Police arrested seven men from the island of Thinadhoo in Gaaf Dhaalu atoll last week for allegedly forcing a 16-year-old girl into child prostitution.
Police said the seven men – between 18 to 30 years of age – were taken into custody on Wednesday night with an arrest warrant, after which the Thinadhoo magistrate court extended their remand detention to 15 days.
Police were informed on the night of February 15 that the male suspects were forcing the minor into prostitution at a guest house on the island.
Of the seven suspects in custody, police revealed that an 18-year-old had previously been arrested for child sexual abuse.
The case is currently under investigation by the Thinadhoo police station and the Gaaf Dhaalu atoll family and children service centre.
Last week, the Fuvahmulah magistrate court sentenced a 39-year-old woman to 25 years in jail for forcing a child into prostitution.
In the first official acknowledgement of child prostitution in the Maldives, then-Gender Minister Azima Shukoor revealed in May 2013 that children were “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.
In June 2013, multiple sources told Minivan News that child prostitution was prevalent in the country, ranging from male benefactors grooming children with ‘gifts’ to parents actively exploiting their children.
A study focusing on Laamu atoll conducted by Consultant Clinical Psychologist Maldives Institute for Psychological Services, Training & Research (MIPSTAR), Dr Aishath Ali Naaz, showed that child prostitution was so “common” among minors that it was considered a normal activity.
A former island chief explained to Minivan News that 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].”
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.
While child prostitution is more pronounced in some atolls than others, Dr Naaz said it was “a systemic problem” across the country.
In the capital Male’, explained Dr Naaz, there appeared to be an even split between families pimping out their children for economic gain versus gangs facilitating the trade for girls suffering from substance abuse problems.
“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’,” she said.
“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.