New child abuse prevention campaign launched

The ministry of gender and law in association with UNICEF has launched a new child abuse prevention programme, Ahan, to increase awareness of child rights and reporting of child abuse.

The campaign was launched on the occasion of international children’s day, which is marked across the world today.

State minister for gender Dr Haala Hameed said the reporting of child abuse cases has increased four-fold within the past four years. The ministry has set up a hotline 1412 for child abuse reporting.

Minivan News was unable to obtain the exact number of cases reported in the past four years at the time of going to press. According to previous figures by NGO, Advocating for the Rights of Children (ARC), 388 cases of child abuse were reported between January and November 2014.

Majority of reported cases relate to sexual and physical abuse, Haala said.

“In one sense, the increase in reporting is positive. It indicates an increase in awareness among the public,” she said.

Haala said the ministry has received complaints people are unable to contact them through the hotline, but said the ministry is “looking for ways to fix it.”

Police figures show 577 cases of sexual abuse in 2012, 573 in 2013 and 475 in 2014. Majority of the cases relate to sexual abuse of children. Meanwhile, domestic violence cases amounted to 179 in 2012, 207 in 2013 and 186 in 2014.

The human rights watchdog has previously said only a small proportion of reported child abuse cases gain justice and said many victims remain re-victimized due to systemic failures.

“Most prevalent challenges include delays in obtaining evidence and overly strict evidentiary requirements,” the HRCM said in a report to the UN human rights council in September.

The HRCM also noted that societal attitudes that treat child abuse as a private matter or that force child abuse victims to deny testimony in court in order to protect family honor prevent victims from gaining justice.

The state is yet to establish a registry of child sexual offenders, the commission noted, and said the child protection system is weak in the Maldives as it is under resourced, with inconsistencies in capacity and coordination.

In a statement today, the HRCM called for justice for child abuse victims and a system to monitor perpetrators once they are released.

Attorney general Mohamed Anil today said a “holistic approach” is needed to tackle child abuse.

“Awareness is also one very important component, we also need to improve the state authorities, give them better equipment, better training, strengthen relations between all related institutions, and improve monitoring mechanisms,” he said.

He also noted the importance of strengthening laws related to child rights and said his office has drafted a new child protection bill. A new juvenile justice system bill will also be ready by August, he said.

“But not having the necessary laws is not a reason to let these issues slide,” he said.


Government has received 208 reports of child abuse so far for 2013: Human Rights Minister

The Ministry of Family, Gender and Human Rights has received 208 reports of child abuse so far this year, Minister Azima Shukoor has said.

In a statement marking Children’s Day, Shukoor said 83 percent of all reported child sexual abuse claims involved young girls. In addition, Shukoor said the ministry has also been informed of 43 cases of child neglect.

“The number of children facing abuse at one point in time in the Maldives is a number that is unreasonable for a country with such a small population,” she said, according to local media.

“The abuse of children is on the rise. Children being used as sex workers, where the children are sent to places as a means to pleasure people and to gain an income from such a trade. This is being practiced in the Maldives today. Both boys and girls are being used in this trade,” Shukoor said.


NGO urges government to address “inadequate” child protection measures

A Maldivian NGO has criticised child protection measures currently in place in the country as “inadequate”, while urging government authorities to incorporate several key human rights obligations into domestic law.

Local NGO Advocating the Rights of Children (ARC) told Minivan News today (April 21) that although the Maldives has signed and agreed to be legally bound by the provisions in the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and its Optional Protocols, the commitments have yet to be adopted into law.

ARC said it therefore “strongly urged” the Maldivian government to ratify the CRC Optional Protocol on a Communications Procedure as soon as possible to “enhance child protection measures in the country and to uphold its international legal obligations and responsibilities under the convention.”

ARC today claimed that provisions outlined in the CRC had not been fully adopted by the state into domestic legislation, thereby limiting the promotion and protection of child rights.

“Even though there is work being done to protect children, it is not enough,” the organisation said.

“The CRC’s optional [communications] protocol allows individuals, a group of individuals or their representatives to submit complaints to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child claiming to be victims of a violation by the state, of any rights enshrined in the convention or any of its optional protocols which the Maldives is a party to.

“What is very important is that children themselves or their parents can submit complaints if domestic [legal measures] have been exhausted,” ARC added.

ARC cited the recent example of the 15-year-old rape victim from the island of Feydhoo in Shaviyani Atoll who was convicted of premarital sex at the Juvenile Court in February and sentenced to 100 lashes and eight months of house arrest.

“The recent case of a 15-year old girl, whose rights were violated and abused by her step-father is a clear example of how domestic judicial and legal mechanisms failed to address and rectify the violation over a substantial period of time, at different levels,” ARC said.

“This is a situation where an individual complaint to the UN Committee could hold the government accountable even if the ‘domestic remedial system’, including judicial and legal mechanisms, fail to address the issue of abuse.

“Ratifying this optional protocol will help protect the rights of children as it could help reduce the number of cases in the Maldives where a lack of legislation, clarity and commitment to international human rights law allow serious injustices to proliferate,” ARC added.

Council heads and senior civil society figures have previously slammed the judiciary, state authorities and welfare groups over their systemic failure to protect the 15 year-old girl, despite her history of alleged sexual abuse dating back to 2009.

The 15-year-old’s case has brought international attention to the Maldives’ legal system, including the launch of an online petition signed by over 2 million people that has threatened to boycott Maldivian tourism.  The sentencing of the minor has also come under high-profile public criticism from British multi-billionaire Sir Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin group of companies.

Former Attorney General Azima Shukoor has already appealed the court’s sentencing decision against the minor.

ARC said it hope ratifying the treaty in the Maldives would instill “a sense of transparency on child rights issues and encourage the government to be more accountable to its obligations.”

“The protocol is specifically designed to allow members of the public to submit complaints to an international body if children’s rights have been violated,” ARC added.

ARC said it had been informed by the Maldivian government that the ratification process had been started and was hoped to be concluded  “at the earliest opportunity”.

UNICEF’s view

The UN General Assembly adopted the CRC’s optional communications protocol (treaty) in December 2011.  Tt was first opened for signature in February 2012.  Currently only four countries have ratified the treaty, agreeing to be legally bound by its terms.

UNICEF Representative Zeba Tanvir Bukhari explained to Minivan News that the CRC’s optional communications protocol would require a minimum of 10 ratifications before the treaty enters into force.

“Signatures usually happen faster than ratification, however what is signed should be ratified to help enable implementation,” said Bukhari.

She added that achieving societal change in attitudes to child rights was difficult, but there were “many ways of managing” it in the Maldives.  Bukhari pointed to maintaining civil society pressure and media attention on the Maldivian government to ratify the CRC optional protocol, as two notable examples on how to secure such changes.

UNICEF previousy backed a study published by the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives (HRCM) in January of this year highlighting numerous policy deficiencies in children’s participation and protection.  These deficiencies were highlighted in the report as potentially putting Maldivian children at serious risk of harm.

Ultimately the report recommended that government and civil society organisations “push for a radical change in the traditional thinking which dominates Maldivian perceptions of children: children should be seen and not heard.”

The Maldives has ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child (February 1991), the Optional Protocol on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography (May 2002), and the Optional Protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict (December 2004).

Legal obligations

A senior legal expert with experience of working under both the present and former governments spoke with Minivan News earlier this year about how minors were identified and viewed in the eyes of Maldivian law.

The legal source stated that the culpability of children was identified in a regulation called ‘Kuda kudhin kuraa kushuge masala thah balai, thahugeegu koh, insaafu koh, adhabu dhinumugai amalu kuraane gothuge gavaidu’.

The legal source said that the culpability of minors is specifically dealt with in section five of the regulations.

“According to section five, children above the age of 10 and below the age of 15 are criminally responsible for five offences, which are apostasy, treason, fornication, falsely accusing fornication and consumption of alcohol,” the source said.

“Children above 15 years are criminally responsible for their actions. With children who are below 10, parents are required to make good any damage because of a criminal act. There is no criminal liability for below 10.”

Meanwhile, neglect and abuse of children were reported to have increased to an “alarming level“, compelling the the Maldives’ Ministry of Gender, Family and Human Rights to submit an amendment (April 7) that would transfer parental guardianship of children in cases of negligence.

Earlier this year, ARC called on the Maldivian government to pass legislation concerning the treatment of sexual abuse victims. The NGO also raised concerns over the potential impact on the state’s ability to prevent sexual offences following reductions to the state budget approved by parliament in December 2012.

ARC has identified a lack of specific legislation protecting rights for children and adults – despite the Special Measures Act 2009.

The NGO also previously called for reforms of the juvenile justice system and reform of the current protection mechanisms provided to minors who are kept in state run institutions, such as homes and foster programs.


Youth civil society drug prevention workshop

A two day ‘Young People As Changemakers’ workshop focused on building youth capacity to create “tailor made” drug prevention programs was held by non-governmental organisation (NGO) Journey.

“This workshop is training youth to develop drug prevention programs that are specialised to address community needs and target at-risk youth,” Journey Chief Executive Officer Mohamed Shuaib told Minivan News.

The 25 workshop participants include youth civil society leaders, civil servants from the Ministry of Human Resources Youth and Sports, and councillors from the Ministry of Education.

The workshop has been conducted with the support of UNICEF and a consultant from Nepal, specialising in youth education, and concluded Thursday (February 21).


Project to improve Maldives’ education system launched

A project to review and improve the education system in the Maldives has been initiated by the National Institute for Education (NIE).

The ‘Longitudinal Study of the Impact of Curriculum Reform’ will be a seven year-long project to be carried out with the assistance of United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), local media reported.

Speaking at a ceremony to launch a baseline survey planned to be conducted under the project initiative, Deputy Minister for the Ministry of Education Azleen Ahmed said the survey is to understand the impact the newly planned syllabus will have on teaching and learning.

“The purpose of such an initiative, taken up with the support of UNICEF, is to understand the current situation of the education system in the Maldives, and to understand the impact the newly planned syllabus will have on the children.

“At the end of the survey, we will know the changes that we require to bring to the new syllabus, and also to the education system as a whole. We will also be able to identify the problems with the current education system, and also the difficulties faced by children while learning,” Azleen was quoted as saying in local media.

Data for the survey will be collected from children of grades 4, 7 and 9 from schools across the country, local media said.


President Waheed visited by German and US ambassadors, and UNICEF director

Germany’s new Ambassador to the Maldives, Jurgen Morhad, yesterday presented his credentials to President Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan, the President’s Office has reported.

The President thanked the new ambassador for Germany’s contribution to the tourism industry and its assistance in dealing with environmental problems.

The current issues facing the Maldives young democracy were also discussed.

“Highlighting the political, social, and fiscal challenges being faced in the country today, President Waheed underlined the importance of conducting capacity building programmes for the youth. He noted that such programmes would in turn solve the unemployment issues in the Maldives,” read a release on the office’s website.

Social issues were also discussed when the President welcomed Karin Hulshof, UNICEF’s Regional Director for South Asia.

Waheed briefed the director on the steps being taken to meet the UN’s Millennium Development Goals whilst Hulshof emphasised the importance of raising drug awareness within the school system.

In a busy day, the President also welcomed US Ambassador Michele J. Sison who was briefed on the measures being taken to increase security and safety in the country following the murder of MP Dr Afrasheem Ali.


SE Asia should focus on keeping kids HIV-free: WHO

HIV/AIDS is shifting profile from a “life-threatening emergency to a manageable chronic disease,” finds an annual report on the Global Response to HIV/AIDS.

The report was released in honor of World Aids Day on December 1, 2011 by World Health Organisation (WHO), United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) in collaboration with international partners.

The report analyses the health sector’s prevention, treatment and care to those infected in low- and middle- income countries using data through 2010. Among the recommendations for South East Asia was to eliminate childhood infection by 2015.

“We must learn from our experiences, and work to ensure that no child born gets infected with HIV,” Dr Samlee Plianbangchang, WHO Regional Director for South-East Asia, said in a press statement.

As of 2010, 16 million people out of South East Asia’s population of 593 million had been diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. But statistics suggest a synchronized solution. Over the preceding decade infection rates in South-East Asia declined by a sharp 34 percent while the number of people receiving treatment increased ten-fold.

“We are coming out of a transformative decade for the HIV/AIDS epidemic. With innovative treatment regimens, improved health services as well as political commitment, HIV-positive people who are on treatment are living longer and better lives,” Plianbangchang said.

As WHO pushes South-East Asia to eliminate the disease it makes children a priority. Towards that end, an initiative to eliminate new paediatric HIV infections and congential syphilis by that date was launched this year.

Meanwhile, less than one in five pregnant women in the region do not have access to testing facilities, and two out of three infected pregnant women do not receive anti-viral prophylaxis.

Historically the Maldives has been minimally affected by HIV/AIDS, however social trends are putting the population at risk.

Between 1991 and 2006 only 13 HIV cases were reported among Maldivians, compared to 168 among expatriate workers. Of the Maldivian cases 10 were sailors, two were spouses, and one was a resort worker who had traveled abroad; 11 cases were male, and all patients cited heterosexual transmission as the cause.

Yet the country’s geographical constraints have made it highly dependent on foreign imports. This has been shown to include human trafficking for purposes including sexual entertainment. In 2010, an HIV-positive prostitute was arrested locally.

Late last month, human trafficking was reported a growing industry. In 2008, a World Bank report listed mobility, sexual practice, commercial sex work and drug use as leading risk factors. Although HIV is not prevalent within the Maldives, the report claims travel, work and education abroad open opportunities for transmission.

The Maldives also has the world’s highest divorce rate, indicating a high rate of shared partners within the country. Without any formal sexual education in schools and a general stigma around purchasing a condom, the basic defenses against HIV transmission are low.

The report also cites drug use as a risk factor for two reasons. “Drug users may resort to selling sex to earn money, and injecting drug users (IDUs) may share needles/syringes.”

In Awareness, the Maldives scored in the middle-range. While 99 percent of Maldivians polled had heard of HIV/AIDS and 91 percent knew at least one mode of HIV transmission, only 50 percent said condoms can protect against HIV and 34 percent did not know that a healthy looking person can carry the virus.

Currently, the government and independent organisations provide support and awareness within the Maldives. The National AIDS Council, established in 1987, oversees the National AIDS Program (NAP) which coordinates and monitors a multi-sectoral response to the issue.

United Nations’ Development Program (UNDP) is also running a project, active in the Maldives until 2012, with several local NGOs. It aims to support preventative efforts and improve treatment.

Among the conclusions drawn in WHO’s 2011 report on Asia are:

  • Cambodia was the only country to achieve universal ART access
  • 39 percent infected children had access to paediatric HIV treatment
  • 49 percent of people living with HIV are in India
  • Infections among children declined by 23 percent in Asia, but increased by 31 percent in East Asia
  • Asia’s death toll from AIDS-related causes in 2010 was the largest outside sub-Saharan Africa; approximately 310,000 people died
  • Half of the 4.5 million people in Asia who inject drugs live in China
  • Homosexual transmission is highest among men in Indonesia, India and Myanmar

Officials at the Ministry of Health and Family and WHO Maldives were unavailable for comment at time of press.


Women leading youth brain drain due to “stifling environment”

“There is a lot of brain drain here, that’s part of why I came back. I didn’t want to be a brain drainer. I wanted to fix it.”

Halifa* is a 25 year-old Maldivian woman, educated and living abroad, who returned to work in the Maldives for a one year contract in a highly specialised professional field.

For many young people, Halifa says, Maldivian culture is an obstacle to growth and employment.

“Many youth wish they weren’t even Maldivian, they don’t know why they had to get stuck here,” she says. “When I talk to one of my friends, she says she wants to get out and come back when it’s better. That attitude is actually quite common.”

The Maldives has an unemployment rate of 32 percent, with women accounting for 24 percent overall. Young people comprise 40 percent of the population of the capital Male’. Of these youth, few females hold diplomas and many are unemployed.

“Lots of girls quit school to get married, and before long they’re having kids and trying to raise a family aged 19 or 20,” Halifa says.

For those who do look for jobs, the options are few.

“Most bosses hire for looks,” says Halifa. “Girls are often hit on by bosses, and some give in. Maybe they think they can handle it if it will improve their CV. But after the relationship, most girls leave the job and maybe take up the burqa. The experience may be so bad that they won’t look for another job.”

Growing religious fundamentalism is causing ripples of concern over female employment – although the Constitution allows for equal rights, few stand up for them. Instead, women increasingly accept a “culture of timidity and submissiveness,” in the words of another Maldivian woman, who is pursuing her doctorate.

It is a significant time for the strengthening of Maldivian democracy following the introduction of multi-party elections and many new freedoms. But it seems that women are both dissuaded from and reluctant to participate in the job sector. Frustrated by social, political and religious obstacles, youth are looking to apply themselves elsewhere. Is the Maldives facing a female brain drain?

“The ultimate goal is to raise an educated housewife”

A 2007 UNICEF report found that girls were almost 10 percent more likely to pass from primary to secondary schooling than boys, and repeated primary school less often. But sources say fewer girls are fulfilling their potential.

A government official who spoke to Minivan News said that many women lose their motivation to pursue higher education at grade 11, choosing marriage instead. The official said things are changing, but opportunities remain scarce for both genders.

“I think what women lack really is higher education, and men as well. If we want to move ahead, we need to focus on providing higher education,” she says.

Cost and accessibility contribute to the low achievement rates. Higher education is expensive by Maldivian standards, and the wait for scholarships is demoralising, says Halifa. Students who study abroad are often from wealthy families, and therefore not selected for their intelligence or ambition.

Halifa adds that Maldivian culture does not justify the effort of getting a degree: “Education is valuable in the Maldives, everyone wants their kids to have degrees. But then what do they do? They still expect them to be at home.”

According to an Asian Development Bank (ADB) report dated 2007, Maldivian cultural standards make it difficult for girls to pursue professional degrees.

“Cultural expectations regarding young women living away from home impact upon the numbers of female students studying abroad and hence female attainment of tertiary qualifications. From 1995 to 2000 a total of 876 students were awarded government scholarships to study abroad, 42% of which went to girls. From 2001 to 2005, 39% of undergraduate scholarships went to girls, 38% of post-graduate scholarships and 22% of doctorate scholarships.”

The Maldivian parliament has 77 members, only five of whom are female. MP for the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), Eva Abdulla, said the lack of higher education affects a woman’s chances in the job sector.

“It is difficult for women to get the education necessary to compete with men of the same age for the same job. Statistics show that women are receiving less education than men after tenth grade, whereas up until secondary school they are on par.”

Abdul said the pressure to stay home and become a mother was significant. She also acknowledged that a woman’s path to employment is unclear.

“Equality in the work force and equal opportunities for women won’t happen naturally if we just improve education. We need to make some real changes to show an improvement in the ratio of men to women in the work force,” she said.

In some cases, however, employers see education as a threat instead of an asset. Halifa’s boss allegedly told her she was lucky to be hired with a degree. Since the boss only held a diploma, she preferred hiring employees whose qualifications did not jeopardise her own.

“Cover up and wear the burqa”

Halifa says her boss made unflattering assumptions about her personal life since she was over 20 and unmarried.

“I was guilty before I even knew I was being judged,” she says.

There is “not one single resource” for women who feel they are receiving unfair treatment at work, said Abdulla. “I don’t know if we have even made it comfortable for women to talk to each other here.”

Halifa adds that complaints of sexual harassment only provoke criticism of her religious practice: “They just tell me to cover up more and wear the burqa,” she says.

Although Maldivian law and society allow for equal rights between genders, speaking out is considered brash and unfeminine, and the cultural mindset of wearing the burqa means more girls are being married young without finishing their education. One woman called this shift in behavior “brain wastage: a deliberate refusal to apply the brains that one has – and this is the biggest problem that Maldivian women face today.”

Behind the pack

“Gender equality is an area in which the Maldives is lagging behind most countries in achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs),” UNDP advisor Ferdinand von Habsburg-Lothringen observed at the Democracy Day ceremony earlier this month. “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.”

According to Abdulla, women want to work but cannot find the domestic support necessary for them to work outside the home.

“I have not met many who say they would rather stay home,” she said. “But the pressure of managing a career and a home is serious. Women have two jobs: one paid, one unpaid.”

The stress on women is detrimental to economic growth.

ADB reports that almost half of Maldivian households are headed by women, while less than four percent of men contribute to household tasks. Approximately 25 percent of women-headed households depend on income from a husband who works away from home, and one sixth are run by widows or divorcees.

“Divorced women and their children are particularly economically vulnerable and [have] limited choices to improve their situation apart from remarrying: Maldivian women have on average four marriages by the time they reach 50 years of age,” states the report.

In 2007, ADB found that female-headed households accounted for 47 percent of the population, one of the highest rates worldwide. Only 21 percent of these households were economically active.

A government official familiar with the issue said “the middle market is the primary area of employment for women”, with few women advancing to the top. She added that she is often the only woman at a business meeting.

Most sources agreed that the recent rise in religious fundamentalism could have a long-term effect on women’s employment prospects.

In 2009, opposition Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) MP Rozaina Adam introduced the Soft Loans Provision for Women to enable women to borrow small amounts of money and set up small businesses from home. She said the bill would particularly benefit island women who have fewer employment options.

The bill was stopped when it reached the Islamic Ministry, which declared interest haram.

“This is ridiculous, because our banks operate with interest,” Adam said. “But when interest involves women the Ministry calls it haram. And it’s only a tiny amount of interest, about six percent maximum.”

Adam said the loans provided by the bill would range from Rf5,000 to Rf300,000.

“Unless we do something about the growing religious fundamentalism in the Maldives, women will only stay at home and breed children in the coming years. That is not constructive for a growing country and economy. It would be a major economic setback,” said Adam.

“We are a country in transition so what happens during this time defines what happens next.”

Women face many challenges to employment: complicated social expectations, unclear motives for education, an increasingly strict Islamic code, and scrutinising work environments. If current social trends continue, there will be little room and few incentives for the next generation to contribute to the country’s growth.

“Educated Maldivians find themselves intellectually stifled in the current climate, especially with the astonishing gains that ultra-religious conservatives have made in Maldivian society in the last decade,” observed one source.

At this year’s 55th session of the Commission on the Status of Women, Abdulla said gender stereotyping and violence “threaten[ed] to erode our gains and erect obstacles to future progress.” She warned that unless key institutions such as Parliament include more women in their decision-making processes, “policies will continue to lack the multifaceted approaches required to address the complex social, political and economic needs of our country.”

Recent initiatives such as the Domestic Violence Bill and the National University Act are positive steps. But Abdulla said evidence suggests more families are removing girls from education systems and keeping them in the domestic circuit. “We believe that religious extremism that shapes negative attitudes towards women and girls forms the genesis of this devolution towards female education and empowerment,” Abdulla said at the session.

One woman warned that if religious and social trends continue, “in ten years women would be lucky to leave the house, let alone the country.”

Although most sources agreed that religious fundamentalism challenges the thinking, working woman, some say it is not actively preventing women from going to work or improving their lot.

Halifa is optimistic about her generation, but said success depends on key changes. “I think when our generation is in charge they will be people who have gotten out, who have seen other cultures, who are more familiar with the power of women. The religious guys are still an issue for development,” she says.

One government source added that compared to Mexicans, Maldivians do not have a strong urge to cross a border.

Adam cautioned that the Maldives should be aware of the outside world’s appeal to youth. “If we can’t offer challenging jobs and salaries that are competitive with what other countries are offering, we have a hard time keeping our educated youth involved at home,” she said.

Abdulla says she believes that there would be significant opportunities for youth in the government and private sectors in the next five years, but felt that more needed to be done to improve the working environment.

“Equality in the work force and equal opportunities for women won’t happen naturally if we just improve education,” she said. “We need to make some real changes to show an improvement in the ratio of men to women in the work force.”

*Name changed according to request


Scale of Maldives drug use and addiction uncertain: UNICEF

Many Maldivians are still failing to understand the difference between drug abuse and addiction, with the full scale of narcotics use in the country yet to come to light, UNICEF’s resident representative said today.

The comments by Zeba Tanvir Bukhari were made during the launch of a new toll-free helpline for local people and communities affected by the trade of illegal drugs in the country.

Speaking this morning at a ceremony at Dharubaaruge  to unveil the hotline, alongside representatives from the Ministry of Health and Family and President Mohamed Nasheed, Bukhari said that EU-funded programme was designed to offer drug users support in trying to overcome addiction.

“The helpline will be able to tell if one has an addiction problem or not. Most people are not able to substantiate between abuse and addiction,” she said. “The information provided by the helpline will be highly effective for enabling many to recognise the symptoms [of addiction] in order to seek proper relief measures. It can help in referring people to an intervention programme for drug abuse and HIV/AIDs-related treatment, support and care.”

The launch of the toll-free service coincided with the International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking and represents a collaboration between the UN, the EU, Maldivian health authorities, local telecoms providers like Wataniya and the government.

The service, which can be accessed by dialling the number 1410 locally, was inaugurated by President Nasheed who spoke with a counsellor via a video screen during today’s promotional launch event.

Outside of the hotline launch, the president has vowed to crackdown on the country’s illegal narcotics trade in a week that has seen police arrested a suspected high-profile drugs kingpin.  This pledge was itself followed by local media  reports of further security crackdowns on shipments at the Maldives’ main shipping ports by the armed forces.

As part of attempts to try and help tackle drug issues at both international and community level, Unicef Resident Representative Bukhari said that although the new helpline would actively try and provide assistance for Maldivians struggling with the effects of drug use, it would be open to anyone who was concerned with issues relating to potential addiction.

“The helpline can guide an individual through specific problems such as avoiding risk factors that that can pose a relapse. The helpline isn’t only for problem drug users, but for co-dependents, family and friends or professionals seeking support in other forms,” she added.

Scale of the problem

According to statistics from a UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) study released just last week, 210 million people aged between 15 to 64 years of age –almost five per cent of the world’s population – were believed to have tried illegal drugs or other “illicit” substances at least once during 2010.

Although official figures are not presently available regarding drug use and levels of addiction in the Maldives, Bukhari claimed that the first ever scientifically rigorous drug-use study to be conducted in the Maldives was currently underway. Once published, she said the report was expected to provide a true picture of the scale of drug dependency facing people aged between 15 to 64 living in the country.