UNFPA calls for review of judicial practices surrounding sexual behaviour in the Maldives

The UNFPA has this week released the State of the World Population Report, along with a report focusing on the local context, titled “Reproductive Health Knowledge and Behaviour of Young Unmarried Women in the Maldives”.

The report includes recommendations calling on the state to review existing practices related to the matter within the judicial process, law enforcement, education and health sectors.

Minister of Education Aishath Shiham inaugurated the event, highlighting the state’s plans to resume awareness programs for adolescents in schools in 2014.

“The UNFPA’s Life Skills Package is the program that was most systematically and effectively run in Maldivian schools to tackle the issue of adolescent pregnancies. Over a 1000 people have been trained to be able to conduct this program. I am announcing here today that with the start of the new administrative year in 2014, the UNFPA Life Skill Package will be reintroduced,” she stated.

The minister further noted the importance of including similar concepts in teacher training courses.

Youth sexual behaviour outside marriage

The report states that while the age of marriage has been increased to 18 in the year 2000 – following which the average age of first marriage has risen to 19 in recent years – sexual and reproductive health services and commodity supplies remain available solely to married couples.

It states that while the “underlying assumption is that sexual intimacy does not or should not occur before marriage”, and while this is in accordance with societal and religious views, there is “ample evidence that this is inconsistent with the social realities of youth sexual behaviour”.

The report provides a number of studies supporting their findings, including a youth perception study conducted, in which 90 percent agreed that it is more common for “couples to initiate sexual intercourse before marriage”.

It further notes the existence of young female sex workers, citing the Biological and Behavioural Survey of 2008 which noted a prevalence of “unprotected sex with multiple partners” within the 15 – 17 age group and above.

Another cited study indicated that unsafe practices of abortion are more common among unmarried youth than their married counterparts.

“Pregnancy outside marriage is in fact, a criminal offence…Nevertheless, it has to be acknowledged that sexual activity is a consistent social reality…” the report stated, before pointing out that the issue contributes to the “public health burden of the country”, and that it stems from “a complex mix of health, social and legal consequences, primarily connected to the occurrence of pregnancy outside marriage”.

As the clearest evidence of extra-marital pregnancies, the report cites IGMH’s Family Protection Unit’s data, showing the occurrence of such pregnancies to be the third most common issue among patients it has attended to since it opened in 2006. It states that out of 41 cases recorded in an year, some have resulted from rape and sexual abuse.

“The social and legal implications connected to out of wedlock pregnancy creates an intricate link between pregnancy outside marriage and abortion. Consequently, unsafe abortion is a key issue among young Maldivian women,” it said.

Sexual and reproductive health knowledge

The report highlights that due to societal and religious taboos, sexual and reproductive health (SRH) knowledge among youth – especially unmarried youth – is alarmingly low.

The report states that information related to SRH is taught in schools within the Biology and Islam syllabuses, though not at a meaningful or significant level.

Highlighting the disparity between the number of men and women prosecuted for fornication under Sharia law, the report stated that “paternity testing is not used as admissible evidence in court and the opportunity for men to deny guilt makes male accountability something of a farce”.

The report concluded with a variety of recommendations to the health, education, judicial sectors, as well as media outlets.

In addition to encouraging various forms of awareness raising, the UNFPA called on the law enforcement sector to revise sentencing practices in which gender discrimination occurs, to review the current punitive practice of dissolving marriages if a child is born within a gestation timeframe inconsistent with the duration of marriage, and to review the non-acceptance of paternity testing in cases of extra-marital pregnancies.

Read the full report here (english).


HRCM Deputy Tholal expresses shock at attitudes towards gender discrimination

Human Rights Commission of the Maldives (HRCM) Vice President Ahmed Tholal has spoken on the challenges presently facing women in Maldivian society, expressing shock at the attitudes of some – including senior policy makers – to gender discrimination.

Tholal’s comments were made as the Gender Advocacy Working Group on Monday (December 10) held a special event to celebrate the conclusion of 16 days of activities promoting calls for an end of violence against women.

The HRCM Deputy pledged during his speech that the commission would resolve to work ceaselessly in trying to bring an end to gender-based violence across the country.

“At HRCM, we often hold related workshops. We often have activities to assess perceptions of gender roles by the participants. The perspectives on women held by some senior policy making level individuals are often views that leave us, as men, completely ashamed,” he said.

“Being a man myself, I myself am shocked and ashamed by the justifications these people present as reasons why men and women cannot work at the same levels, or hold equal posts. This is why we need to keep on working on this cause.”

Tholal further continued, “Some would say that the constitution and supporting laws do not differentiate based on gender. My question is, is this honestly the case when it comes to actual practices?”

He added that as long as these prejudices were common, and women were subjected to discrimination and violence, he was reluctant to accept that Maldivians lived in a “modern and civilised society”.

16 day focus

As part of  calls for an end to violence against women, the Gender Advocacy Working Group this year carried out awareness activities from the November 25 to December 10 – a date chosen to coincide with International Human Rights Day.  These awareness activities were held with the cooperation of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), as well as a number of other local NGOs, government offices and youth volunteers.

The objective of the campaign was to call for an end of violence against women in the country, while also pressuring the government to expedite arrangements for providing services to the victims of domestic violence.

The advocacy group pointed to records showing an estimated one in three women in the Maldives have been victims of domestic violence during their lives, calling on government to ensure that the Family Protection Authority was provided with a sufficient budget to implement the Act Against Domestic Violence and complete the actions detailed in it.

“One of the main steps that need to be taken to end violence against women is to accept that such acts do occur in our society and to honestly want to bring an end to it, it is therefore necessary for the community to share the same viewpoint on such matters if inhuman acts like these are to be eradicated,” the Gender Advocacy Working Group claimed in a statement.

The group organised a number of activities in Male’, Hulhumale’ and Villimale’ to raise awareness of the issue over the 16 days. These included the relatively new concept of forum theatre performances on the street, which encouraged onlookers to join in and be a part of the act.

In addition to these performances, 16 ambassadors of the campaign were honoured. A theatre performance by youth volunteers showed a number of related problems that were faced in the local society, and prompted suggestions for solutions from the audience.

The campaign has also pledged to help victims of domestic violence by planning to set up safe houses, provide free legal counsel and establish a helpline for support.

The group has also called for the inclusion of issues of gender-based violence and gender equality in the school curriculum and to increase participation of women in the law implementation bodies of the state.

Human Rights Commission of the Maldives (HRCM) Vice President Ahmed Tholal has spoken on the many challenges presently facing women in Maldivian society, expressing shock at the attitudes of some- including senior policy makers – in regards to gender discrimination.

Contraception use in the Maldives still too low: UN Representative Andrew Cox

Contraception prevalence rates in the Maldives are still “too low”, United Nations Population Fund’s (UNFPA) Representative Andrew Cox has claimed.

Speaking at the launch of UNFPA’s State of World Population 2012 (SWOP) report, Cox said that while many aspects of family planning have greatly improved in the Maldives, contraceptive prevalence rates are lower in comparison to other countries of similar development rate and culture.

Figures revealed by Cox show that infant mortality in the Maldives has dropped from 63 deaths per 1000 births in 1986 to 11 per 1000 in 2009, and that a baby born in the Maldives today can expect to live for 74 years – more than 20 years older than a child born in 1980.

However, according to Cox contraceptive prevalence in the Maldives is considerably low in comparison to other comparable countries.

“The prevalence rate of contraception is too low, especially for a country like the Maldives. It is definitely something we need to work with the government on,” Cox told Minivan News.

Further figures revealed by Vice President Mohamed Waheed Deen – who attended the launch to release the SWOP report – show that one in every four pregnancies in the Maldives were unplanned, while 16 percent were unwanted and a further ten percent mistimed.

Deen further stated that the family production unit at Indhira Gandhi Memorial Hospital’s (IGMH) records show 33 percent of women aged 23 had ‘out of wedlock’ pregnancies.

Deen gave his assurance that the government will be part of the development of family planning, adding that “[family planning] is a must”.

“Very often this type of information is easier for non-government organisations (NGOs) to pass on. We support the gender ministry and the health ministry, and if it comes to financial support we would help them.

“Family planning affects the whole economy in a positive way, so we would definitely be willing to help out,” Deen said.

The SWOP report, entitled ‘By Choice, Not by Chance: Family Planning, Human Rights and Development’, focuses on the need for family planning both globally and in the Maldives.

UNFPA’s role in Maldives began in the early 1980s with the launch of national programmes on family planning and population. Since then, four country programmes have been launched addressing issues around family planning.