Earlier this month, 35-year-old Samiya* (not her real name) left her home for the last time. From southern Gaaf Dhaal Thinadhoo, she traveled over 250 miles to Malé, where she sought the care of doctors: Her husband, she told them, had raped her, inflicting brutal injuries. She ended up in the intensive care unit battling for her life.
Over the following weeks, local newspapers tracked her health closely; on social media, Maldivians pleaded for blood donations to save her. Police arrested her husband. The women of Thinadhoo held a march in solidarity.
Samiya died last night.
She is not alone. Untold numbers of Maldivian women, living and departed, share her story.
One in three women in the Maldives report experiencing sexual or physical violence in their lifetimes; one in five say the perpetrator was their intimate partner. More disturbing than the violence itself is our apparent comfort with it: Most Maldivians say it’s acceptable or even desirable for a husband to strike his wife.
We all of know this from a 2007 government study, the most exhaustive scientific examination of violence in the Maldives to date. Efforts are underway to update these findings. Samiya’s story, however, offers little reason to believe much has changed — even after lawmakers enacted the 2012 Domestic Violence Prevention Act.
We have continued to fail victims of domestic violence in the three years since this law has been on thee books.
The DV Act established the Family Protection Authority, a special body mandated with implementing the law; it also defines roles for the health and gender ministries, police, courts, local councils and health care providers, to support survivors and bring perpetrators to justice.
Maldives needs an attitude adjustment
Why is violence against women so prevalent in a country that identifies so strongly with Islam — a religion based on peace, compassion and mercy? Scholars argue that violence is not among the values exemplified by our Prophet Muhammad — and therefore it is not Islamic.
Research links violence against women with unequal power relations between men and women. These unequal relationships are reinforced by norms, customs and ideologies that we inherit from society. When such power imbalances go unquestioned, these relations become hierarchies within families and communities that persist across generations.
In the Maldives, as elsewhere, girls are rewarded for being passive, modest and shy while boys learn to be assertive, brave and ambitious. When we assume men and women’s roles are, in the natural order of things, that of providers and caretakers, notions like “a good wife obeys her husband” and “the woman’s place is at home” almost make sense.
Maldivian women are considered more emancipated and more educated than our sisters in neighbouring countries. But these advances are not represented in decision-making roles, whether at home or in policy-making. Instead, most Maldivian women remain financially dependent on others, often on husbands or ex-husbands.
Why, in a country that boasts of universal primary education and 98 percent literacy, does education do so little to change women’s status?
Perhaps an attitude adjustment is in order: When a woman’s role is regarded as revolving around reproduction and caretaking, the education system only equips girls for lives as wives and mothers. When we encourage young Maldivian women to question society’s expectations, we will raise a generation prepared to achieve their full potential.
Even some of society’s most educated professionals need help achieving such a shift in perspective. This need is most clear, for example, when doctors and health workers operate on personal beliefs, rather than the rules established to ensure society’s most vulnerable can access services.
When under-age rape victims seek services, what they receive instead is blame, rather than care and protection. While providers bear a moral and legal duty to care for victims of domestic violence, too often their failures go unquestioned. We all share a moral duty for letting responsible institutions off the hook. Our complacence hits poor women like Samiya the hardest, and contribute to their further marginalization.
Such social exclusion found Samiya living an insular existence in her final months: She literally lived in an abandoned house on her own island. Social workers, health authorities and the island council failed to see her daily routine as suffering, but instead natural, if not normal.
Too many structures, still no system
Today, many Maldivians condemn sexual violence. Several civil society organizations have cropped up to offer services. Mainstream media report on sexual abuse as a social impediment. Friday sermons continue to condemn sexual offenses — but now recognize violence as such an offence. Our laws define domestic violence as a violation of human rights. The government’s policy manifesto declares a zero-tolerance policy for domestic violence.
Yet untold numbers of Maldivian women and children still die from gender violence; many more suffer and survive in spite of it, unreported. When their stories do emerge, it’s not because the Domestic Violence Act is working as it should. Instead, we hear too often of multiple, overlapping chains of failure for which many parties share responsibility, issue condemnations, pledge investigations — and then accept no blame or consequences.
Thinadhoo hosts a regional hospital, a Family and Child Service Centre, School, a court, a Women’s Development Committee, and serves as seat both the Atoll Council and an Island Council. Each have a mandated duty to serve and ensure justice for domestic violence victims.
When Thinadhoo’s hospital failed to meet Samiya’s needs, the emergency room at Malé’s Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital proved no better — despite operating a Family Protection Unit, a special department set up to help victims of domestic violence. When Samiya sought help from a doctor in private practice, who finally aroused IGMH’s attention, it was already too late to collect medical evidence and pursue justice.
Three years after the DV Act’s passage, we can discern no clear pathways reliably delivering services to victims who need them. Help lines operate only during official working hours. Services mandated by law are being rolled out at snail’s speed. When the Ministry of Health unveiled its new guidelines and training tool for healthcare providers to assist domestic violence survivors, it arrived too late for Samiya.
Unless those in positions of power are motivated to expand choices for women, we will not see a change in the system, but just token gestures or paternalistic benevolence in specific cases.
What we need
Punishing people who pummel their partners isn’t enough to prevent the problem.
Policymakers must empower women to meaningfully participate in and monitor how the DV Act is implemented. Without beneficiaries on board, the law cannot achieve its aim or affect the precondition for its success: nothing less than profound social change.
Women’s access to education may improve their chances of a good marriage, but unless the education system equips women to question unjust practices, we may never see a society free from violence.
Women’s access to income may lend a sense of self-reliance and purchasing power, but if that money comes with conditions that compromise her health or exploit her, the costs outweigh the benefits.
When women in decision-making roles are drawn from across social strata, and not only elite, we have a better chance of recognizing and correcting practices that marginalize women.
We all must give greater priority to women, listen to their concerns and understand their everyday experiences.
We also need to challenge the ideologies that justify violent behavior in the name of religion. Men are enjoined in Islam to exemplify moral behavior. If your style of leadership involves cultivating discipline with your fists, you’re probably doing it wrong.
Similarly, when men expect entitlement to nothing less than their wife’s complete sexual submission, not only are they setting themselves up for a contradiction with core Islamic values, but a severely disappointing relationship as well: Without respect for equality, fairness and justice, there’s no such thing as sexy.
We are all Samiya
Imagine Samiya’s life on the margins. Her story is not uncommon. Yet the vigor, strength and determination with which she fought until her last breath exemplify both the scale of work that remains in achieving a more equitable, fair, and just future — as well as the enduring resolve required to affect fundamental change of social values and systems.
Each of us plays a part in sustaining these structures. We create the perpetrator; we also drive people like Samiya to the margins when we trivialize their story or ignore them.
The same power we each hold to do harm can be harnessed to bring about a change for the betterment of all — men and women alike — as heads of offices, teachers, parents, service providers, and as human beings. The first step is remembering to empathize with those less privileged. Preventing violence starts with remembering Samiya.
Gender Advocacy Working Group is a group of women and men promoting gender equality and women’s participation in the areas of economic, political and legal development. The group also works to eliminate the violence against women in Maldives.
This article is an updated version of an earlier article published at midday on December 29.
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