Comment: Maldivian leaders must act now to protect women, girls and the country’s reputation

Source: Minivan News, By: Ricken Patel

In the last two weeks, nearly two million people across the world – including many people in the Maldives – have reacted in horror to the tragic story of a 15-year-old rape victim sentenced to be publicly flogged.

Sadly, this terrible case highlights a wider injustice: the yawning gap between the punishments applied to men and women in the Maldives.

A 2007 study by the Maldivian government’s own Ministry of Gender and Family showed that as many as one in three women between the ages of 15 and 49 have suffered either physical or sexual abuse. And fornication requires both a man and a woman, but 90% of those sentenced to flogging in the Maldives in 2011 were women.

How is this situation a reflection of justice, Islamic or any other kind?

It’s a good sign that the president has called on the attorney general to review the case of the 15-year-old girl, and that current laws and child protection mechanisms are being reviewed. But the citizens who signed this petition want to see further action: they want to know that other vulnerable women and girls in this country never have to go through such an ordeal. As we know, this is not the first time an incident like this has occurred: a similar sentence was handed out to a 14-year old during the last government.

This is why the petition calls for a moratorium on flogging and better laws to protect women and girls. It does so not to challenge the principles of Islamic law – in fact many people from across the Muslim world, including Indonesia, Pakistan, Turkey and Egypt have signed it, many of whom are practicing Muslims themselves and do not see flogging as ingrained in sharia law. This petition is not anti-Islamic justice: it’s pro-justice, particularly justice for women.

Contrary to some reports, the petition is also not an attack on the Maldivian people. Far from it. We stand in solidarity with the many Maldivians who are very concerned about this case, and the campaign urges the country’s leaders to act quickly to rescue the Maldives’ image, before this tragic case does any more damage to the vital tourist trade.

Around the world people are interested (and have a right to know) what kind of systems they’re supporting with their tourism dollars, and to make their holiday decisions accordingly. Richard Branson, head of Virgin Holidays groups and Virgin Airways, has warned of “enormous damage” to the country’s reputation unless serious action is taken.

Much of the media coverage has focused on a threatened “tourism boycott” – but we have never called for a full boycott of the important tourist trade and we’re engaging with the government right now to get action. What we do stand ready to do, however, is to inform tourists about what action is and isn’t being taken by the Maldives government to resolve this issue and change the law, and to identify those MPs and resort owners who are using their influence to push for positive change – and those who are not.

Furthermore, this petition is not aligned with any particular political party or faction in the Maldives. Avaaz is a 20 million strong global organisation that has campaigned for justice across the world on issues of the environment, human rights and conflict. One our most successful campaigns last year was to get countries to back Palestine’s bid for UN statehood – in the face of powerful, well-financed opposition from Israel and the United States.

There are countries that have poorer records when it comes to defending women’s rights, but when extreme cases spark the global public conscience it is crucial to call for respect for basic human rights whether it is the US, India or the Maldives. And this is just one of many battles for women’s rights Avaaz members have fought globally. In Afghanistan and Somalia, we’ve helped protect young women who bravely spoke out about horrific rapes by security forces; across the world, from India to the United States, we’ve lobbied for real action to counter the growing ‘rape trade’ in trafficked women and girls. This petition is part of that wider cause; to address flagrant injustices against women worldwide, and to build a better world for our mothers, sisters, daughters and wives.

Nearly a million tourists visit the Maldives every year because this country is known as a peaceful, romantic paradise. Now, double that number have signed this petition and that reputation is in jeopardy. But it’s not too late to rescue it. The Maldives is on a journey of democratic improvement. We want to support that journey.

Right now, it’s in the hands of the President and the People’s Majlis to protect Maldivian women – not only by ensuring this sentence is quickly overturned and this girl freed, but by speaking out against flogging now, and ensuring a bill that ends flogging and upholds girls and women’s right is tabled in parliament.

The fate of Maldivian women and girls, and the country’s progress and reputation, lies in their hands.