that the conception is the result of rape or that the pregnancy is a threat to the mother’s health.

In last two years, three babies have been discovered dead and two alive. The dead infants included two fetuses, one hidden in a milk tin and the other at the bottom of Male’s municipal swimming pool, while another fully-developed baby was thrown into a park having apparently been strangled by the underwear tied around its neck. Two babies were found abandoned and alive, and have now been placed under state care.

Anecdotal evidence suggests some mothers, both young and adults alike, use abortion-inducing pills or receive injections from amateur abortionists; others turn to harmful vaginal preparations, containing chemicals such as bleach or kerosene. Although infrequent, some women insert objects into their uterus or induce abdominal trauma.

Though these alarming throwaways have grabbed headlines and attracted public attention momentarily, it came short from prompting concrete action from authorities and public to address the underlying issue. Instead it merely provoked widespread condemnation and vehement calls for the mothers to be put to death.

Meanwhile, in the recent case of the 15 year-old, police have not revealed any information surrounding the circumstances of the pregnancy.

Unless it is proved that the pregnancy is the result of rape, Maldivian law provides for her to be publicly lashed and placed under house arrest.

Although the current judicial system restricts adult punishments to children until they reach the legal age of 18, there are currently three exceptions to the provision. One of these is that if she has had a child, a girl will be tried as an adult, according to a 2004 study on gender issues in the criminal justice system.

Out of fear of potentially being stigmatised, fathers seldom take responsibility for their actions, while pregnancy leaves girls guilty by default, leaving mothers to be flogged, publicly humiliated for fornication or incarcerated for infanticide – a disturbing trend of gender-bias observed in the criminal justice system.

All talks, little commitment or action

The issue has been raised at various gender related forums – with many words, but little action.

In 2010, the Deputy Minister of Health and Family at the time, Fathimath Afiya told Minivan News that a meeting was held to discuss reproductive services in the Maldives. While Maldivian and Shariah law criminalise abortion and intercourse outside of wedlock, Afiya said communication between relevant services and the judiciary made it difficult to fully address each case.

“There needs to be an appropriate legal framework for reporting these cases to the services that could help unmarried and teenage women in compromised positions,” said Afiya. “We are very concerned about the rising number of unwanted pregnancies and abortions by married and unmarried women. Today, we began formulating an action plan for short- and long-term improvements,” she added at the time.

However, at the national stakeholders meeting held by UN Women yesterday on the UN Secretary General’s Unite campaign to end violence against women and girls, officials confirmed that “no concrete action plan” has been finalised.

During yesterday’s meeting, as a Unite Youth Network Member, I gave a presentation on violence and problems faced by youth, highlighting sexual health illnesses such as STIs, early pregnancies, abortions among youth and emphasised the need for immediate sexual and reproductive health education.

All participants, including government officials, councilors, police, and gender advocates unanimously agreed on the importance of tackling the problems.

But as participants pointed out at the workshop, most of the time “it is all talk, with little commitment or action”.

“Raising public awareness and educating the girls and boys about their bodies, the ramifications of being sexually active and how to protect themselves from harm is very important,” said a public health official from the Centre for Community Health and Development.

The official noted the magnitude of the sexual health problem and its consequence as a “great national concern”.

“Discussions are underway,” the official said.