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.


Family court requires criminal records and police reports for underage marriage

A new regulation at the Family Court requires underage couples applying for marriage to submit criminal records and police reports, in a bid to ensure that young girls are fully informed of their partner’s social standing.

Maldivian law allows girls and boys under the legal age of 18 to marry so long as they have reached puberty and have parental consent, and if the court finds no substantial reason to object to the union.

As of January 1, 2012, couples in which one or both partners is underage must now submit criminal records and a police report to the Family court, as well as confirmation of parental consent and medical reports.

The Marriage Registrar will also decide whether the couple holds a valid reason for marriage.

Speaking to Minivan News, Marriage Registrar Ahmed Abdullah said that the new regulation aims to “protect young girls” following observations that in most cases of underage marriage the applicant is a female below the age of 18 who wishes to marry a man of legal age. The man is sometimes found to hold a criminal record, he said.

Abdullah said that these criminal records are mainly related to drug offences- and that the girl and her parents are often “unaware” of them prior to the marriage.

However, he explained that the court would not decline a marriage request based on the criminal history of an applicant, as long as the legal requirements are met.

“Submission of criminal records would only help the girls and parents make a more informed decision about the partner”, Abdullah added.

Contrary to the assumption that most underage marriages in Muslim countries are “forced”, Abdullah assured that the court has not registered any marriage in which the court had identified the “slightest hint that any partner was forced”.

Rather, Abdullah claims that most girls applying to marry between the ages of 15 and 17 do so to escape poor living conditions.

“Most underage girls are from very poor backgrounds living in very harsh conditions, often with no parent or reliable guardian to support them,” said Abdullah. “So, they want to get a better life by marrying”.

In the event that a marriage request is denied, Abdullah said some girls write repeatedly, “pleading for approval”.

According to him, there are exceptional cases where the boy and girl come from very good backgrounds and “they want to get married because parents do not approve of relationships out of wedlock”.

“Most parents are scared their kids might make a mistake, that is why want them to get married,” Abdullah observed.

As a Muslim nation, the Maldives subscribes to social standards in keeping with Quranic teachings, which strictly regulate the relations between a man and a woman. While Maldivian culture similar opposes “dating” in the modern sense, the “boyfriend-girlfriend” relationship, or bitun, is fairly common.

Last year, almost 50 underage marriages were registered at the court.

Although the Maldives is known for its record-high divorce rate, Abdullah noted that the “divorce rate in under age marriages are surprisingly lower” than in legal age marriages.

Former Gender Minister Aneesa Ahmed argued that a lack of information and social pressure combine to make it difficult for young girls to make healthy decisions regarding marriage.

Though it may appear that young girls want to get married, Ahmed said “often they are lured into marriage by their parents” who find the prospect of a wealthy son-in-law appealing. “The girls would not be able to make a good decision about their marriage partners” in that context, she added.

Ahmed observed that in most marriages between a young girl and an older man, the man has wealth, high social status, or both. She added that the girl is rarely consulted, and “parents are often to blame”.

In the event that an underage girl claims to have no parent or legal guardian, the state becomes responsible for her security. Ahmed pointed out that this mechanism does prevent girls from lying about their background, and allows for higher scrutiny.

“The court also must play an important role to ensure the rights to the underage girl”, she said.