US sailors visit children’s home, join clean-up event in Vilimalé

No additional reporting by missing journalist Ahmed Rilwan

Officers and crew from the USS Rodney M Davis visited the Kudakudhinge Hiya orphanage or children’s home in Vilimalé yesterday (October 8 ) and assisted with painting and repairs.

“The American sailors also worked with a local environment group Save the Beach Maldives to clean up island debris later that afternoon,” reads a press release from the US embassy in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

The USS Rodney M Davis – an Oliver Hazard Perry-class guided-missile frigate with the US 7th Fleet – visited the Maldives this week on its last tour of duty.

The 27-year-old, 4000-ton, 435-feet long, and 45-feet wide frigate is due to be retired by the US Navy. Local journalists were invited for a tour of the ship on Tuesday (October 7).

In its last major operation in 2010, the frigate seized over 1,500kg of drugs from a vessel in the South Pacific Ocean.

Vice Admiral Robert Thomas said earlier this week that he expected the visit to the Maldives would be “tremendously beneficial to build on our excellent relationships with the maritime nations of the Indian Ocean.”

“The area is critical to regional security, and the partnerships we build with this training will go a long way to creating a more professional and stable maritime environment,” he was quoted as saying in an earlier press release.

The embassy meanwhile noted that the sailors volunteered their personal “liberty” time to participate in the activities in Vilimalé yesterday with support from the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) and Ministry of Law and Gender.

“Time off is very precious because our sailors put in long hours while we are at sea,” said Lt. Russell Wolfkiel, public affairs officer for the Rodney M. Davis.

“One of the highlights of deployment is the opportunity to engage with the local communities when we visit exotic ports like Maldives.”

The American sailors repainted the interior of the orphanage while special fire safety trainers explained how to service fire extinguishers and demonstrated their proper usage.

“This is very important for us. We are very appreciative of your team to come here and do some painting and to take some time to explain the fire alarm systems,” said Mohamed Shafeeg, deputy director of Kudakudhinge Hiyaa.

A second group of sailors meanwhile joined a clean-up event organised by a local youth group called Save the Beach Maldives. The debris collected from across the island included heavy concrete pieces left over from construction projects.

“We hope more people want to help places like this in the future because it’s not just a problem for Maldives here.  It’s a problem for everyone around the world,” said Fathimath Thanzeela Naeem, the lead coordinator for the clean-up.

“We are all connected by the ocean so I’m sure that bigger countries like the US could make an impact as well.”

The Rodney M Davis departed today after concluding its four-day stopover.

Aside from the day out in Vilimalé, the sailors also participated in sporting activities with the MNDF Coast Guard, “building camaraderie and friendships with the local mariners.”

“I like being able to come overseas and help out other people and see how they live,” said Petty Officer Daniel Cornede.

“Especially when it comes to cleaning up the beach, because I come from Hawaii, and this is how I was raised to pick up trash off the beach.”


Police locate under-age girl from orphanage who escaped hospital

Police have located a 15 year-old girl from the Villingili orphanage ‘Kudakudhinge Hiya’, who escaped while she was admitted to Indira Gandi Memorial Hospital (IGMH).

Police identified the girl as Shaba Ali Rasheed, 15, of Madharusaadhoshuge in Hulhudhoo, Addu City.

According to police, the girl was located near ADK hospital this afternoon around 3:23 pm after she escaped on Saturday night.

Police issued a statement this morning informing the public that they had commenced a search to find the 15 year-old, who fled after she was admitted to IGHM.

IGMH Spokesperson Zeenath Ali Habeeb told Minivan News the girl was admitted to the hospital a week ago and she was under the charge of the Gender Ministry.

She declined to provide further information regarding why the girl was admitted tohospital.

‘’When she was brought here she was under the charge of Gender Ministry and without the consent of the ministry the hospital cannot provide information about her,’’ Zeenath said.

Spokesperson for the Gender Ministry Aishath Rameela did not respond to Minivan News at time of press.

A growing number of under-age girls in the Villingili orphanage have recently escaped the institution, either to be returned or sent to other state care facilities.

On March 13, the Gender Ministry admitted to transferring two children from the Villlingili island orphanage ‘Kudakudhunge Hiya’ to the Centre for People with Mental Disability on the island of Guraidhoo, without determining if they were in fact special needs children.

On March 5, police returned seven under-aged females who had escaped the  orphanage.

In January 2013, the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives (HRCM) called for the immediate release of two underage females living in the Villingili orphanage, who had been arrested and sent to Maafushi prison. Local media alleged the girls had been discovered “fraternising with boys”.


ARC: Problems, progress and perceptions of an NGO

While political games and religious debates preoccupy media and coffee talk, civil sector projects persist in providing for the public. But they are subject to suspicion, and often slip under the radar.

“Promotion is hard,” said Zenysha Shaheed Zaki of the NGO Advocating the Rights of Children (ARC). “We keep trying to invite the media to events and get people to attend, but it always seems to collide with a political event.”

Recently, ARC organised an exhibition of children’s artwork from the shelters Education and Training Centre for Children (ETCC) on Maafushi and the Correctional Training Centre for Children (CTCC) on Feydhoofinolhu. In spite of promotions, the religious protests of December 23 and their aftermath coincided with the exhibition and more or less wiped it into the background.

“I practically dragged people in from the street!” said Zaki. “But once they were there, many found that they actually enjoyed the display, and some even came back three, four times with friends who hadn’t seen it yet. So there is a public interest in this, and that’s really what we want to achieve.”

ARC was founded in 2009 to bolster the work of ETCC, CTCC and the shelter at Kudakudhinge Hiya. Although the shelters address different groups of children with different needs, they share the same basic interest – improve children’s lives. However, as Zaki experienced with the media, the shelters were struggling to forge a productive network.

Yet Zaki, who volunteered at the shelters after returning from school in New Zealand, said short staffing and minimal funding made it difficult for the shelters to organised events individually. By creating a separate NGO specifically aimed at connecting the members of the child’s rights sector, she believed the stress on individual shelters could be reduced and progress could be achieved.

“The shelters didn’t have strong communication before,” Zaki said, pointing out that while ETCC and CTCC focus on juvenile delinquents Kudakudhinge Hiya attended to abandoned children below age nine. “Their work was different, but we found that the issues were more or less the same. We wanted to see what we could do to help in a more organised way.”

Deputy Health Minister Fathimath Afiya worked in the civil society sector for 18 years before joining the government. She said that while there is “a good number” of organisations addressing child care matters across the islands, “it’s a huge area of work with many challenges.”

The Ministry of Health and Family works closely with the relevant NGOs, and is trying to build a partnership with the corporate sector. According to Afiya, the ministry has signed Memorandums of Understanding (MoU) with NGO Maldives Red Crescent and corporate group Aima.

“But there still needs to be a mechanism for NGOs and the government to form a partnership. We have to create funding opportunities and better articulate ways to achieve our goals,” she said.

Validating Zaki’s instinct that most groups concerned with child and family matters share similar goals, Afiya said the government relies on NGOs for help jump-starting programs in society.

However, the relationship between the government and the civil sector is still on the drafting table. And it may be drafting a few too many organisations.

At the 2011 UN International Democracy Day ceremony, FJS Consulting Pvt. Ltd.  highlighted key operational issues facing the Maldives’ civil sector in a “Comprehensive Study on Maldivian Civil Society”.

Over 1100 Civil Society Organisations (CSO) and NGOs are registered in the Maldives–almost one organisation for every 300 people. CSO’s average employee is age 25, with an education level ranging from grade 6 through 10. Only 0.7 percent of employees are paid due to a funding shortage – donors provide the least amount of funding, and most CSO fundraising efforts only cover about 30 percent of program costs.

Tracking funds and goals accomplished is difficult.

“The government is trying to provide aid but the structure of how to do it is not specified,” said Managing Director Fareeha Shareef at the event, noting that many CSOs don’t actually engage in the activities for which they are named, such as sports.

Speaking today with Minivan News, Shareef agreed that the high number of organisations is not supported by adequate funds and resources, but added that lack of awareness and communication are key problems.

“Most NGOs don’t know what the others are doing, or which other NGOs are working in their sector,” she explained, adding that steps are being taken to create a central communications database for the civil sector. “If the sector can organise and if resources can be better distributed by groups working together, there would be dramatic change.”

Unfortunately, the Maldives ranks highly for corruption and corruption perception. Zaki noted that there is a general public suspicion that NGOs request funding without a clear action plan, and that the money disappears unaccountably. She said this was one reason why ARC did not request funding for the first two years of operation.

“2012 will be the first year for fundraising at ARC,” she said, pointing out that “we didn’t want to request money without being able to prove that it would go to good use.

“Also, we found that things like concept designs for campaigns were incredibly expensive. We decided it was better to use our own resources.”

Working late into the night after her day job at the Foreign Ministry, Zaki called on friends to act in educational videos and help with design and advertising. Although ARC has many members Zaki said it is difficult to find active volunteers. Unable to find a local nutritionist for the HEAL campaign, she coaxed a friend from New Zealand with expertise in the field to take a volunteer work-based vacation in the Maldives.

Pointing to the 0.7 percent of paid NGO employees, Shareef said the high number of youth volunteers in the civil sector is encouraging–but it is also a major concern. “Almost the entire sector is young and working on a voluntary basis. This means that there is a high turnover–young people need to get paid to get by, and so they move into the paid industries,” she said.

Contrary to public assumption, Shareef said, Maldivians volunteer often and form NGOs out of a genuine interest. But unlike politics, work in the public sector is rarely a public priority. “There is not enough dialogue among the NGOs and not enough clear coverage within the media,” she said, contrasting smaller islands “where people what their NGOs are doing” to Male’, where the population is so dense that the civil sector is heavily clouded. “People have only their perceptions, they aren’t being informed of what NGOs do.”

When asked whether ARC was the first in its field, Zaki said she could not say which other NGOs were addressing children’s rights. According to FJS’ findings, children and youth are supported by less than 20 percent of NGOs. Approximately one-fifth of NGOs promote healthy living, empower vulnerable groups, or provide support for education. Over 50 percent focus on sports, music, arts and leisure.

Operating solo in the civil sector, ARC provides direct support to the shelters while also expanding their reach to donors and the larger community.

In 2011, ARC campaigned for Healthy Eating and Lifestyle (HEAL), Internet safety, prevention of child abuse, and road safety. Zaki said the campaigns reached parents as well as children.

“You would be surprised how long the Q&A sessions went on for,” said Zaki. “A lot parents assume that it’s good if a child is at home playing on the computer rather than running around the streets. And they don’t realise how much sugar goes into packet drinks, or how much fat is in a sausage. And the children would sometimes tell their parents that they weren’t supposed to walk in the street, for instance.”

ARC also organised sports activities, including a month-long swimming program with Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF), and childcare trainings with Nurses of Maldives. Volunteers help teach children certain life skills which can benefit them personally and financially. “You teach a child to bake a cake, and that child can also go and work in a bakery,” Zaki explained.

In spite of the difficulties, Zaki said she is pleased with ARC’s progress and is particularly glad to see first hand that donations are being properly invested by the shelters.

“It’s good to have a personal connection,” she explained. “They trust us, and we have a real interest in seeing changes made.”


Vilingili Orphanage understaffed and overcrowded

Kudakudhinge Hiya, a temporary shelter for children in Vilingili managed by the Ministry of Health and Family, has been short-staffed “for months,” says Community Health Officer Iyaz Jadulla Naseem.

Iyaz has said he is “very concerned” over the staff shortage in the shelter. “There is a lack of staff,” Iyaz said, “and in the current structure, cooks and labourers’ jobs have been removed from the civil service.”

“We asked the Civil Service Commission (CSC) for a new cook, but they said they can’t send another person because these jobs have been removed [from the civil service].”

Iyaz added that the children’s home is being “treated like a government office,” and the commission has said that a government office has no need for a cook.

“We are not a government office,” Iyaz said, “but this is how they deal with us.”

The home, which has a capacity for 45 children, is currently catering for 51.

They had four registered cooks, but one resigned recently. “Another cook is on leave, so we only have two cooks right now,” Iyaz said.

The cooking shifts are shared, he explained, “but we still have to cook three times a day for the children. Imagine one person cooking for 51 children.”

“Three days ago there was no one to cook the morning shift,” Iyaz said, “so we had to call the afternoon cook to come in the morning as well.”

A lack of chefs is affecting the health of children at Vilingili Orphanage says health worker

He said this “lowers the quality of the food, and one person cannot concentrate for that long.”

Additionally, it means there is only one menu being prepared for all the children.

“We have five month-old babies and ten year-old children eating the same food. We need at least three or four cooks,” Iyaz said.

He said the Human Rights Commission Maldives (HRCM) had said they would go to the CSC to deal with the issue urgently.

Staff at Kudakudhinge Hiya have also spoken to the Ministry of Health and Family, who are “cooperating,” and Iyaz noted that Deputy Minister Mariya Ali “has been very helpful. But they can’t help until the CSC creates these jobs again.”

There had also been reports of several of the children being sick and sent to Indhira Ghandhi Memorial Hospital (IGMH). “It wasn’t a big outbreak,” Iyaz said, “some vomiting and diarrhoea.”

He said twelve children were sick and “the Food and Drug authority came here to see see if it was food poisoning, but they didn’t think so because only a few children were affected.”

He added the doctors said it was a viral infection.

“Two of the children were admitted to IGMH,” he said, “and one child is still feeling weak but she’s getting better.”

Iyaz said the home is taking the issues to their superiors.

Recently appointed Director of the home confirmed there are four registered cooks, “but one resigned and one is on leave.”

“It is very difficult for one person to cook for all the children,” he said, noting that they are “trying our best and have reported to the Gender Department.”

A child plays with a toy at Vilingili orphanage
A child plays with a toy at Vilingili orphanage

Government response

Deputy Minister of Health and Family Mariya Ali said the biggest problem at Kudakudhinge Hiya is “they don’t have enough staff.”

She said the ministry have recently hired staff and is communicating with the CSC to provide them with new cooks. They are also trying to bring back volunteers.

Mariya said although volunteers had not been able to go for a couple of months, the volunteer programme “is back on track.” She noted that “we have received help from a number of corporate sectors.”

She said the ministry had been trying to pass laws based on guidelines and regulations for children’s homes since 2007, “but they have just been going back and forth from the Attorney General’s office.”

“The costing for regulations to be implemented is being processed,” Mariya explained, noting that the regulations would include clauses on staff to child ratios, staff standards and etiquette, visitation procedures, and general criteria for the institution.

“We will send the guidelines to the AG this week,” she said, “then they will be sent to Parliament. It is very important to maintain children’s homes at a high standard.”

Mariya said that the most important thing was to reduce numbers in children’s homes and improve the criteria of admission.

She added that the Ministry of Health and Family is waiting to sign an MoU with English charity for children, Barnardo’s, for staff “to go to England to learn how to manage children’s institutions.”

Press Secretary for the President’s Office Mohamed Zuhair said the government’s plan to restructure the civil service meant there are new considerations for hiring a cook, as there were over 150 cooks in the civil service.

Zuhair said several ministries had been employing cooks and some offices in the health sector, for instance, would have a cook but not a nurse.

“But this is a special area,” he said, “there are special considerations. I’m sure the government will give special consideration to this case.”