Rising religious fundamentalism, conservative thinking impacting women: Department of National Planning

Progress toward achieving gender equality has not kept pace with other development achievements in the Maldives, as reflected by the 12 percent of women who have suffered sexual abuse before the age of 15 while one in three have been the victim of violence, a Department of National Planning study has found.

The study examined how much human development progress has been achieved in the Maldives in terms of population and development, reproductive health and rights, gender equity, equality and empowerment of women as well as education during the period 1994 – 2012.

The “Maldives Operational Review for the ICPD Beyond 2014” study was conducted under the supervision of the Department of National Planning (DNP), in collaboration with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), to determine whether the Maldives has met the 1994 Cairo International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) thematic Programme of Action (PoA) goals.

The study found that “Despite impressive advancements in all development areas, the progress towards achieving gender equality and equity and the empowerment of women have not been the same.”

“Even though, the Maldivian Constitution guarantees equal rights and freedom for all Maldivians without any discrimination, prevailing traditions and socio-cultural norms have limited women’s participation in the workforce and in the community,” the study determined.

“The increasing level of religious fundamentalism and conservative thinking has worsened the situation,” it added.

Although the Domestic Violence Act 3/2012 was “a historical milestone for women in the country,” domestic violence and violence against women remains a “major concern” in the Maldives.

“One out of three females aged between 15-49 years has experienced some form of violence within their lifetime. Further, 12 percent of women reported having experienced sexual abuse before their 15th birthday,” the report stated. “Most of the time, the perpetrators are a close family member or intimate partner and the incidence goes unreported and undocumented.”

Victims to not receive appropriate and timely support, since domestic and sexual violence are perceived as a private matter and often go unreported, the study found.

Additionally, “Women continue to be stereotyped and underrepresented at professional decision making levels,” noted the report.

The low level of women being represented in senior level positions is partly due to the “high domestic burden on females,” with women heading 47 percent of households in the Maldives, one of the highest rates in the world, the study determined.

Although women are represented in the workforce, they are “mostly represented in stereotypical roles” such as education (72 percent), health (68 percent), manufacturing (65 percent) and agriculture (64 percent), said the report.

Meanwhile, 40 percent of young women remain unemployed, with 10.5 of the overall youth population being neither employed nor seeking to further their studies, the report added. Employment opportunities for many have been obstructed primarily due to inadequate employment opportunities as well as the mismatch between skills and job requirements.

The report also found that the number of women continuing their studies beyond secondary education is low compared to men. This disparity is the result of “limited access to educational institutions at the island level, domestic responsibilities and hesitance to allow females to study on another island.”

“Special affirmative actions are needed to create more employment and livelihood opportunities for women and to increase the number of women in public and political life,” stated the report.

Despite the Maldives achieving the Millennium Development Goal target to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger, malnutrition and anemia are still limiting women’s equality, equity and empowerment, noted the study.

“Poor nutritional status and anemia are significantly high among pregnant women and women of reproductive age, [which] puts them in high risk for maternal mortality,” the report found. “Malnutrition among women puts them in high risk during pregnancy and hinders their full participation in education, employment and social activities.”

Women – and young women’s – health is also at risk due to the lack of access to quality services, particularly in regard to sexual and reproductive health.

“With regard to reproductive rights, men often control decisions regarding women’s reproductive health, often based on religious and cultural grounds,” the report noted.

“[Furthermore,] the sudden growth of religious fundamentalism and conservative thinking is an emerging challenge, particularly for women and young girls,” the study stated. “There have been increase towards certain trends such as preference for home schooling and refusing vaccination and other medical services for women based on religious beliefs.”

Violence against women

Despite the extensive provisions in the Domestic Violence act, it has done little to curb the abuse of women, minors and other vulnerable people; the police, the judiciary and wider Maldivian society have made minimal progress addressing domestic violence and abuse, former Gender Minister and Chairperson the Hope for Women NGO, Aneesa Ahmed, recently told Minivan News.

Meanwhile, support for women’s equality has experienced a “significant drop” despite overall progress in improving the human rights situation nationally, a Human Rights Commission of the Maldives (HRCM) second baseline survey recently concluded.

“Despite the freedoms that the constitution has provided for women, attitudes towards women’s empowerment show a negative trend,” stated Andrew Cox, the former UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP representative in the Maldives.

“Alarmingly, the study also suggests that there has been a regression in people’s sensitivity towards domestic violence and gender based violence,” he added.

Male attitudes have become “more conservative” regarding women’s rights issues, whereas female views have become more supportive of rights in some areas, the report stated.

In a reversal from the 2005 human rights study, more women than men now consider it inappropriate for men to hit their wives. However, significant numbers of respondents stated where there was a “substantive justification” – as opposed to something trivial – “violence against wives was justified,” the report determined.

Both genders in the Maldives were also found to believe that in the husband/wife relationship, women should play a “subordinate role”.

In spite of this culturally conservative shift regarding women’s rights, an “overwhelming” 92 percent ofMaldivians believe that laws and systems to protect women from sexual assault should be reformed, according to the results of a survey conducted by Asia Research Partners and social activism website Avaaz.org.

Of those polled, 62 percent supported an outright moratorium on the practice of flogging, while 73 percent declared existing punishments for sexual crimes were unfair to women.

The international community has echoed this sentiment, particularly in regard to the recent
case in which a 15 year-old rape victim was sentenced to 100 lashes and eight months’ house arrest for a separate offence of fornication garnered substantial international attention and condemnation.

In March, an Avaaz petition calling for the repeal of the sentence and a moratorium on flogging in the Maldives collected more than two million signatures – a figure more than double the number of tourists who visit the country annually.

Currently, British couples are being asked to avoid the Maldives as a honeymoon destination to force the country’s government to overturn the conviction of the girl, who was given the draconian sentence after being raped by her stepfather, while UK Prime Minister David Cameron has been asked to intervene in the case, writes Jane Merrick for the UK’s Independent newspaper.

Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) MP Eva Abdulla explained the current context of women’s rights in the Maldives to the publication.

“Consider the statistics on flogging: that 90 per cent of the cases are women. Consider the statistics on rape charges: 0 per cent success rate of prosecution, with the latest being the release of four men accused of raping a 16-year-old, on the grounds that there wasn’t enough evidence,” said Abdulla.

“The increasing religious fundamentalism followed by the attempts to subjugate women, both politically and otherwise, should be cause for alarm. This is a country of traditionally very strong women.

“However, increasingly, the Adhaalath Party, a self-claimed religious party which is in alliance with the current government, uses the religious card to scare off women. We women MPs are often threatened whenever we speak against the party,” she added.


HRCM, Gender Department condemn sexual violence “atrocities”

The Human Rights Commission of Maldives (HRCM) and the Department of Gender and Family Protection Services have strongly condemned the recent “atrocities” of sexual violence against minors, women and persons with special needs.

In a press release today, HRCM notes that the prevalence of sexual violence against the most vulnerable members of society, such as the elderly, under-age children and the disabled has “reached worrying levels.”

“We call on the government, state institutions, political parties, civil society organisations and all citizens to work together with renewed courage to stop such inhumane actions, save the community and establish a secure environment,” reads the HRCM statement.

Calling on the authorities to swiftly bring the perpetrators to justice in its press statement yesterday, the Gender Department warned that the surge in sexual violence cases has created an atmosphere of fear and caused psychological distress to a number of families.

Some 14 cases of child sexual abuse have been reported to the department so far this year, including the case of a Jamaaludheen School teacher arrested for allegedly molesting deaf children under his care.

Eight men were arrested last week in Haa Dhaal Dhidhoo for alleged abuse of a 13-year-old girl while among those arrested in other cases include fathers, grandfathers and relatives of the under-age victims.

Chief Inspector Ali Shujau, head of the family and child protection unit, told press today that police investigations have revealed that school children aged 14 to 18 were being lured to guest houses by adults.

Police found that minors were sexually abused at guest houses after being lured through the internet, he said.

In the first three weeks of April, said Shujau, 27 sexual violence cases were reported to police, including 16 child sexual abuse cases and 11 sexual assault cases.

Meanwhile the Health Ministry in collaboration with local NGOs ‘Hope for Women’ and the ‘Manfaa’ centre has announced a protest march in Male’ tomorrow to urge the authorities to take action, reports Sun Online.

The march is to begin at 4pm near the Social Centre and wind down at the artificial beach.

In Addu City, the Family and Child Service Centre in Seenu Hithadhoo together with local NGOs has planned a vehicle round from 4.30pm to 6pm Friday after a 74-year-old woman was brutally raped on Sunday.

According to Haveeru, the victim’s injuries were serious enough that she had to undergo surgery at the Hithadhoo Regional Hospital. A 19-year-old suspect has since been taken into police custody.


Comment: ‘geveshi aniyaa ge’ bill lifts social taboo on domestic violence

In Mauritania in North Africa, force-feeding young girls is a cultural practice under the socially-held belief that fat women are beautiful, desirable and a valuable asset, increasing the social status of the whole family.

Girls as young as five are forced to eat to gain weight, by means that can only be described as torture. Some die in the process.

In Mauritania, this cultural ‘norm’ is practiced openly and is accepted as the way they do things. In the Maldives too, we have cultural ‘norms’ which are accepted as the way we do things.

Ignoring and hiding physical and sexual abuse of women and children within the family has been the way we had handled this social problem in the past. The issue of violence within the home or domestic violence, has been a taboo subject so hidden that it did not even have a name, until now.

Today, we can actually call it something : geveshi aniyaa.

The Domestic Violence Bill submitted to the Peoples’ Majlis today by MP Rozaina Adam has a Dhivehi name, the Geveshi Aniyaa ge Bill, which formally lifts the final taboo against domestic violence, complete with a reference for everyone to use.

Now we know what it is, in name and deed. Now we can talk about it freely and be heard.

At least we think so.

Addressing social taboos can be difficult in any society, regardless of the human cost. Resistance to addressing domestic violence has been observed for many years in the Maldives.

On March 8 2002, the Minister of Women’s Affairs and Social Security addressed the occasion of the International Women’s Day, where she said :

“If we want to make our environment safe, free and conducive for all individuals, we have to start openly talking about the actions of perpetrators of violence… Issues of violence must be viewed as societal concerns rather than a private issue, and it must be seen as the responsibility of all to work towards eliminating violence from our society.”

Then, of course, we did not have a word for the issue. Nor were we ‘all’ prepared to take responsibility for it.
It was the way we did things.

But much has happened since then.

Supported by various UN agencies in the Maldives, the issue of domestic violence kept being looked into by those who were concerned about the issue.

Several studies were conducted and some of the findings were so disturbing that these were never made public. How can people ill-prepared to talk about something, face up to the reality of it?

However, several dedicated people kept chipping at the thick wall of the social taboo of domestic violence and we can say that today, the wall has finally fallen, thanks to all those who persevered.

In 2007, a major piece of research was conducted by the then Ministry of Gender and Family, entitled The Maldives Study on Women’s Health and Life Experiences.

This study revealed that one in three women between the age of 15-49 had experienced physical and/or sexual violence, including childhood sexual abuse at some point in their lives. The study also revealed that one in five women in the same age group, had reported experiencing violence from an intimate partner. These findings showed the extent of the problem of violence within Maldivian homes.

The representatives of the Maldivian people in the People’s Majlis today referred to the Geveshi Aniyaa ge Bill, and repeatedly reminded those listening that geveshi aniyaa exists in the Maldives, that it must not stay hidden, that it is a problem that has to be addressed through the law.

This historic bill is the first of its kind in the country. It brings a ray of hope of justice to the many women and families affected by domestic violence in this country.

When it comes to domestic violence, the way we do things has to change. It is no longer acceptable to hide this social ill.

Today’s bill promises to be the first step to protecting and providing justice for a large number of Maldivian women and children.

Today the representatives of the Maldivian people will vote to accept this bill to the Majlis and send it for approval by a special committee. As we watch the process unfold, we must not forget that the people who will most benefit from this bill are those least able to fight for the protection and justice this bill can potentially provide them.

For this reason, every voting member of the Majlis has a responsibility to support this important piece of legislation to secure justice that a large number of women and children of this country have long awaited.

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