*Aishath Ali was able to rush aboard an overcrowded ferry with her life’s belongings in one bag before her family noticed she was gone.
It was too late to stop the 16-year-old from escaping the brutal shackles of home. But, as the boat sailed away from her island, it was too late for Aishath to save her sisters from the ordeal endured at the hands of her mother and the elderly man who stole her childhood.
“I had no option but to leave,” she told the Maldives Independent 11 years later, recalling her mother’s attempts to force her to marry a man almost 50 years her senior. A man who had also raped her multiple times. “I will never set foot on that island again.”
She had turned her back on the trauma, but is haunted once again by the image of her rapist with news of her three younger sisters being abused by him.
— Leaving home —
“Our house was built by *Hussain Farooq. My mother and stepfather tried to sell us off to pay for that. I was 14 when he first abused me,” said Aishath, who is now 28. She is petite, clad head to toe in black and fidgets with a silver ring on her middle finger.
Aishath and her seven siblings belong to the poorest family on the island in southern Gaaf Dhaal atoll, according to residents who spoke with the Maldives Independent. “They would starve if Farooq refused to provide them with food from his shop,” one man said.
The family house is next to the influential businessman’s home in a deserted area on the island and he “can easily enter the girls’ house unobserved by anyone else,” said the same island resident.
Farooq demanded Aishath and her sisters in exchange for helping the family.
But Aishath continued to reject Farooq who, she said, “would beat her up and forbid her from leaving the room.” The last straw was when her school books and uniforms were burned by her mother. Aishath, who had been subjected to three years of sexual, physical and psychological abuse, had had enough.
“She did that just one day before final exams so I silently left home and moved to Malé with the help of an uncle and aunt,” she told the Maldives Independent.
— Sisters trapped —
Aishath, who now works at a major public company, remembers the challenge in getting used to life in the fast-paced capital. She lacked the basic education and experience to get a job and, more importantly, was in desperate need of self-confidence and care.
“I used to cry when my aunt told me to go out. I didn’t know how to be with people. I felt so out of place. But in the end, I started work in a shop and also did my O-Levels,” she said. “I’m also happily married now.”
But, just as she was settling into a more comfortable life in Malé, there came the devastating news that her younger sisters had also fallen prey to Farooq as well as the man who worked for him.
“I hardly had any contact with my family after I left because mother refused to speak with me. I found out (about the abuse) when someone called and told me. So then I called my sisters and realised it was true.”
Aishath’s three younger sisters, now aged 24, 19 and 17, accuse the 75-year-old Farooq of sexually abusing them. The youngest said his Bangladeshi employee had also groped and harassed her numerous times.
Aishath blames her parents for neglecting their children. “My mother should not have done what she did. Okay, I was abused but it is appalling that she let him do it to my three sisters too.”
But her mother claimed “to have no choice” despite knowing that her children were being abused. She said she “had to remain silent because of the threats.”
Their father had remarried and abandoned his children from the first marriage.
“I told him about Farooq before I got married and he said he would take away my sisters from my mother, but I have not seen him since,” Aishath said.
Almost everyone on the island knew what was happening to the girls, but most of them chose to ignore it.
“When my cousin found out, she asked an older woman if she knew this was happening. And she said it had been going on for years,” a 30-year-old man from the island said.
Island police advised that the matter be resolved personally, while the island council acknowledged rumours but insisted an official complaint had never been received.
— Finding justice —
“There is no hope for justice because of the system in the Maldives, but I am happy to have found the strength to go to the media about my story,” Aishath told the Maldives Independent as she accused authorities of neglect.
She first went to the authorities two years after moving to Malé and was disowned by her mother. “She [mother] gave a false statement to officials and Farooq pretended to be too ill for questioning. This was in 2010.”
The authorities were again alerted in 2012, when a school teacher on the island discovered that one of Aishath’s sisters had been abused by Farooq. In late 2017, their case was reported for a third time.
“He [Farooq] fell ill again when officials went to the island to question him so he was brought to Malé for emergency care,” a man from the island said.
Social media users shared images and videos of the man riding around the capital on a motorbike. His passport was eventually held after reports emerged that he was planning to leave the country for India, supposedly for medical care.
He was later arrested and transferred to house arrest. Police spokesman Ahmed Shifan promised to provide an update on the case, including the whereabouts of the suspects, but was unable to comment at the time of going to press.
A man from the island also alleged that the Bangladeshi worker had evaded questioning by pretending to be ill, later distributing canned drinks to other expat workers on the island once officials had left.
“My biggest question now is why is he [Farooq] still free? Such a man should never be allowed to move freely,” Aishath said.
Ismail Mohamed, assistant director of the Gender Ministry, provided the Maldives Independent with a short statement when asked about case progress.
“The requested case was reported to Gaaf Dhaal atoll family and children’s service centre and is being investigated under the ministry’s supervision. We are working with relevant authorities to strengthen the social situation of those involved in the case and provide social and psychological assistance and protection to the family.”
The ministry refused to say why nothing was done when the case had already been twice reported.
Child sexual abuse is a problem in the Maldives. More than 400 cases of child sexual abuse were reported last year alone.
According to a 2009 study by UNICEF, almost one in seven children of secondary school age in the Maldives had been sexually abused at some point in their lives.
Muruthala Moosa, the managing director for Advocating the Rights of Children, expressed “extreme concern about the increasing number of child abuse cases” and highlighted “a strong need to enhance the system for child protection.”
He also called for better mechanisms in strengthening investigations, victim support and the administrative and judicial action on child abuse cases. It is also necessary to reform the child protection laws currently in place, he said.
A mandatory child sex offenders’ registry was published in 2015. The online registry is mandated by a 2009 law on child sexual abuse prevention which gives up to 25 years in prison for convicted offenders.
Aishath believes there is only a slim chance in exacting justice, but hopes her courage to face the media will not be in vain. She wants others like her to to find strength from her story and press authorities to hold sex offenders responsible.
“We wouldn’t be at this point today, where four sisters were horrifically abused for years by one disgusting man, if state authorities had investigated when this was first reported seven years ago,” she said.
* Names have been changed
Illustration taken from Ahan