Journalist Hawwa Rasheed* was in a near-deserted newsroom compiling headlines for an upcoming bulletin when two rough hands grappled her from behind and grabbed at her breasts.
“I was completely numb. Those few minutes felt like years,” Hawwa said while fiddling with her headscarf, trying to cover her chest.
She slapped away the invasive hands and spun round to confront her attacker. “It turned out to be my boss. I knew I would face the possibility of losing my job if I complained,” Hawwa said nearly three years after she was forced to leave her job.
Maldivian women who have encountered workplace sexual harassment face a dilemma: either be silent and endure the intimidation or raise their voice and risk unemployment and shame.
A social media campaign is aiming to reverse the culture of protecting perpetrators at work and blaming the victims, much like #Nufoshey (Don’t Harass) is a platform for highlighting the menace of street sex pests.
Mi Verin Koba, meaning Where Are These Leaders, posts well-documented cases of sexual assault committed by people in positions of power and authority.
A leading figure from Mi Verin Koba spoke to the Maldives Independent on condition of anonymity.
“Mi Verin Koba started off because I have had one too many conversations about how people in power remain in their positions despite committing acts of harassment and abuse. As long as we protect the perpetrator, we continue to silence the victims. I have heard of so many stories of workplace harassment and sexual assault, cases documented on video, a case about an MP accused of child molestation but who still went on to serve his term. But in many cases, justice is not served.”
“The goal is to get people talking about these harassers who abuse their positions of power; to remind these men that we have not forgotten. Then we can hopefully start addressing these issues and prevent them from happening in the first place,” she said.
A 2013 Human Rights Commission of the Maldives report found that workplace harassment showed that over a fifth of the women surveyed had been sexually harassed. While “more intimate forms of harassment” have decreased there has been an increase in “relatively high level” of sexually suggestive language”.
A woman’s most common response to sexual harassment at work was to do nothing. “The main reason for this lack of action was their fear of not being believed; fear of people knowing/ bringing bad name to the family; and embarrassment and shame,” the report said.
While some women would prefer to ignore the harassment, the 2014 act on sexual harassment and offences was a landmark in a country which previously lacked any means through which women could seek help.
But according to a US State Department report the Maldives does not enforce this law and there have been been allegations of sexual harassment in ministries and the private sector.
Around 19 cases of sexual harassment were reported to the Maldives Police Service from January to October 2016, but only one was forwarded for prosecution.
A psychology expert, who wished to remain anonymous, thinks speaking out is a “difficult thing because sexual harassment has always been accepted at some level”.
“We see songs and movies on national TV endorsing men whistling and harassing women on the street as a compliment. But at the same time you can also see this trend changing, where people are more aware of what sexual harassment is, within both genders.”
She believes most women keep silent out of fear of losing their job and because of the stigma of being a victim.
“Maldives being the small community it is, it is very easy to know the identity of such victims, and knowing their identity can lead to re-victimizing the women over and over again within her workplace or even her community as a whole.”
Social researcher Humaida Abdul Ghafoor says the lack of reporting mechanisms and bleak statistics play a vital role in why most women do not come forward. “Even if they want to address it, where can they go? What support system do they have?” she asks. “We do not see any evidence that a legal remedy can be reached through the law.”
Hawwa recalls the constant harassment she faced at her former workplace and how she was pressured to stop going to court.
“The whole incident was recorded on office CCTV. There was physical evidence and he confessed to the supervisor. But the supervisor said they cannot let him go. The managing director apparently saw no need for action and said I would be disgraced if I take the matter to court.”
“It was sad because I had to leave my job. In the Maldives, it’s always the women that get blamed.”