The Maldives court on Tuesday sentenced a 15 year-old girl to 100 lashes and eight months’ house arrest, for having pre-marital sex with a man.
At any given time in the Maldives, thousands of female tourists are on the country’s beaches in bikinis, with their male counterparts. Many of them are straight and gay couples, married or unmarried, enjoying sex on rose petal-covered beds in water bungalows. For them, this chain of islands with white beaches and blue shimmering waters is a short escape to heaven.
While they enjoy a piece of paradise on a luxury resort vacation, just a few miles away 300,000 locals face the grim reality of a struggling democracy and increasingly radicalised interpretation of Islam.
Women and girls are bearing the brunt of this. Calling it sheer hypocrisy would be a gross understatement.
The 15 year-old girl is from Feydhoo island in Shaviyani Atoll, one of the 200 remote islands in the country with less than a thousand inhabitants. She was arrested last year on the island, when police discovered a dead newborn buried in an outdoor shower area in the yard of the house. The investigation uncovered a disturbing yet common reality in the capital and isolated islands of Maldives: sexual abuse.
The girl’s stepfather had been raping her for years. Her mother assisted this gruesome abuse by turning a blind eye and deaf ear to her pain and cries. When the girl became pregnant as a result of rape, they pulled her out of school afraid that the community would find out the family’s dark secret. They waited patiently for nine months, and killed and buried the newborn after delivery.
Soon after the baby’s body was dug up, the parents were arrested and charged with murder and abuse of a minor.
While any authority with professionalism and common sense would be expected to protect a child who has suffered such horrifying abuse and provide help of a psychologist, the Maldives police and prosecutors had a different plan.
On the contrary, the girl was arrested, interrogated and charged with fornication within a few months by the authorities. They claimed that she had confessed to having consensual sex with another man – not the stepfather. The identity of this man, who has not stood up, been found, arrested or charged to this date, remains a mystery.
And yesterday, despite the ongoing debates challenging the legitimacy in pursuing fornication charges against victims of child sexual abuse, the court issued its ruling to flog the girl 100 times. A conviction against her abusive step father, and neglectful mother is still pending.
This case is just the latest in a series of unashamed attempts by the Maldivian Sharia-Common Law based judicial system to punish sexual abuse victims, instead of providing protection and justice.
While, several in and outside the country are taking to the social media to condemn this ruling as morally wrong, cruel, degrading, and a violation of human rights and protection guaranteed to children and victims of sexual abuse under national and international laws, the police who arrested her, the PG office that charged her and the court which sentenced her have not even flinched.
In fact, shortly after reversing its decision to withdraw the fornication charges, the Prosecutor General stated that they have found “no substantial reason to withdraw the charges” and allowed the trial to continue. They repeatedly emphasised the case is “unrelated to the rape”. Furthermore, both the PG and courts repeatedly defended the decision in media, claiming that there is nothing illegal or wrong in this case.
Under Sharia Law, both men and women – adult and children alike – can be punished with 100 lashes and house arrest if they are found guilty of having pre marital sex or adultery. Of course, the tourists are exempted – they are free to have sex, eat pork or drink alcohol as much as they wish, on islands designated as “uninhabited”.
Flogging is the one remaining Islamic Sharia penalties that continues to be practiced in Maldives, despite the century old moratorium on other Shaira penalties such as stoning, capital punishment and cutting off hands. UN Human Right’s Commissioner Navi Pillay and other international organisation’s calls for the moratorium of flogging have been rejected by current and past governments, amid mass protests from conservative factions of society.
As with any other Sharia offence, fornication is only proved with a confession or four witnesses. Notably, ninety percent of those flogged are women, accordig to the 2011 Judicial statistics report. It revealed that out of the 129 sentenced to 100 lashes, 11 were minors – 10 girls and one boy.
However, in 2010, the parliament passed a legislation to prevent corporal punishment of children in sexual related offences and provide stringent punishments for child abusers, as a response to curb the widespread cases of incest and child molestation in the Maldives: one in seven children is reported to be a victim of sexual abuse. The legislation for the first time paved an easy road for the prosecution of child sexual abuse cases by reducing the Sharia-based burden of proof, which otherwise makes it impossible to prove the sexual offences without a confession or four witnesses.
This legislation, as part of the common law practiced alongside Sharia, set the precedent that no child below 13 can consent to sex and that any sexual relations will be deemed as child abuse. The same law also adds in clause 25 that no child between 13 – 17 can consent to sex either ,”unless proven otherwise”.
It must be noted that hundreds of children have been protected under this law, and several child rapists and abusers have been put behind bars for decades since it came into effect. However, in this specific case, the authorities report that the girl confessed to having consensual sexual relations, and that therefore it cannot be treated as a case of abuse.
But what is highly questionable is the failure by the state to provide a motive that can justify pressing charges against an abused victim, especially a child, with utter disregard to the mental trauma she has suffered in an endless cycle of abuse.
In the past, the court had sentenced a man for abusing a 16 year-old girl. However, the same girl was sentenced to 100 lashes and house arrest after being found guilty of confessing to having consensual sex with the same man who was found to have abused her. This conflicting ruling, stands out as clear evidence that fornication charges against minors in sexual abuse cases are being pursued by authorities, simply because its legally possible to do so with a confession, regardless of whether the victim is abused or not.
In the face of growing international pressure over such incidents, the government claimed in media that it would review and “correct” laws that victimise young women and minors who have suffered sexual abuse. However, no information was made public of any such attempts apart from this public condemnation.
Another issue worth noting is also the significantly low rape convictions in cases where the rape victim is an adult. Annual judicial statistics report show that in past three years, zero cases of rape have reached a positive verdict. This year alone, three rape cases have been reported,while 1 in 3 women aged between 15 – 49 are found to be victim of physical or sexual abuse – a statistic that is a reminder of a justice system that is failing women in every way possible.
According to Human Rights Lawyer Mohamed Anil, rape is defined as ‘forced fornication’ in the currently practiced outdated laws. The aforementioned legislation provides special provisions in child abuse cases, however, he explained, rape and sexual assault victims aged 18 or above, are denied justice because of the Sharia’s burden of proof – confession of the rapist or four male witnesses – is required to prove fornication, whether forced or consensual.
A state prosecutor once commented that proving rape is “next to impossible” despite the most prudent investigations, because the only two kinds of admissible evidence is never available. Both lawyers have said that this cannot be changed unless the amended penal code – which includes rape as an offence- is passed by the parliament, where it had been stuck for more than half a decade.
Alternatively, the parliament could pass the sexual offences bill submitted by MP Mohamed Nasheed. This bill defines actions to be taken against specific types of sexual offences, including rape, spousal rape, prostitution, sexual trafficking, bestiality and incest etc. While submitting the bill, Nasheed echoed the immense need for an updated legislation to deal with the modern day sexual offences to bridge the shortcomings, especially related to proof and evidence and leniency in the current legal structure.
Meanwhile, in recent years reports of infanticide and baby dumping have increased to alarming levels, as women and underage girls – including those who become pregnant as a consequence of rape – are forced to take desperate measures, such as self-induced abortions, infanticide or leaving babies abandoned. Such was the case with the 15 year old girl in question.
With an unforgiving system and laws stating that is a punishable offence to give birth outside of marriage, driven by a thirst to punish the victims rather than protect them, victims find themselves alone, helpless and forced to remain silent.
These are just a small fraction of the many deep-rooted gender issues in the justice system of Maldives, that ripple outward from the branches of justice system into the entire society.
In her recent visit to Maldives, UN Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers issued a statement in which she commented “all members of the justice system should be sensitised to gender equality and women’s rights to make access to justice a reality for women in the Maldives.”
She also also expressed concern over low representation of women in the judiciary. There are currently no women sitting on the Supreme Court and only eight women sitting in the High Court, the Superior Courts and the Magistrate Courts. It is arguable that the gender issues in the system are arising due to lack of a diverse representation in the court benches and decision-making bodies.
When women and girls are stripped off their dignity and rights for having sex or being raped, it is not an issue that can be simply ignored. Meaningful action is needed by the authorities to remove the gender issues through legal and structural reforms, and prevent the culture of impunity currently enjoyed by sadistic perpetrators such as rapists and child molesters.