Last week, the family court in Male registered a marriage between a man in his 20s and a 17-year-old girl. The terrified girl confided to a schoolmate that her family of religious conservatives had pushed her into the marriage and how frightened she had been that her husband might turn out to be really old. Under Maldivian law, any form of coercion would disqualify the marriage but neither the court nor child protection, in this case, seems to have noticed the immense pressures exerted on the girl by her parents.
In the Maldives, a person is legally of age only after he or she is 18 years of age, but a provision allows 16-18 year olds to marry at the discretion of the judge. Family law was introduced to the Maldives in 2001 and judges, to their credit, have used their powers to prevent marriages involving minors. But after 2005, the courts transferred the responsibility to child protection authorities in the ministry of gender and family. Ironically, this only saw a lifting of the restraint on marriages involving children. When questioned by national and international child rights groups, officials attempt to justify the state-condoned child abuse by citing overwhelming religious pressure.
There has been an increase in the number of marriages between older men and under-aged girls in the Maldives. Religious conservatives argue that once a girl attains puberty she is an “adult” and draw on the example of Prophet Muhammed’s marriage to Aisha. Even sheikh Mohamed Shaheem Ali, the state minister for Islamic affairs, is reported to have “approached” a 16-year-old girl for marriage.
In addition, “unregistered marriages” involving girls as young as nine years of age, have taken place across the country in the last couple of years, notably in Himendhoo, in Alif Atoll, and parts of Raa Atoll.
The state has also institutionalized another form of child abuse. According to statistics (see page 75) from the Maldives judiciary, 174 people were convicted of zina or fornication in 2006, and sentenced to public flogging. An overwhelming majority of those sentenced, 146, were women, 19 of who were under 18 years of age. In the same year, seven women, including three minors, were convicted of giving birth out of wedlock.
Usually, the state waits until the under-aged girls it has failed to protect are legally of age, and then subjects them to a cruel and degrading public flogging. Gayoom's government has a well-documented history of complicity in child sexual abuse, but there is no sign that the change of government will protect Maldivian children.
At least one of MDP's candidates for the upcoming parliamentary elections, Ibrahim Manik, who is contesting a Dhaalu Atoll seat, was convicted of sex offense involving a minor. When concerned people contacted the party about it, they were told the candidate would be removed from the party ticket. But at the time of the publishing of this post, he was still on the MDP list of candidates.
Maldivian laws, particularly evidence laws, have been criticised for their failure to protect children from child sexual abuse. With erstwhile abusers poised to become lawmakers, the future looks bleak for Maldivian children.