Source: Deviant Art
‘Globally, one in three women will be raped, beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused in her lifetime’
(Heise, L., Ellsberg, M., and M. Gottemoeller 1999)
It was during December of the year we just bid adios to, that the news of a woman named Ziyadha Naeem from Gaaf Dhaal Atoll Thinadhoo made the headlines. While details that emerged were scantily few, her 40-year old husband was arrested on charges of sexual abuse while Ziyadha lay in the Intensive Care Unit of the state run Indhira Gandhi Memorial Hospital, fighting for her life. Doctors fearful of her critical condition denied the permission for Ziyadha to be airlifted out of country to seek treatment from abroad. Ziyadha finally succumbed to her injuries and passed away on the 28th of December.
Details of her injuries are indicative of severe abuse via a sharp object, having rendered her unable to walk properly. Ziyadha sought medical care from the regional hospital in her island 20 days after she sustained the injuries according to news sources. By the time she had traveled to the capital Male’, and sought the attention of a doctor well known in the Maldivian gynecology circles, it had already been too late. Ziyadha’s husband and his family meanwhile denies the charges, carrying out their own version of PR for the 40 year old who till today remains under police custody. Ziyadha had sustained her injuries all by herself, if her husband’s family are to be believed.
Ziyadha – Same Story, Different Victim
Ziyadha’s story is nothing new on the large scale of violence sexual and otherwise that are faced by women all over the country. A study carried out in Maldives on Women’s Health and Life Experiences by the UNFPA, UNICEF and WHO, in coordination with Ministry of Gender and Family back in 2007 reveals alarming statistics of how widespread a “disease” violence against women is in Maldives.
According to the report, 1 in 3 women aged 15-49 have experienced physical and/or sexual violence at some point in their lives. While 19.5% of the women aged 15-49 indicated that the violence that they had experienced had come from an intimate partner, 29.2% of women in the same age bracket had reported experiencing emotional abuse by a partner at least once. While intimate partner violence seems to be more widespread in the atolls, aka rural areas than in the capital, non-partner violence such as physical and sexual violence at the hands of male family members seems to be more rampant in Male’.
While the data in itself and what it reveals is disturbing, I believe that it just skims the surface on how widespread physical and emotional violence against women remains in our society. What happened to Ziyadha has come to our attention in various other cases in the past and in recent times.
One needs to look no further than the case of 3-year old Mohamed Ibthihal who died due to injuries sustained at the hands of his 25-year old mother Afiya Mohamed. While many are overwrought with emotion over the brutality that Ibthihal had suffered at the hands of his mother and rightly so, all emotions aside, Afiya herself had been a victim of the nonexistent system of protection afforded to women like her, women who had endured cycles of abuse for so long that it had become a way of life. Years of abuse had finally culminated in an act so horrific that few would, if at all, look beyond what she had done.
Another case, another year. 2010 saw the murder of Hassan Shahid at the hands of his ex-wife Mariyam Nazaha, who was sentenced to life imprisonment in August of 2011. Nazaha’s story was one of a chronic cycle of abuse at the hands of her ex-husband, with witnesses giving statements on how they had seen Shahid abuse Nazaha on occasions. However, none of that factored in on Nazaha’s sentencing carried out by the Criminal Court. She remains behind bars for the foreseeable future.
A different case, a different island. 2012 brought to our attention the case of a 15-year old girl arrested from S. Feydhoo, the southern most atoll in Maldives. Her stepfather who had allegedly being abusing her for years which had resulted in an unwanted pregnancy had been the tipping point which had led to their arrests. She was sentenced to a round of flogging which triggered an international outcry that overturned that particular sentence. However, the fate of this girl is similarly echoed by countless others who are abused in such a vile manner by those that should protect and cherish them through their most vulnerable years. Society frowns upon these victims, believing THEM to be the ones at fault, the loose ones without any morals.
4 cases of sexual and physical violence against women of different age groups discussed here is indicative of several things. One, the system has failed these victims miserably. Two, there exists no safe haven for either girls or women of sexual and physical abuse. Three, government seems to lack the political will to tackle such a widespread and rampant social issue that is eroding away the very fabric of our society.
Current System – Lacking in Too Many Ways to Count
2012 saw the ratification of the Domestic Violence Bill which declared all acts of domestic violence as a punishable crime and afforded protection and safety to victims of such violence amongst the wide range of areas covered in the bill. However, zooming in on Ziyadha’s case brings forth the lack of an Evidence Bill that would aid the prosecution of the case against her husband.
Since Ziyadha presented herself to the medical institution 20 days after she sustained the injuries, it would only be secondhand testimonies of the doctors who had attended to her as well as those that she had divulged to what had happened to her that would be sole basis of the case if I am not mistaken. There is however news circulating that Ziyadha’s body is to be sent abroad for postmortem which might yield better clues as to what happened that fateful day. Questions remain however on how would one prove that she had sustained her injuries from the hands of her husband, from whom she had been living separately by then. I am no lawyer, so I will leave it up to the legal experts to sort that out and talk about it, if they may.
The community of Thinadhoo echoes sentiments of the lonesome life that had been Ziyadha’s. The fact that it was the norm for people to approach her to relate stories of the exploitative lifestyle that had been her husband’s. Having married him against the wishes of Ziyadha’s own parents, Ziyadha suffered largely in silence. Her husband’s comfortable income had never materialized to alleviate the poor living conditions that Ziyadha had been subjected to. The alleged injuries had taken place according to sources when Ziyadha had gone to seek her husband on matters of textbooks and such required for the upcoming school year. Instead, she left this world, leaving her 3 children behind, bereft of a mother and a father who perhaps given the unjust system in place, might just walk away a free man.
Chronic Domestic Violence – Indicative of Total Abysmal System Failure
Ziyadha’s case carries with it the hallmarks of cases similar in nature. For a country that boasts of 97.3% in the ratio of female to male primary enrollment figures (as per World Bank’s data on Maldives for 2013), the lack of awareness afforded to the youth on certain issues stems from the incomplete education system in place. Certain “sensitive” issues are excluded from the education curriculum altogether because of fear of reprisals from the more conservative in the society.
Sex education, which is equated with students being exposed to pornographic elements in the eyes of those that believe it would only promote promiscuity, indicates the fact that they themselves lack the awareness so much so that that they miss the point by a mile when it comes to importance of inclusion sex education in the curriculum. It can be tailored to meet the needs of our society – doesn’t have to be the suite that the Western education system wears.
But one can only go that far by actually realizing and accepting the importance of such a subject in the curriculum at a particular point in time. Sex education is about advising on practicing safety, about the choices each of us have, especially females, and knowing how to identify when you are being exploited by someone you have to trust; all important factors towards creating awareness amongst youth of both sexes to promote the idea of respecting each others choices among other things.
One cannot talk on an issue of this nature without addressing the sheer failure of the Maldivian health system that is in place. We as Maldivians experience the total lack of adequate medical care and assistance in the country, so much so that it is common for families to go on medical “holidays” with all their savings in tow because we know that the entire system is a mockery to the people of the country. No government that has come and gone, including incumbent President Yameen’s administration has been able to tackle the wicked problem that is the Maldivian healthcare system. Ziyadha’s inability to secure the kind of treatment that was required for her injuries, apart from the fact that she waited too long without seeking treatment, is indicative of the lack in the healthcare as well.
Come to the point of law enforcement, I still keep questioning as to why they didn’t question Ziyadha when she would have been able tell her side of the story. Maybe I am missing something, but none of the details that have appeared in the news sources seem to indicate what happened between the time of her being admitted at the hospital and when she succumbed to the coma owing to a hemorrhage in her brain. Worried family members had indicated that they were not at all satisfied by the lackluster efforts being showed by the Maldivian Police Service in investigating the case further. Ziyadha’s family worry, and rightly so, that the husband might just walk away, unscathed.
Focusing on the executive, one sees the lack of political will on the part of the administration to tackle social issues of importance. Because solving issues as complex as that of prevalent abuse and establishing formal institutions in place that can work to thwart and address these issues, won’t show up as boldly on the Maldivian skyline as a bridge between Male’ and Hulhumale’ would. Nor would it garner the support of the “youth” that this administration “wins” every time they inaugurate a futsal pitch in a corner of some island somewhere.
The fact that “Gender” itself is an area that is shuffled and re-shuffled every time a cabinet reshuffle takes place is indicative of the failure of the administrative agencies in place to cater to this particular area. It is most often than not, areas that specifically deal with the marginalized and at risk members of the society that gets booted and placed under a “new” administration that more or less makes the same mistakes as the previous one.
The budget that trickles down to these areas are significantly lower when compared to those granted to independent institutions that aren’t responsible for providing social services as such. The abysmal failure of the administration lies in being unable to or not being interested enough to address and strengthen these key areas of the government that require adequate funding and robust management in order for them to be able to carry out their tasks in creating awareness and also their duties in relation to the prevention as well as addressing the needs of the victims of violence as discussed here.
One cannot forget the sheer atrocity that has become of our judiciary system when talking about abuse of this nature. Injustice leaks out of the very pores of the entire justice system; no one in their right minds would equate our courts as ones that are just and able. Stories of how women who seek to be divorced from their abusive husbands, who in turn are commanded by the esteemed judge to “try and work things out and return if not”, which means going back home with the abuser; are ones that are far too common for peace of the mind. Most of the time these women are dependent financially on the husband, and adding children to the mix makes the situation more precarious than for a single woman.
Fact that women get labeled as loose and immoral for talking about what goes on in their marriage, the violence they are subjected to which many believe should be part of upholding the sanctity of ones marriage, is a notion that has to be done away with. There is also the point where court officials are seldom discrete about what goes on in within the four walls of the court premises. The more juicy the “gossip”, the better these stories are to relate to friends, which then spreads like wildfire across the society, because ours is a close knit one. The chauvinism on blatant display when it comes to certain judges at these proceedings is another reason that the system fails to recognize and address the abuse these women are subjected to.
It is the failure of the legislature that the Evidence Bill remains collecting dust on one of the shelves at the Parliament House. Few, if seldom raise these issues, the government aligned members too busy trying to keep their proverbial balls from chafing against President Yameen’s swift reprisal that would come if they don’t dance to his tune. Meanwhile, the members of the “opposition” remain in a deadlock, unable to push through the issues that they deign to bring to the forefront, because the government aligned MPs reign majority over the Parliament and push back anything of importance to the people that might land in one of their committees.
Where do we go from here?
The UNFPA report of 2007 in its conclusion recommended 5 broad areas that needs addressing in order to tackle the issues at hand. Strengthening national commitment and action is the first and foremost, without which no governmental plan or action can achieve its intended objectives. This includes strengthening the management of the related institutions to providing adequate funding to carry out their activities, inadequate funding to these organizations which I have seen from experience happen far too often.
Promoting primary prevention which includes prioritizing prevention of child sexual abuse and equally importantly reaching out to men to change their behavior are key ares of prominence. This relates back to creating awareness which again means commitments and costs incurred by the government for these ventures. As much as it might seem to the elected officials that these funds would be better spent in building infrastructure, if the social fabric of the society lies in tatters when all is said and done, there would be little need for skyscrapers to show the glory that is Maldives.
Strengthening the health sector response is of course highlighted which also includes the very important aspect of enhancing the capacity of mental health care, an area that most wouldn’t touch because once again, it is a topic that is seldom talked about in the country.
Supporting women living with violence through formal institution through means of legal advice, counseling and medical care to informal support systems such as family and community networks are highlighted. While NGOs exist in the country that address issues specific to women, I hardly see anything materialize on the ground other than the usual marathon against violence or one color coordinated campaign or the other to mark the “occasions” as required. These merely make a blip on the peoples radars as they have become something of the norm. While the woman next door gets slapped for the umpteenth time by the husband she cowers in fear from, the guy next door walks in after the run that was supposed to be creating awareness and avenues of help for the neighbor suffering at the home adjacent.
Last, but not the least, strengthening the criminal justice response is indicated, which includes training and sensitization on violence against women for all involved in the criminal justice system. I wonder how well such a training would be received when quite recently, prior to the launch of the new penal code, Supreme Court actually barred judges from attending the training sessions held to create awareness on the incoming system. Such is the backwardness of those heading the system which makes one feel hopeless and helpless in the view of anything getting better.
Change; It Starts from Within
I believe, we, as the society have a far more crucial role to play. We are the ones who can rock the boat that the lawmakers stand on, the elected officials who promise us a trip to Mars and back, if we would just place that tick on the piece of paper that affords them a luxurious lifestyle for the succeeding 5 years. WE need to create avenues where we can question our elected members, push them towards achieving what WE want. We need to strategise ways to make even someone who is hard of hearing as our incumbent President know that we, the people, demand better from his administration.
WE need to believe in the change that we want to foster and bring. WE need to change our perspective and outlook on abuse and victims of abuse. WE need to let go of the notion that it is not our business, as long as it doesn’t happen to one of ours. WE need to empathize. WE need to care. Then only the change that WE clamor for will materialize, of course through tough years of hard work to get there.
Maldivian government needs to take preemptive measures before the next Ibthihal or Ziyadha makes the headlines. But with an administration that cares naught what the people think, the hope that remains is one that flickers out too often. I believe that it is WE, the people who can bring the change WE want. And it is WE, the people that need to take that first or even hundredth step for that matter, towards achieving the goal of creating a society that takes care of its vulnerable and affords them security, when they need it the most.
“We must unite. Violence against women cannot be tolerated, in any form, in any context, in any circumstance, by any political leader or by any government.” – Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon