Since hosting its first-ever consultation on August 27, 2014, Family Legal Clinic (FLC) has taken long strides, making a name for itself as the first non-government organization in Maldives providing pro-bono legal services.
While FLC began with only face-to-face consultations, the NGO launched Teleconsultation services in collaboration with Ooredoo Maldives in December 2017, greatly widening the scope of FLC’s outreach.
As FLC marks its fifth anniversary, the NGO has conducted 500 consultations for 426 individuals across 43 islands.
In an interview to The Edition, FLC Co-founder Shafeea Riza revealed per her research, she found that the majority of Maldivians were not equipped with enough knowledge to effectively utilize legislation such as the Family Act and Domestic Violence Act, introduced in 2000 and 2012 respectively.
As a result, she described that for most, especially to those who are struggling, the current court procedure can be tedious and frustrating.
FLC has hosted numerous awareness sessions across the country in order to familiarise people with laws and judicial procedures; thereby alleviating these difficulties. From 2016 to 2018, the NGO conducted sessions in Mulaku, Meemu Atoll, Milandhoo, Shaviyani Atoll, Ungoofaaru, Raa Atoll as well as in every district of Addu City.
In 2018, FLC published a form filling guideline that provides instructions on how to fill court forms related to family and domestic violence issues, eliminating the need to hire a, often expensive, lawyer.
Intended to facilitate convenient submission of court cases, the guideline was distributed to all magistrate courts, ensuring that it is readily available for people.
Considering that the highest number of cases overseen by FLC over the past five years concern domestic violence, the NGO has also begun hosting weekly support group meetings in Male’ for survivors of domestic violence.
Led by two licensed counsellors, the support group’s presence as an encouraging force helping survivors through mutual interaction, has garnered positive reactions across the Maldivian community.
Although FLC works with a dedicated team of 17 lawyers supervised by an Executive Board, the NGO now also features a dedicated in-house legal resource person, which eliminates the issue of clients having to wait for the weekly consultations held every Wednesday night.
Having placed itself amidst immensely far-reaching issues, Shafeea fully accepted that the desired impact of FLC’s efforts would only be fully realized in the long run.
“I know addressing all of these concerns will take time,'' said Shafeea, adding that nevertheless, various plans to further the organization's aims of creating a healthier society were already in motion.
One such endeavour targetted at widening the scope of the NGO’s services, is a move to address sexual harassment at the workplace and sexual offences. Having already been approved by FLC’s Board of Directors, consultations regardless these issues are set to begin in January 2020.
Outreach-wise, FLC plans to conduct legal awareness sessions in five islands, specifically targeting islands which were not generally covered under government-sponsored information sessions or those hosted by other organizations.
Another initiative to promote baseline awareness concerns the launching of campaigns that will disseminate information on specific topics, each aimed at educating people on how to exercise their rights.
Shafeea expressed her belief that, “once people learn about Family Legal Clinic, that there's a free number and so forth” that there is a definitive chance that “more people would use the service”.
The overarching objective to increase awareness also extends to stakeholder agencies involved in the prevention of domestic violence. FLC will conduct refresher training from September 2-4 for these organizations, with a focus on increasing communication skills and value clarifications.
The training is intended to equip advocates to interact considerately with survivors of violence, in exclusion of their personal biases, and are undertaken by all of FLC team members. FLC aims to continue conducting these sessions annually to increase and maintain stakeholder capacity.
Even further, FLC is currently working in collaboration with LexisNexis, a Malaysia corporation specializing in the provision of computer-assisted legal research, to develop plain language material for ten targeted laws including the Domestic Violence Act as well as the Sexual Abuse and Harassment Act.
The Dhivehi language materials disseminated under the project are funded by the Australian government and will serve to help people better understand and thereby utilize the laws intended to aid in their protection.
Looking across the tremendous milestones achieved in Family Legal Clinic’s five year lifetime, it is apparent that such organizational progress did not come without considerable challenges.
Human resource limitations, in particular, continue to pose an impediment to FLC’s expansion. For instance, while FLC’s services in the southernmost Atoll of Addu rely heavily on law students residing in the area, a lack of similar human resources reduces feasibility of similar programs in other atolls considerably.
Being that the legal and justice sector baseline study conducted by UNDP and the Attorney General’s Office estimates that 99 percent of registered lawyers are based in the capital city; the lack of trained legal professionals across Maldives has become a major factor hindering the provision of pro bono legal consultations for people living outside Male’ and Addu.
Additionally, the shortage of licensed psychologists and counsellors present a formidable challenge to conducting activities such as support group meetings outside Male’ - a major obstacle shared by all NGOs seeking to provide counselling services.
In the light of FLC’s operation as a purely non-profit organisation, Shafeea also made mention of difficulties in securing funding to continue consultation services.
Moving on to more external factors, she also stressed the necessity for fast resolution and delivery within the Maldivian judicial system as administrative delays often means severe repercussions for victims. Longer waiting periods for Emergency Protection Orders, for example, are likely to result in physical or psychological damages.
The FLC co-founder spoke strongly in support of implementing coordinated efforts in courts to expedite cases, especially those regarding family-related issues.
Despite the challenges, FLC has managed to perform exceedingly well, thanks support received by several organizations and partners. Ooredoo Maldives, the U.S. Embassy in Colombo and all of its corporate partners work to alleviate funding constraints but of course, at the real heart of the organization are its volunteering team, offering their services to the NGO free of charge.
Shafeea warmly recognized the contributions of several individuals including FLC’s two co-founders Suha Hussain and Zaheena Rasheed, as well as Dr Hassan Saeed and board of Hope for Women’ for their pivotal role in FLC’s early years and continued support for the organization's endeavours.
Adding that the commitment displayed by every individual behind the scenes to a greater cause was crucial in shaping the organization, FLC co-founder also expressed special gratitude to members of the current Executive Board for the time and expertise dedicated to the NGO.
She succinctly described, “when you start an NGO, it is bigger than you, your purpose becomes bigger than that of any one person behind it”.
Collectively, the FLC co-founder expressed pride concerning how far the NGO had progressed.
“I think that being able to get this far, is a success in itself”.
Reflecting on FLC’s overall successes over the last five years, the NGO's reiterated its commitment to providing pro bono legal services regardless of gender or island of residence, a factor that in a society where domestic violence is rampant remains extremely relevant.
As many as 1 in 3 women (aged 15-49) report having experienced at least one form of physical or sexual violence during their lifetime. While more than a third of all Maldivians are likely to experience potentially traumatic abuse, studies also indicate that family issues play a major role in motivating children towards gang violence and drug abuse.
These statistics, combined with the lack of lawyers catering to the needs of as many as 200,000 people and the rising high costs of obtaining legal representation, goes a long way to prove the necessity of FLC’s services.