One in seven Maldivian secondary students have been sexually abused, finds 2009 report

Almost one in seven children of secondary school age in the Maldives have been sexually abused at some time in their lives, according to an unpublished 2009 study on violence against children.

Rates of sexual abuse for girls are almost twice as high than for boys at 20 percent – one in five girls have been sexually abused – while the figure for boys was 11 percent. Girls are particularly at risk in the capital Male’, the report found.

The National Study of Violence Against Children, produced by UNICEF and the Ministry of Gender and Family and conducted by global research firm TNS, was heavily cited at last week’s Conference on Child Protection held at Bandos.

The stud – currently unofficial – is the first large-scale national study on the issue of physical and emotional punishment against children in the Maldives, interviewing almost 17,035 people in 2500 households as well as 2000 children in schools.

The study found that 47 percent of Maldivian children under the age of 18 have undergone physical or emotional punishment at home, school or in the community.

“The use of emotional punishment is considerably wide-spread and is also supported by the
parents’ beliefs that this is an effective way of teaching children the proper behaviour,” the report found.

Boys were more susceptible to physical punishment while large numbers of girls at secondary school level reported emotional punishment. Eight percent of school students, mostly boys, reported physical punishment from their school teachers.

Physical violence was more common among students attending secondary school in the atolls, with one in four reporting they had been hit by adults or other children during the past year. The figure for Male’ was 14 percent.

30 percent of children at secondary school reported being hit by at least one of their caregivers, while 21 percent said at object had had been used to do this.

A quarter of all carefivers said they believed that physical punishment had a positive effect on the rearing of children..

Furthermore, “children who suffer from a handicap – however light – have experienced
significantly more emotional punishment than children without such handicaps,” the report said.

The study also revealed a lingering distrust of authorities and their ability to deal with issues relating to physical or sexual abuse of children.

“When aware of a case of abuse in the community, the majority [of respondents] chose to not
inform the authorities, not [to] cause any trouble and/or due to limited belief in the efficiency of
the system.”

The report identified that despite high awareness of the issue, the cultural background of the Maldivia society “does not particularly prohibit emotional or physical punishment of children.” Efforts to increase the level of discussion were “hampered by the notion that such events should be solved in the home and not discussed publicly.”

Resolution of cases within the legal system was a particular change for the Maldives, especially cases involving child sexual abuse.

“The victim itself might turn out to be made liable for such an event and might be subjected itself to penal proceedings if the perpetrator does not plead guilty or four witnesses for the prosecution cannot be found,” the report noted.

It urged the education of caregivers as to the negative impact of violence against children, and highlighted particular discrepencies in the education system.

“Over 30 percent of teachers in the Maldives are untrained because 80 percent of staff training costs are transport related. In a country where 70 percent of the population lives on islands far from the capital, and where transport among islands can be prohibitively expensive, many children are at the risk of being invisible,” the report warned.

The report also produced some interesting demographic findings about the structure of the Maldivian families. In 24 percent of cases, a child’s male caregiver is not their biological father – in seven percent of cases, this role is performed by an older brother, and only rarely (two percent) by a stepfather or uncle. 87 percent of children have their biological mother as a caregiver.

A quarter of all children reported health difficulties. The majority of these concerned problems seeing, and to a lesser extent, “walking or climbing stairs”.

Domestically, arguments between children and their caregivers in the home revolve around fairly universal themes: watching TV (10 percent), household chores (10 percent), homework (12 percent), and staying up late (seven percent).

The main source of domestic arguments for girls were household chores (15 percent) – the second highest source of friction for boys was hairstyle (12 percent).

The 24 hour toll-free Maldives Child Helpline is available on 1412.