Inmates Creativity Fair reveals creative side of jail

“I’m improving my painting, and it’s helping me make improvements in my life. It’s now an interest.”

Adam Arif is four years into a 25-year sentence at Maafushi jail. Participating at the 2012 Inmates Creativity Fair, held in the National Art Gallery from January 12 to 14, he said the arts program has improved daily life at Maafushi, and that the fair was a good chance to see the Male‘ community.

“The art projects allow them to gain valuable skills and hold a normal routine while in prison,” said Mohamed Asif, Assistant Superintendent of the Department of Penitentiary and Rehabilitation Services (DPRS). Inmates who choose to participate in the government-sponsored program work from 9 am to 12 pm, break for lunch, and then again from 1 pm to 3 pm. “It’s like a full job,” he explained. “Otherwise they’d just be sitting behind bars.”

Organised by DPRS, the fair was hosted by inmates and DPRS staff wearing orange tee-shirts sporting the logo “Accept Me”. Paintings, jewelry, handbags, model ships, plant arrangements and even vegetables available for sale were produced by the 80 to 100 male and female participants from Maafushi and Asseyri, most of whom were not formerly artists. They receive Rf900 (US$360) per month.

But business could expand.

“We’ve had a lot of positive comments from people, requesting us to open a shop because they want to buy more. We plan to launch a website to sell the prisoners’ artwork at the end of next month”, Asif said.

With most objects sold by 8:30 pm on the last evening of the fair, Asif estimated that the fair earned Rf1 million (US$64,850). However, he was careful to point out that the earnings are not a profit.

“The money goes back to the government, and is incorporated back into the budget and used to provide more tools for art projects,” he said. “The problem is, actually, we want a revolving fund. We’d like to sell and make a profit and then be able buy more materials and repeat the process. But at the moment, because of legislating governing financial procedures, we aren’t authorised.”

Although the inmate arts program is funded by the government, Asif believes financial autonomy would improve the program. “We are going to introduce a prison club, like the police club, so we can have our own budget to buy and sell,” he explained.

While Asif pushes for independence within the practice of prison reform, he acknowledges that significant improvements have been made in the past few years.

“There is renovation being done at Maafushi, Asseyri, and how they are going to build a new prison at Nanaykurandhoo,” he pointed out. Although the parole system is far from strong, Asif noted that the 2011 Second Chance Program had released 337 inmates since its inception in September, only 30 of whom had returned to prison, mostly from drug relapse.

Maldivian prisons currently house approximately 1000 inmates–0.3 percent of the national population. Nearly three-quarters of the prison population has been incarcerated for drug offences.

According to a 2011 report released by the United Nations Development Program, however, the prison system is poorly equipped.

“The problem in the Maldives is that there aren’t proper prisons,” co-author and UNDP program specialist Naaz Aminath told Minivan News in a previous article. “There is no structure to support the prisoners who are there.”

Inmates surveyed complained about a lack of structure in prison life, listing torture, inhumane treatment, drug availability and false hope from politicians as key factors.

“Plus, there isn’t much to read there,” Aminath explained. Only Asseyri and Maafushi prisons have ‘libraries’–rooms with a few books located outside the gated complex. “It’s risky to go there because it’s not within a protected area, and there simply aren’t enough staff to organise daily library trips. Really, I wouldn’t even call it a library.”

When asked which rehabilitation programs were most needed, inmates most commonly requested religious education (86.4 percent), counseling therapies (76.1 percent) and life skills (75.1 percent).

While the Second Chance program is re-integrating prisoners into society, other steps are improving the situation behind bars.

In 2011, an education program helped over 100 prisoners prepare for their O-levels. A much-anticipated Drugs Bill was passed during Parliament’s last moments of 2011, re-structuring the court procedures for those accused of drug offenses and offering an overhaul of the rehabilitation system. Asif further anticipates that a Prisons and Parole Bill which was sent to Parliament in June 2010 will be approved by March of this year.

Speaking at the fair’s opening ceremony on January 12 President Mohamed Nasheed, himself a former inmate of Maldivian prisons, said the emerging democratic system and reviews of the Constitution have contributed to improvements in the prison system. The President added that cooperation within the community would be measurable by initiatives taken to formulate prison reforms.

Comparing current prison conditions to those of the former regime, the President further stated that existing and pending legal framework offers a second chance for criminal offenders and asserted that torture and oppression faced by prisoners in this country were a thing of the past.

A comment book at the fair revealed an array of positive public responses. Supportive comments such as “this is the best thing I’ve done in 2012 so far” and “this shows that all the prisoners need is guidance in becoming useful people in society” were interspersed with statements of support from former inmates and suggestions for an inmate’s music group, football team and body-building club.


UNDP and government sign US$8.5 million project to provide freshwater

The Ministry of Housing and Environment and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) have signed a US$8.5 million project to provide “climate smart freshwater solutions” to three densely populated islands.

According to a press release issued by UNDP on Thursday, fresh water will be provided to Ihavandho in Haa Alif atoll, Mahibadhoo in Alif Dhaalu atoll and Gadhdhoo in Gaafu Dhaalu.

Minister of Housing and Environment Mohamed Aslam said that the three islands were chosen after stringent selection criteria, primarily based on their populations and the severity of water scarcity – however, all the islands face clean water shortages, Aslam said.

The project is funded by the Adaptation Fund of United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and will be implemented jointly by the government, UNDP and the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS).

The project is undertaken with a “view on country-wide replication and upscaling in the future” press release reads.

“The funds will pay for the establishment of integrated and resilient water supply systems; increase total freshwater storage capacity; and improve the quality of harvested rainwater in the target islands. Similarly, communal rainwater storage schemes will be strengthened, and additional production capacity for desalinated freshwater will be installed to provide backup capacity in times of water stress,” according to the UNDP.

“Artificial groundwater recharge will be enhanced to improve the quality and quantity of water stored in the natural aquifer, and contamination of household effluents will be reduced to prevent damages to the sensitive reef ecosystem”.

Speaking at the project signing ceremony Officer-in-Charge of UNDP, Sanaka Samarasinha said that the “access to water is a fundamental human right, and considering the hardships communities face accessing fresh water in the country, this project will provide clean water to more than 6700 people over the coming months,” said

Undp noted that all the islands in the country do not have a “functioning water supply and distribution network that can ensure sufficient supply of safe freshwater during dry periods” – except Male’, Vilingili and Hulhumale’.

According to the press release, water is scare in the islands due to climate change-induced decline of freshwater resources that is affecting the entire country. It further reads, the key problems pertaining to freshwater security relate to the management of increasingly saline groundwater and increasingly variable rainfall patterns.

“The project will provide a compound solution to a number of critical climate and non-climate-related problems and will be a suitable model for replication on other islands with similar vulnerabilities,” UNDPclaims.


UN, UNDP catch up on country, economy with President

Assistant Secretary General at the United Nations and the Assistant Administrator at UNDP Ajay Chibber today paid a courtesy call to President Mohamed Nasheed to discuss the current state of affairs in the Maldives.

At the meeting held at the President’s Office, President Nasheed noted that maintaining relations between the organisations and the Maldives was an important factor in continued national development.

The President also updated Chibber on the current political environment in the Maldives. The country’s Islamic Ministry reacted strongly to UN Human Rights Chief Navi Pillay, who called for a moratorium against flogging last month. A Protest to Defend Islam is scheduled for December 23.

The President later called the controversy, which included protests and letters of complaint to Parliament and the UN, a missed opportunity to demonstrate “the nobility of Islamic Shariah.”

The UN Assistant Secretary General said the development of national institutions was critical towards the Maldives’ ongoing transition into the middle income country category.


Rights awareness a leading concern for civil services

“Most people understand the rights themselves, but not what it means to have them. In a democracy, we hope that the people will all play a role.”

Commissioner Ahmed Tholal represented the Human Rights Commission Maldives (HRCM) at yesterday’s UNDP “Did You Know?” event at the Surf Point, the second in a campaign begun last year. The event targeted awareness building on human rights and the judicial system, particularly as provided in Chapter Two of the constitution. Over a dozen groups including Police Services, the Faculty of Shari’ah Law, Employment Tribunal, Courts, and the Elections Commission offered pamphlets and demonstrations of their social purpose.

“These kinds of things people will forget unless you keep on promoting it,” said UNDP National Project Manager Naaz Aminath. “It’s not something you can just accomplish by handing out pamphlets.”

Many groups interviewed said raising awareness of civil rights and how to exercise them was their biggest challenge.

Representatives from the Supreme Court defined the court as “part of a larger enforcement of human rights in the Maldives,” which she said “are there in the constitution but people don’t know how they can exercise them, or how they can defend them.”

She noted that though many citizens are unfamiliar with case filing procedures, the court had seen a “dramatic increase” in the number of cases filed and expected the trend to continue.

Speaking of the court as a robust institution, representatives concurred that there was room for improvement. “It’s only three years old, right, and it’s still growing. You can never reach maturity, right? There’s still room for improvement in anything, anywhere.”

Across the square, Police Integrity Commission (PIC) member Dr. Hala Hameed also reported a rising case rate.

“We are getting more reports of police misconduct than previously,” she said. “People are more aware of the commission and so they are using its services more.”

Hameed stressed that the PIC supports the police as well as the community. “We are here to empower the police and ensure that they have the appropriate resources to do their work, as well as oversee their operations.”

Saying that awareness was a concern, she said the PIC’s independent status validated its operations. “People know that if there is an independent commission to oversee the police activities then it will be effective.”

While many booths provided hard information about social services, several catered to the younger generations. Kids were invited to decorate cakes and paint pictures for various causes. At Care Society, children learned sign language from a hearing impaired instructor and familiarized themselves with disability icons over a board game.

One Care Society representative said community awareness had improved in recent years, “especially since the passing of the Disability Law last year.” But community tolerance “is an issue we are working to address. “

“There is still a fair amount of people who don’t understand the nature of various disabilities and how to interact with those individuals. It’s something that needs to be corrected,” she said.

HRCM Commissioner Tholal said social reform goes deeper than a pamphlet.

Attributing misconceptions of human rights to social instability, Tholal observed that “There’s this idea that if a prisoner has rights, it’s at someone else’s expense. But human rights are not about protecting one person’s rights and not another’s.

“The idea of self-expression and human rights is still fairly new to the Maldives under the new government, so as things stabilise I think the view of human rights could improve as well.”

According to Tholal, the HRCM has been targeted by proponents of Islamic fundamentalists, but the larger Islamic community has supported the commission’s work.

“The key thing for the public to understand is that the Maldives is a 100 percent Muslim country,” he said. “The rules and regulations that this status calls for can exist within the framework of human rights. They’re not incompatible. If anyone says otherwise, they negate the mission of the HRC. The idea that human rights are compatible with Islam, and the constitution, needs to be accepted by the people.”

Tholal did not wish to comment on the UN Human Rights Commissioner’s recent critique of the constitution’s provisions for flogging and mono-religious practice.

Calling for a more concerted media effort, Tholal said media is one of the most important factors for establishing a stable human rights framework. He criticised local media outlets for endorsing only a fraction of the rights issue.

“A lot more focus is placed on civil and political rights in the media, as opposed to social, economic and basic human rights,” he said, emphasizing that women and children are significantly under-represented. “Some media outlets, whether deliberately or inadvertently, have programs which impinge on the rights of women and rights, such as the right to work. In this environment, we need to focus on what is really crucial to people–like social rights.”

Earlier this year, a UNDP study found that gender equality is an area of development in which the country is lagging behind most.

HRCM will hold a media training program later this year.

Keeping the beat

After last year’s launch, the “Did You Know?” campaign aimed to tour Male’, Vilingili, Hulhumale, and the capital islands. “We exceeded expectations and reached 80 islands in 20 atolls,” said Aminath. “But we realized that it was just not possible to reach all the islands with the small number of volunteers we had.”

Aminath said the next phase of the campaign training approximately 10 NGOs across the country to providing information on the judicial system to islanders year-round.

“There are two main obstacles: geography, and capacity,” Aminath said. “The island geography makes it difficult for people to learn of and access all parts of the judicial system. And the Maldives has many many civil society groups, but not enough people to do the work.”

A UNDP report earlier this year found that although the civil society sector is impressive in size, it lacks efficiency and organisation. Aminath said collaborating with NGOs would support both the campaign’s purpose and the NGOs’ interest in capacity building.

Aminath said islanders are often aware of their rights, but that Maldivian culture is not traditionally litigal.

“People are used to talking and solving the problems that way. Going to court is a process, and if you appeal you have to go Male’ which takes time and money. There needs to be someone in the islands telling people how they can proceed with a complaint,” she said.

Plans to develop a mobile high court are indefinite.

This year’s event was widely attended by families and youth who enjoyed the activities, free candy, and social milling. Most booths were hosted either fully or in part by young people eagerly offering pamphlets.

Aminath said the UN strives to involve youth in most activities, and that they are the backbone to the “Did You Know?” campaign.

“Most of my volunteers are ages 19 to 30, and they’re an excellent group. They came on all 80 island trips this year. They also represent a real cross section of civil service, coming from the courts, the prosecutor general’s office, the police and other parts of society,” she said. “I couldn’t do these kinds of events without their support.”

At UNDP’s Democracy Day ceremony earlier this year, a study observed that youth in civil society were widely recognised as a key factor for democratic growth in the Maldives. Currently, youth ages 18 to 25 comprise nearly half of the country’s population.


BEST project to strengthen public administration

Agreements were signed between the UNDP, Civil Service Commission (CSC) and the President’s Office yesterday to implement the second phase of the US$1.6 million Building an Efficient, Service-oriented, Transparent Administration (BEST) project.

Haveeru reports that the BEST project is supporting the government of the Maldives with modernisation and public administration reform, with a goal of ensuring maximum efficiency in public administration.

The CSC has pledged US$1 million followed by US$87,000 allocated by the President’s Office and US$300,000 from the UNDP for the second phase of BEST.

“This project is exactly what partnerships should look like in the Maldives,” UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative, Mr. Andrew Cox was quoted as saying. “Its real strength is taking what has been done before, and scaling it up. The fact that this is possible demonstrates the seriousness of the Government and the Civil Service Commission in dealing with complicated problems.”

The project will focus on building the capacity of the CSC, its Civil Service Training Institute, and the Governance Reform Unit at the President’s Office.


Internet expands opportunities for Maldivian artists

Opportunities for Maldivian artists have been expanded by the Maldivian Artists Directory, an internet platform for artists to share, showcase and market their talents and interests. The directory was developed by the Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture with the support of the United Nations Development Project (UNDP) Male office and the National Centre for the Arts (NCA).

Artists who meet directory criteria may register on-line with a resume and contact information. Criteria vary by artistic category, and may include publication to an internet forum and community involvement. Artistic categories are performing, music, literary, visual and traditional.

“We believe the Directory will also provide opportunities for artists to better market themselves and their products as well as seek interested audiences and those wishing to commission artworks or invest in arts projects,” the ministry said in a press release.

The ministry intends for the directory to “help in defining a distinct Maldivian identity as manifest in the arts practices and traditions of the Maldives, both old and contemporary,” while making these cultural aspects more accessible to tourists.

The Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture recently joined International Federation of Arts Councils and Culture Agencies (IFACC), a network connection arts councils and ministries worldwide.

In June this year, the Arts Development Fund was set up by the Ministry of Finance and Treasury. Criteria to award funding and other support was also set up, and the ministry will be helping local artists organize fund raisers.

Plans for an arts council are underway, however the ministry has delayed submitting the act stipulating these plans to Parliament “because of the present climate which we foresee as more conducive later in the year.”

The ministry has asked President Mohamed Nasheed to appoint a council with the minister’s advice. Of the appointments, however, those for theatre and drama, film making, literature, visual arts, music and crafts will be appointed independently.

Applications for the directory are available on-line.


Stigma against female employment in resorts confused, workers say

The stigma against female employment in resorts presents challenges for reducing the 32 percent unemployment rate, over two-thirds of which is accounted for by women.

Sources familiar with the issue, however, claim that the stigma is “fueled by misinformation and fear”.

A recent report from Sweden’s Lund University claimed that community perceptions of resort life as ‘western’ and offensive to Islam are giving the industry a negative reputation, and are preventing women from pursuing employment in the Maldives’ most lucrative sector.

Ima* recently spoke to Minivan News about her employment in the resort sector. She was one of the first Maldivian females to be hired at a resort ten years ago, and previously lived on a local island.

“It’s very much like a family,” she said. “I know of hardly any issues with harassment from guys, people look out for each other.”

By contrast, several women working in Male’ told Minivan News that they often face sexual discrimination and harassment in the workplace. One source said there is no support against such treatment.

According to Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) MP Eva Abdulla, “I don’t know if we have made it comfortable for women to talk to each other here.”

The thesis, “Women in Tourism: Challenges of Including Women in the Maldivian Resort Sector” was prepared by Eva Alm and Susanna Johansson during their five-month stay in the Maldives in 2010. Their findings identify “culture, religion, and women’s role in the family, the role of the family, safety, geographical spread, transportation, education and awareness” as obstacles to female employment in resorts.

Parents play a significant role in a woman’s professional future. “In the Maldives, in our religion, we are not allowed to drink or be with just any guys and things like that. So our parents are scared about that,” said one young woman quoted in the thesis.

According to the thesis, resorts are widely believed to be threatening to traditional Muslim values. At the same time, growing religious fundamentalism is projected to prevent women from participating in the local economy.

Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) MP Rozaina Adam said a rise in fundamentalism would be an economic setback: “Instead of working, women will be lying around. That is not constructive for a growing economy and country.”

Tourism directly accounts for 30 percent of the Maldives’ GDP, and for 70 percent indirectly. Maldivian women account for a mere three percent of resort employees.

Ima said most community anxiety is due to a lack of information.

“When I go home and tell people that I work at a resort, their first perception is that I must be a good cook. But you know, they also don’t have a good idea of what my job title means. And I think that that’s a big reason behind the misperceptions in many Maldivian island communities. Many people have never been to a resort, if there was more interaction then they would understand what the resort lifestyle is. As it is, most just can’t relate to the kind of work we do here.”

One resort manager quoted in the thesis said awareness is a major challenge to promoting female employment. “Convincing the parents is difficult. They are very possessive of the girls. The parent’s perception is that they will mix with the European culture and do bad things such as drinking alcohol.”

The Maldives has one of the world’s highest divorce rates, and girls often drop out of school and get married in their late teens. Aspiration rates among youth ages 17 to 25 were recently calculated at six percent.

These statistics do not refer to the resort community.

Ima says resort life has significant benefits. “For local islanders, it can be an easy transition to resort life. Many people leave home to live or work in Male’. I think that that’s much more dangerous than working at a resort. At a resort, the lifestyle is much healthier, safer, and there is more opportunity to save.”

A source familiar with the issue told Minivan News that saving is not common for Maldivian women. She gave the example of a cleaning lady who was proud that her daughter gave her entire salary as a family contribution. “I know you want to respect your family, but how can a woman save up for herself? What option does she have for herself?” she said.

The Maldives was recently criticised for lagging behind other countries in gender equality, as defined by the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). At the UNDP’s Democracy Day ceremony earlier this month, advisor Ferdinand von Habsburg-Lothringen warned that with only half of the Maldives’ work force engaged in the economy, “growth would not flourish.”

Several resorts have tried to accommodate social preferences by outsourcing tasks to local islands and providing daily transportation so Maldivian women do not have to live away from home.

Ima said that at the end of the day, success depends on the individual’s self confidence.

“The way you perceive colleagues and portray yourself matters for anybody, male or female. It’s about how you value yourself and the beliefs you hold. If you can stick to that, and show people who you are and how to respect you, then you can succeed,” she said.

*Name changed on request


UNDP to fund six part TV series on economic issues

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Ministry of Economic Development (MED) have signed an agreement to run a six-episode TV programme focusing on national economic issues
from October 5.

The Maldives Economic Forum, or ‘Dhivehinge Igthisaadhee Sallaa’, aims to bring to the masses, economic policy analyses and discussion forums on topical economic issues, UNDP said in a statement.

“The aim of the discussions, lead by academics, experts, policy makers and practitioners, is to educate the masses on issues surrounding economic development, presented from an analytical and educational perspective using simple explanations and free from political partiality.”

The objective, UNDP stated, was to “Enhance dialogue and wider participation in the discussions of economic development issues in the Maldives, develop interaction and the exchange of information between the government and non-government agencies, private sector, academic institutions and other stakeholders working towards similar development goals in the Maldives.”

The first programme will be broadcast on MNBC One on October 5 at 11:00pm, and thereafter run weekly.

The economic issues to be discussed over the six different sessions include; Forum 1: Increasing the role of tourism in local livelihood development; Forum 2: Development of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises sector; Forum 3: Role of saving and investment; Forum 4: Unemployment trends among youth; Forum 5: Women entrepreneurship and participation in economic activities; and Forum 6: Innovation.


Democracy growing, but gender equality a key issue: UNDP

The UNDP International Day of Democracy was celebrated today under the theme “Youth Inclusion and Democracy” at the Nasandhura Palace Hotel. Representatives from the government, UNDP, and the Human Rights Commission spoke on democratic progress in the Maldives.

Youth in civil society were widely recognised as a key factor for democratic growth in the Maldives.

UN Advisor on Social Cohesion and Governance, Ferdinand von Habsburg-Lothringen, delivered the opening speech.

“Civil society in the Maldives is impressive. It is an important avenue for young people to engage with their community and to hold leaders accountable,” he said.

Habsburg-Lothringen noted that “democracy is still a new concept in the Maldives, and will take many years to mature,” and encouraged the Maldivian government to enact “crucial” laws, such as the penal code.

Gender equality remains one of the biggest issues in the Maldives, said Habsburg-Lothringen. He noted that only 5 of the 77 MPs are female.

“Gender equality is an area in which the Maldives is lagging behind most countries in achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs),” he said. “Democracy is dependent on not just 50 percent of the people. With only half of the eligible work force participating, growth will not flourish in the Maldives.”

Home Minister Hassan Afeef called this year’s theme “relevant to the country – a majority of our population are young people.”

The ceremony featured a presentation of the report, “Comprehensive Study on Maldivian Civil Society” by FJS Consulting.

Managing Director Fareeha Shareef summarised the report’s findings on CSOs in the Maldives. Among the issues addressed was the disorganised categorisation of CSOs.

“The government is trying to provide aid but the structure of how to do it is not specified,” said Shareef. “Some sports clubs and organisations didn’t even engage in sports activities,” she said.

Shareef also commented on the CSO sector’s unique work force. According to the report, only 0.7 percent of employees are paid, and the average employee is age 25 with an education ranging between grades 6 and 10. There are 1100 CSOs registered in the Maldives.

Funding is also a struggle. The report found that donors were the least common source of funding, and many CSOs organise events to generate income. One example was a CSO that went fishing to generate program funding. The report notes that these events only cover about 30 percent of the total program cost.

The report recognises that the Maldives has the resources to support a strong civil society, but recommends bringing in older employees to provide guidance. “Imagine the potential of the sector if the resources were channeled in an effective manner,” said Shareef.

Chief Guest speaker Mariyam Azra Ahmed, Chair of the Human Rights Commission, said “a vibrant civil sector and independent media, among others” were essential for growth. She also advised a stronger dialogue between citizens and the government. “Lifestyles incorporating compromise, cooperation, and consensus building should be a consistent, recurring feature in  a democratic society,” she said.

The event included a performance by musician Yes-e and singer Grey, for whom the performance was her debut. “I was a bit nervous, and the audience wasn’t very lively, but it was a good event,” she said.

Following a tea break, a vigorous student debate was widely attended by members of civil society, UNDP, and the government. Gesticulating throughout the debate, the students of Aminiya and Dharumavatha schools demonstrated passion and ambition for democracy in the Maldives.