Women’s rights groups welcome new legal protections against sexual violence in Maldives, including marital rape – Global issues

International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. Credit: UN Women
  • Opinion by Divya Srinivasan, Humaida Abdulghafoor (New Delhi, India)
  • Inter Press Service

This decision has been hailed by national and international women’s rights groups who have called for greater legal protection against sexual violence.

In the Maldives, sexual assault has traditionally been viewed as a private matter. However, research supported evidence has enabled activists and survivors to raise awareness.

The Maldives Ministry of Health’s groundbreaking Women’s Life and Health Experiences (WHLE) study (2007) found that one in five women aged 15 to 49 had experienced domestic violence and one in eight women had been victim of sexual violence during childhood.

The activists’ efforts have sparked growing recognition at all levels, including policy, law and public awareness, that the state must do more to prevent, address and effectively respond to widespread violence against women and children. girls.

A high-profile case involving an attempted rape on a safari boat in the port of Hulhumale in June 2020 led to public protests and increased calls for police accountability in rape cases. The outcry prompted lawmakers to propose amendments to existing legislation on sexual violence, including the rescinding of some discriminatory provisions of the Sexual Offenses Act.

Hailed as an important step towards access to justice for all victims, the reforms just promulgated improve the definition of rape, sexual injuries and sexual assault, and apply these offenses regardless of marital status. .

Previously, marital rape was only criminalized in certain limited circumstances, such as when the marriage was being dissolved, when one of the parties had filed for divorce, if the couple lived apart by mutual agreement, or if the husband knowingly transmitted a dangerous sexually transmitted disease to his wife.

The only marital rape conviction in the country was handed down by the High Court on October 1, 2020. The victim in the case died as a result of the assault – the posthumous verdict was possible thanks to the narrow definition of rape within the law at the time (as the victim was separated from her husband).

Therefore, the current amendment criminalizing marital rape without exception is a milestone in the legal history of sexual violence in the Maldives.

New amendments to the law also specify the provision of rape evidence kits to all public hospitals and health centers, and the training of staff in the use of the kits, including the application of a “people-centered approach.” victim and taking trauma into account ”.

In addition, the Maldives Police Department has been tasked with using rape evidence kits when investigating cases of sexual offenses. It is expected that the implementation of these changes will help increase the robustness of investigation of rape cases and ensure that survivors have a better chance of accessing justice than before.

As a further improvement, some discriminatory evidentiary provisions have been removed. Previously, the court could dismiss rape cases on the grounds that there was a possibility of false testimony submitted by the victim assessed on the basis of the so-called “dignity and discipline of the victim”.

This had left the door open for the introduction of evidence relating to the victim’s sexual history, regardless of its relevance to whether or not she consented to the particular sexual act in the case.

The court was also able to examine “the relations between the parties and the transactions between them before the offense” and interpret that, for these reasons, it was unlikely that an offense had been committed.

Another progressive amendment is the removal of a provision that previously allowed denial of sexual violence if there was a long delay between the occurrence of the incident and its reporting, and the incident was not reported to another person in the meantime.

International human rights standards state that there should be no adverse inference due to a delay in reporting, as there are many valid reasons why victims do not immediately report a rape.

The removal of these discriminatory provisions from legislation is extremely welcome as they have helped to pervert the course of justice, as well as gender stereotypes and secondary victimization of survivors during legal proceedings.

For survivors of sexual violence, the new amendments removed some of the barriers to justice identified by Equality Now and Dignity Alliance International in a joint report Sexual Violence in South Asia: Legal and Other Barriers to Justice for Survivors, which calls the Maldives, with Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka, to take urgent action to address sexual violence, improve access to justice for survivors and hold perpetrators to account.

Legally allowing impunity for marriage rape treats women as the property of their husbands and takes away their rights over their own bodies. By criminalizing marital rape without exception, the Maldives is now more in line with international human rights standards and aligned with other countries in the South Asian region such as Nepal and Bhutan.

However, marital rape is still not a criminal offense in Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka, where human rights activists continue to advocate for legal reform.

Uthema is a Maldivian women’s rights NGO that advocates for gender equality and has called for better legal protection and better access to legal remedies for people who are victims of sexual and gender-based violence.

Uthema commends the Government of Maldives for this important positive change in the law and calls on all relevant national authorities to ensure that the law is fully and effectively enforced.

The legal changes just adopted have opened avenues to justice for survivors and introduce a much needed deterrent to potential perpetrators. This is absolutely necessary to address the problem of underreporting of sexual assault, which is very low due to gaps in system-wide law enforcement and services.

Making the public and stakeholders aware of the changes, improving low rape reporting rates, and improving investigation and prosecution procedures are now a necessity.

The Maldives has taken an important and progressive step towards bringing justice to survivors of sexual violence, especially in marriage. In a socio-cultural context where conservative forces continue to advocate for unequal marital relations and archaic patriarchal notions that marriage is a contract of ownership of the bodies of women for men, this legal change sends an important message to all Maldivians.

This message is that women in the Maldives have an inherent legal right to bodily autonomy and dignity as a distinct human person deserving of equality with men, safety, security, optimal physical and mental health and the well-being in marriage, free of any sexual or other form. of violence.

For media inquiries please contact: Tara Carey, Equality Now, Head of Media Manager, E: [email protected]; M: +447971556340 (WhatsApp)

Equality Now is an international human rights organization that works to protect and promote the rights of women and girls around the world by combining grassroots activism with international, regional and national legal advocacy. For more details, visit www.equalitynow.org, Facebook @equalitynoworg and Twitter @equalitynow.

Uthema is a 2016 registered women’s human rights NGO that advocates for gender equality and the empowerment of women in the Maldives.

Divya Srinivasan is a consultant for South Asia for Equality Now, and Humaida Abdulghafoor, co-founder and member of Uthema

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© Inter Press Service (2021) – All rights reservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service