Tagged: gender equality

Violence in the Maldivian family: why does it continue to breed despite the Domestic Violence Prevention Act?


by H Abdulghafoor

Four years ago today, on 23 April 2012, the historic Domestic Violence Prevention Act (DVPA) entered the legal framework of the Maldives. The legislation gave some hope to those advocating preventing domestic violence and gender based violence, which according to available research affect 1 in 3 women in the country at some point in their lives.

Article 34 of the 2008 Constitution of the Maldives provides the fundamental right to every individual to marry and establish a family. It further says that,

The family, being the natural and fundamental unit of society, is entitled to special protection by society and the State.

The DVPA 2012 is among several laws that are intended to provide protection to the most vulnerable in society. It is the only law that specifically works to protect families from the social affliction of violence occurring within families. However, as the old cliché goes, you can take a horse to water but you cannot make it drink.

The family is indeed the fundamental unit of society. It is also where a significant number of the women who are primary carers of children and the elderly (not to mention the men), experience violence in all its forms – physically, psychologically and economically. The primary perpetrators of violence, as research tells us, are disproportionately men. Husbands, fathers, stepfathers and uncles are most common among perpetrators of domestic abuse.

The primary purpose of the DVPA 2012 is to criminalise domestic violence. The law further seeks to do a wide range of things. These include –

providing protection to victims of domestic violence;

to find justice for victims;

to prevent violence and rehabilitate perpetrators;

to increase stakeholder awareness about domestic violence to increase their competency to address the issue;

to identify civil and criminal liabilities of offenders and also,

to “comply with international standards for the prevention of domestic violence and to apply and enforce relevant principles of justice in accordance with such standards”.

The DVPA 2012 provides a comprehensive definition of what a “domestic relationship” is, clarifying the circumstances in which the law is applicable. These include connection through marriage, sharing the same residence, being related through parenthood or guardianship, connection through domestic service as well as those in an intimate relationship. In the Maldives, research has shown that 1 in 5 women experience physical or sexual violence from an intimate partner. Intimate partner violence is a debilitating form of violence from which many women are unable to escape. A vivid case in point among recent incidents is the sickening and brutal fatal assault by an estranged husband against his wife in Gaaf Dhaal Thinadhoo in December 2015.

The DVPA specifies 17 different acts of domestic violence ranging from physical and psychological violence to economic deprivation and property damage. Intimidation, harassment, stalking, coercion, confinement without consent, enforced impregnation to deter spousal separation as well as exposing a minor to acts of domestic violence are among notable acts criminalised by the law. However, the extent to which these definitions are helping to reach convictions or to apprehend perpetrators of abuse is questionable.

The Family Protection Authority (FPA) is an independent entity created by the DVPA. While Article 68 of the law says that the law will come into force with immediate effect upon publication in the Government Gazette, it took the government nearly six months to physically establish the FPA – and even then, on a shoestring. The Authority has yet to become fully functionally effective, being under-staffed and significantly under-funded, which is a pervasive issue afflicting the social services sector in the Maldives. In its initial few years, the FPA’s programming work was almost entirely funded by external donors such as UN agencies. For a country as rich with tourism dollars as the Maldives, it is a telling indicator of poor prioritisation and weak governance that the Maldivian State is unable to provide “special protection” to the family as the Constitution demands.

It is uncommon in the Maldives for laws to highlight the necessity for budgetary allocation. However, Article 55 of the DVPA specifically instructs the People’s Majlis to ensure that adequate funding is provided to implement the law by providing the necessary resources to relevant authorities such as the FPA and the police services. Nevertheless, the failure of the People’s Majlis and the government to uphold the law is amply evident in the resource-poor state of the FPA. In 2014, the FPA requested a budget of MVR 9.9 million of which MVR 2.3 million was facilitated. In 2015, the FPA applied for a budget of MVR 8.1 million of which MVR 4.6 million was facilitated. However, the authority was only able to expend 85% of its 2015 allocation due to government imposed restrictions on its expenditure.

As the oversight authority to ensure the implementation of the law, the FPA is assigned a sweeping mandate under Articles 52 and 53 of the DVPA. Despite minimal resources, the FPA has managed to exist and remain a credible entity due to the commitment of the team of young staff at the Authority, who are assisted by a supportive Board. The challenges faced by the FPA are vastly disproportionate to the level of State support the Authority receives. In its 2015 Annual Report, the FPA observed the following challenges to its work:

challenges to implement its mandate to raise public awareness due to inadequate resources including staff and funding

challenges to provide the necessary services to victims of violence and support them to productively participate in society due to lack of technical expertise

challenges to provide counselling services to support perpetrator rehabilitation due to lack of technical expertise.

FPA reports that in 2015, a total of 438 cases of domestic violence were reported to the Authority. These include 352 cases against women, 122 cases against men and 2 cases against the unborn child. What is clearly evident is that each year, the number of cases reported to the FPA has increased dramatically, from 19 cases in 2013, to 149 cases in 2014 to 438 cases in 2015. The inability of the government to provide resources to the FPA is indicative of a policy level disconnect with the reality of the prevalence of domestic violence in the Maldives.

Another sobering reality is that domestic violence cases rarely reach prosecution stage following investigation. One of the biggest challenges for prosecution is that victims of abuse often retract their statements after lodging complaints. They often do not want to pursue their claim for complex reasons, sometimes due to family situation and sensitivity to associated social stigma; economic dependency on the perpetrator; fear of reprisal as well as lack of confidence in the available protection services. In the Women’s Vision Report produced by UNDP in 2014, close to 75 percent of respondents rated domestic violence as their topmost personal concern from a list of twelve issues. Fourth on the list, with 56 percent was the challenge of accessing justice.

In May 2015, the criminal court fined a man MVR 200.00 (USD 13.00) for assaulting his wife and inflicting grievous bodily harm. To put this in perspective, the fine for a first time parking offence in Malé currently stands at MVR 250.00 (USD 16.00). At that time, domestic violence cases were being prosecuted using the old Penal Code of 1966, an obsolete law which has now been superseded by the new Penal Code which came into force in July 2015. Domestic violence issues do not take a linear route and prosecution of cases depends on several factors. The DVPA is fundamentally a law designed to prevent the occurrence of domestic violence and some would consider it a shortcoming of the law that it does not dwell on punitive measures. However, Article 35 of the DVPA specifies fines for persons who breach the conditions of Protections Orders, with a first time offence carrying a six month jail sentence or a fine not exceeding MVR 15,000.00. This cumulatively increases to three or more offences, carrying a three year jail sentence or a fine not exceeding MVR 50,000.00. Whether this clause of the DVPA has ever been used is not known at the time of writing. With the arrival of the new Penal Code, it is anticipated that prosecution is better equipped to seek just remedies for victims of domestic violence through the courts. It is once again, a weakness in the system that data is not available in the public domain on case prosecution of domestic violence incidents specifically.

The DVPA entrusts a duty of care to healthcare professionals to report suspected cases of domestic violence. However, it is notable that some doctors observe that this requirement is in conflict with their professional requirement to protect patient confidentiality. Such attitudes indicate a lack of understanding by health professionals of the law, its intent and the much broader problem domestic violence is in Maldivian society. FPA reports that in 2014, there were no reported cases of domestic violence to the Authority, from the largest tertiary hospital in Maldives, the Indhira Gandhi Memorial Hospital (IGMH) in Malé. In 2015, the IGMH reported just 2 cases to the FPA. This is despite the fact that the vast majority of cases, a striking 66% of cases reported to the FPA in 2015, are from Malé.

The picture is the same with other health service providers. In order to address this knowledge gap among health professionals and health service providers, efforts are being made by the Health Protection Authority to inform and educate the health sector about their legal responsibility to respond to the issue of domestic violence. A compounding factor is the belief in Maldivian society, which clearly affects the behaviour of health professionals too, that violence against women is acceptable and permissible as per certain religious beliefs held by individuals. The law however, does not tolerate violence in any circumstance and specifies that duty bearers within the police, healthcare providers and the courts among others, must act to prevent and stop domestic violence.

One of the most important violence prevention tools provided in the DVPA is the instruction to the courts to provide Protection Orders to prevent acts of domestic violence. Article 18(c) of the DVPA states that “the fundamental objective of a protection order is to ensure the physical and psychological protection of the victims or potential victims of domestic violence, and to ensure their health and rights are protected and preserved.” Nevertheless, in the 2014 Annual Report of the FPA, the authority observed that most magistrates’ courts in the country do not have the form to issue a protection order. Such basic administrative short-comings malign the implementation of this important law to families, constitutionally entitled to “special protection by society and the State”.

A further barrier to the implementation of the DVPA is the alleged reports by implementing stakeholders that in some cases, magistrates refuse to issue Protection Orders as they perceive it to be “un-Islamic”. It is a fundamental flaw in the judicial system when a judge is allowed to choose which article of which law to apply at whim, based on personal beliefs. According to FPA, a total of six Protection Orders were issued in 2013, 12 in 2014 and 15 in 2015 in the entire country. The vast majority of these orders were issued by the Family Court in Malé. In the magistrates’ courts, a total of four Protection Orders were issued over this three year period. While the Protection Order is a critical component of the DVPA, the challenges to its implementation put women and families at risk of life-long trauma and entrapment in the cycle that domestic violence breeds.

The DVPA took time and effort to be brought into existence, to provide essential and worthy protections to safeguard the family. The law seeks to stop the dysfunction of violence happening within these fundamental building blocks of society. It seeks to break the cycle of violence afflicting families, often across generations. The will to fund and support the implementation of the law, however, is virtually non-existent. The reality of domestic violence in all its abhorrent forms runs insidiously in Maldivian society, frequently making disturbing news headlines. In many instances, mostly unreported, key stakeholders choose to dismiss the law, ignoring the professional and civic responsibility of its mandate, almost as though their individual beliefs can be held above the law. A system of accountability is yet to be established to ensure that law enforcement is adequately practiced by those mandated by the law. A system to ensure the effective implementation of the DVPA to protect the fundamental unit of society is taking far too long in becoming a reality, four years into its ratification.

The situation leaves room to say that when it comes to preventing domestic violence in the Maldives, the proverbial horse has been taken to the water. It simply refuses to drink.

The status of women in Maldivian society

by H Abdulghafoor

He took a mouthful of water and sprayed her face with his spit – at close range.

That is the action of the male Parliamentary Group (PG) Leader of the governing Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) against the female Deputy Leader of the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), in the People’s Majlis of the Maldives on 24 February 2016.

The incident took place during a formal meeting of the Majlis that was broadcast live to the public.

This image exemplifies the condition of men and their attitude towards women in the current social context of the Maldives.

She reacted instinctively by taking a nearby glass of water and throwing it in his face. In that split second, the expression on his face showed his realisation that he had been brought down to the ground by a woman, in front of his male colleagues in the male dominated Majlis, where only 5 of the 85 members are women. That momentary come-down can be interpreted as a small victory for any woman degraded and attacked by a man in such a way.

Personal beliefs play a critical role in what people choose to do, or not do. Such beliefs shape their behaviour towards others. As a commentator in a news article about the incident responded – “How would Nihan react to a woman who argued with him if there were no cameras around? …. I feel sorry for his wife”. This is a valid point because the behaviour of men towards women in the public arena is very likely a reflection of attitudes and actions that may be practised in their private lives.

A strong perception of the inherently unequal status of men and women in Maldivian society is well established through the age-old system of patriarchy. It is also solidified through a questionable, perceived religious position that requires the elevation of men to a higher place from where they may rule over the lives of women. Religious sermons have provided a variety of explanations to uphold such a position. It will not do justice to the multiplicity of messages the Friday Sermon provides if one or two points are randomly taken. Nevertheless, it is useful for the purpose of this discussion, to try and provide a relevant and notable example. On 22 January 2016, the Friday Sermon said :

Muslim brothers! The husband is the person who has the highest level of responsibility to look after the family. He has the highest responsibility on all matters of the family. The husband has the highest responsibility to look after his wife. On matters relating to children too, the highest responsibility falls on the husband. [unofficial translation]

Notable also is the generally overlooked fact that the Friday sermon consistently addresses a male audience of “brothers”. In the Maldives where the State religion is Islam, the contents of the Friday sermon is produced and disseminated nationally by the government.

The extent to which men uphold the above State endorsed, perceived religious ideal is questionable. The lived reality of Maldives is that the country has the highest rate of female headed households in the world at 47% and has held the dubious record of the highest divorce rate in the world. The common practice of triple talaq (or verbal triple divorce) by the husband was only outlawed by the introduction of the Family Act in 2000, alongside the incomplete arrangement to partially establish the age of marriage at 18 years. Granted, these are developments towards a greater degree of social responsibility and accountability within the family. However, the degree to which they help to achieve stability and peace in the family and beyond, is open to debate in the prevailing context.

Two days prior to the spitting incident, on 22 February 2016, the Peoples’ Majlis held its first discussion on the newly submitted, first ever draft legislation on gender equality in the Maldives. The gender equality law (GEL) was submitted to the Majlis by Asma Rasheed, the only female MP in the Majlis representing the majority party PPM. As the PG group leader, MP Nihan endorsed the GEL with supportive fervour on the Majlis floor. That endorsement and his retrograde public behaviour towards his female colleague just two days later, was a moment which showed the public that a mask of deep hypocrisy had slipped and exposed what lay behind.

On 11 March 2015, allegations emerged from MDP MP Rozaina Adam that PPM MP Riyaz Rasheed had threatened to rape her and this threat was reported by MDP as being directed at both MP Rozaina and MP Mariya Didi, inside the parliament’s chambers. According to MP Rozaina, formal complaints were submitted to the Speaker of the People’s Majlis about these threats in March 2015, and also the recent attack against her by MP Nihan in February 2016. To date, she informs that she has received no responses to either of these serious complaints. There are no reports of any investigation or disciplinary measures being taken against these parliamentarians for such harassment of female colleagues in the workplace, in a public institution like the parliament.

During the parliamentary discussion of the GEL on 22 February, MP Mariya Didi provided some telling insights into the general attitude of male MPs towards female colleagues. She said

We see how female members are treated in this Majlis. Many a day, we see inside this Majlis, the only female MP in PPM’s parliamentary group coming to us after their PG meeting, with tears pouring from her eyes because of the way she is spoken to, and because she is not allowed the opportunity by her party to say what she wants. These are things that are happening before our eyes. [unofficial translation]

Harassment of women in the workplace is a particularly neglected area of continuing gender-based oppression in the Maldives. It is a clear sign of human under-development, and a serious absence of a civilising force within the education, human resource development and employment sectors.

The absence of accountability is one of the fundamental gaps that maintain this damaging status quo. An important high profile case in point is that of workplace harassment allegations made against the former President of the Civil Service Commission (CSC), Mr Mohamed Fahmy Hassan. The following summary of events from May 2012 to November 2015 tells a story of patriarchal impunity.

In the above case, a female junior employee made the unusually bold move to report a case of sexual harassment against her by a senior male employee of the State, in a position of great responsibility and authority. The performance of the State machinery to deliver justice can be seen in the unfolding events related to the case. One woman’s plight to seek redress for an injustice suffered had arguably resulted in another injustice to the public purse and the public psyche. Where can a woman go in the Maldives, to seek redress to an injustice done against her? The answer is clear. Nowhere.

Fahmy resign

Women’s protest calling to remove Fahmy from office – 2012. Placard says: “A sexual harasser in charge of 27,000 employees – oh my God!”

Today is International Women’s Day.

Women’s rights advocates around the globe are working in solidarity to push humanity towards the one common goal for equality of the sexes. They continue the long and slow uphill struggle to fight patriarchy, the insidious yet visible elephant in the room of human progress, which fights back to deny women their rightful place as equals alongside men.

In the Maldives, advocates work to find and establish spaces for women in the above described situation where the odds are stacked firmly against women. They work in a situation where a man considers it permissible to spit in the face of his female colleague in his workplace which happens to be the country’s parliament. They work in a situation where a male MP can threaten to rape his female colleague, without scrutiny or consequence. They work in a situation where the efforts of the brave woman who makes a stand against sexual harassment in her workplace are washed away by the power of patriarchal “brotherhood”.

Yet, what is assured on this International Women’s Day is that their work will not be stalled or interrupted. The GEL will be fought for and won through the efforts of the rights-minded women and men who work towards this cause, with the same determination that achieved the country’s first Domestic Violence Prevention Act back in 2012. The spirit and commitment which brought the random act of male triple talaq to an end, through the Family Act 2000 is evidently alive and well. These efforts will be supported by the rights-minded citizens who seek the establishment of a more just society. A society in which such legislation will one day bring relief and redress against the excesses, injustices and impunity of the patriarchal “brotherhood”.

Gender equality is a fundamental issue of justice.

It is an issue of social stability, meaningful human coexistence, unity and peace.

To perpetuate inequality and injustice on the basis of one’s sex, which is in fact an accident of birth, is an affront and indignity to human intellect in the 21st century.

Gender equality is the rights way ahead.

It may be the road less travelled, but the one that must be taken.