It was an image that broke a thousand hearts. A chance encounter with a photographer in the tiny island of Rakeedhoo, Vaavu Atoll, would ensure that three-year-old Mohamed Ibthihaal’s photo, with his piercing sad eyes, would give a face to the tragedy that was about to unfold.
A few weeks after that photo was taken, in January 2015, Ibthihaal was found dead with signs of severe physical abuse, his tiny body riddled with scars old and new. Ibthihaal’s mother Fathimath Afiya was arrested, and confessed to strangling her son in a fit of rage.
The horrific murder shocked the nation, as did reports that local authorities, police and even the Ministry of Gender and Family had been aware of Ibthihaal’s ongoing abuse and yet failed to protect him.
The Maldives Independent contacted the Ministry of Gender and the Family Protection Authority numerous times for this article, but they failed to respond.
— Failures and challenges —
The Human Rights Commission of the Maldives reviewed the case and concluded that authorities were grossly negligent. The Prosecutor General pressed charges against four Gender Ministry staff and the acting police chief from the northern station.
Rakeedhoo Island Councillor Abdulla Rasheed said Gender Ministry officials visited Afiya prior to the murder. “The officials questioned Afiya, who said she would take care of the boy and stop abusing him.”
But there was no follow-up visit.
“He was not living with the mother when our team visited the island. He was in a safe environment,” said Attorney General Mohamed Anil. “But we acknowledge that the situation was not properly monitored afterwards, which resulted in the child being returned to the mother,” SunOnline reported him as saying.
The abuse seemed to have occurred over a long period of time, with the former chief inspector of police Abdulla Satheeh telling media the death was caused by “major injuries” while older scars went unhealed. “Ibthihaal received physical and psychological harm from different individuals on different occasions, for a long period of time,” he said.
During the murder trial, doctors testified that Ibthihaal had wounds on the right ear, inside his mouth, scars all over the body, and some broken ribs. They also observed he was underweight and short for his age. The average weight for a child his age is 12 kilos; Ibthihaal weighed just nine.
“There was gross negligence on the part of the authorities, but individuals involved also have to take responsibility,” says Aminath Nishana*, a former member of staff at the Gender Ministry. She welcomes the charges against the employees involved and says it brought about a mind shift. “Before most people were risk averse, personal liability was an alien concept.”
Nishana sympathises with case workers in the atolls, who are the first point of contact for most victims of abuse. “There is a procedure book now, but what about the training to implement it? A certification course is not enough. Some staff enroll themselves in classes in Malé and study in block modes, yet they might not be given leave on the day of the exam to go to Malé.”
Ahmed Shuzad, who was working in Vaavu Atoll Family and Child Protection Centre at the time of the murder, successfully petitioned the Employment Tribunal that his dismissal was unfair. When the High Court heard his case a three-judge panel agreed with the tribunal’s finding.
“As Shuzad was not provided with the necessary training to oversee such a sensitive case, it cannot be concluded that he was intentionally negligent,” they ruled. The court also noted that the Gender Ministry’s procedures were not made clear to Shuzad.
The geography of the Maldives complicates matters. A big atoll comprising 16 inhabited islands may only have four case workers. Some atolls are known to have just two. “If one case worker calls in sick, it is one person manning an entire atoll,” says Nishana.
The atoll where the murder occurred, Vaavu, is one of the Maldives’ least populous. Just 2,489 people live across five inhabited islands, with 367 people living on Rakeedhoo.
“Case workers don’t have their own means of transport, so they are at the mercy of public transport. If a child is in trouble they have to bring the child with them, feed and look after the child as there are no care workers. It’s difficult to attract qualified candidates, as the pay does not reflect the effort and time that goes into the job. Case workers have to give their own personal numbers, field calls all day, they can’t just switch off after 2 pm.”
She believes more work needs to be done to encourage Maldivians to study psychology and sociology. “The ones that do venture into this field, there is no period of guidance.” In most countries, it is mandatory to work under a supervisor for at least six months before handling cases on their own.
— Slow going —
Despite parliamentarians’ professed outrage, and the formation of a committee to look into Ibthihaal’s case, little has been achieved since the toddler’s death.
“The Child Protection Bill has been pending in parliament for 10 years, while the Juvenile Justice Bill has been pending for 17 years,” laments Muruthala Moosa, managing director of the NGO Advocating the Rights of Children.
Overall, authorities have become more vigilant after the Ibthihaal case, Moosa believes, adding that “negligence is also being taken more seriously as a form of abuse.”
The murder caused a spike in the reporting of abuse. “The case occurred late January, police statistics showed that 39 cases were reported in that month but 103 cases were reported in the month of February.”
However, Moosa thinks more work is needed to ensure lasting changes. “A similar tragedy surfaced in February 2016, a four -year-old girl killed by her mother. The child’s photos were also published in the media, but compared to Ibthihaal’s case public attention and interest failed to generate a similar response.”
Two months after Ibthihaal’s murder, his step-grandfather Ismail Rauf was arrested on suspicion of physically and sexually abusing the child while he was living under the care of his grandmother.
Rauf has a previous conviction of abusing this step-daughter, widely reported to be Afiya, Ibthihaal’s mother. Rauf has since been charged for incest in a separate case.
Satheeh alluded to this when he said that intergenerational violence and state negligence led to Ibthihaal’s death.
A psychologist testified in the murder trial that Afiya suffered from depression. Afiya admitted that she harboured anger towards her son because he was illegitimate.
In its submission to the UN’s Universal Periodic Review, the HRCM had said children born out of wedlock face discrimination in the Maldives, are denied their father’s name, inheritance and child maintenance.
It is not just the physical and sexual abuse of children that tends to be overlooked., there is a broader refusal to take mental health issues seriously. Victims of child abuse — including Afiya herself — often grow up without receiving counseling.
“There is so much stigma over mental health issues. We need better facilities and access to mental healthcare to provide help and support in a timely manner,” Moosa says.
Nishana agrees that, while some progress has been made, “tragic cases like Ibthihaal’s can only be avoided when there is the budget and political will to protect the rights of children. In the Maldives taking care of the most vulnerable people has never been a priority. That needs to change.”
* Names have been changed