The Edition brings readers a dose of positive news over a cup of tea shared with inspirational folk doing all sorts of positive work in the Maldives.
Founded in 2014 by three equally strong, courageous and resilient women, Family Legal Clinic (FLC) was borne from a shared hope of connecting families, empowering survivors of abuse, and lifting community burdens.
After initially being run under Hope for Women, FLC was registered as an independent NGO on the 20th of September 2017 and is the first initiative of its kind.
The clinic provides free legal services to women, men, and children facing family and domestic violence related issues across the Maldives, as per the Family Act and Domestic Violence Prevention Act.
Friends for years, all three co-founders spent a great deal of time brewing ideas and chatting about contributing to social causes in the Maldives. Above all, the women found in each other a shared passion and interest to do something good for society.
Yet for a lingering idea to transform and materialise into a passionate quest for equality, all it took was one of them asking the other a rather simple yet stirring question,
For Shafeea Riza, this marked the pivotal moment that changed the course of everything.
“When I answered that I wanted to create a free legal clinic catering to family-related concerns, she immediately said let’s just do it - and that was it,” Shafeea said, lighting up in the way she always does when talking about Family Legal Clinic.
The idea was prompted largely by the pro bono legal clinics championing family, civil and criminal cases that Shafeea came across whilst working at the subordinate courts of Singapore during her post-grad years at University.
"I thought what they were doing was wonderful - and I wanted to create something similar to help Maldivians."
According to the legal and justice sector baseline study that was conducted by UNDP and the Attorney General’s Office, as many as 99 percent of registered lawyers are based in capital Male’. This means that as many as 200,000 people or more, do not have immediate access to legal help.
Most Maldivians also report difficulties in being able to afford legal help during a crisis, particularly women, disabled, elderly and low-income workers.
Making matters worse, 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. This means that more than a third of all Maldivians are likely to experience potentially traumatic abuse.
“Although these statistics depict a reality of life, it is unacceptable to us. We want to give people the knowledge and tools they need to stand up for themselves, to give them a fighting chance,” Shafeea asserted.
“The FLC story is about giving a voice to many disadvantaged people in the Maldives, seeking to empower survivors of horrendous crimes, wanting to give back to the community in a meaningful way."
Although I’m listening to Shafeea tell a story I had heard many times before, it doesn’t fail to draw me in. Perhaps it is the lawyer in her, and the silver tongue that often comes with the profession.
Still, I can’t help but feel that there is more to it than that; her voice carries the rare quality of someone who believes beyond the shadow of a doubt in the value of her work, genuinely driven by the power of hope to achieve a quality of future she believes is possible.
“Our story is also about women empowering women, as the very idea was inspired by the good work done by the NGO 'Hope for Women'.”
“In fact, none of what we have done would have been possible without the guiding hand lent to Family Legal Clinic by Aneesa and Rashida. It seemed like two legendary ladies in their own right, passed a baton to us, supporting us before we had the resources to really achieve what we wanted, asking for nothing but our commitment to pass the kindness forward to the community ourselves.”
Today, FLC’s pro bono legal service is provided by 17 lawyers specifically trained by the Society of Health Education on the prevention of gender-based violence and communication skills.
Family Legal Clinic has grown massively over the last four years, gravitating from conducting research and awareness programmes in Male’ and surrounding regions to the furthermost atolls, and hosting regular weekly pro bono legal consultations in Male’ and Addu.
“We started our services in Addu with grant aid received from the U.S. Embassy in Colombo. At the moment we work with Lawcraft, a law firm in Addu that supervises the provision of free legal services by students studying law in Addu, who have received and continue to receive training from FLC. This is also our way of making use of the best available resources, through solutions from within the communities itself.”
Courtesy of Ooredoo Maldives, FLC launched a toll-free call line for people across the country in 2017. This service allows the clinic to provide daily, direct consultations over the phone, for those in dire need of assistance and information.
The NGO even launched its own modestly received crowdfunding program, seeking support and appealing to the charitable spirit of people in the Maldives, and across the globe to contribute towards sustaining its pro bono services.
"At Family Legal Clinic, we strongly believe that access to legal help shouldn’t be a privilege afforded by a few. The crowdfunding effort is to encourage everyone to pass on some of their good fortunes to those in dire need of it, ourselves included," she explained.
As she moves into a more directorial role, Shafeea attributed the expansion of Family Legal Clinic and its services to being blessed with an amazing board of directors and founders, their team of pro-bono lawyers and the support received from partnerships with Hope for Women, Lawcraft, US Embassy in Colombo, American Centre in Male, Ooredoo Maldives and Society for Health Education (SHE).
"Even as we expand, our core philosophy remains the same - to adopt a kinder approach towards providing social services,” said Shafeea.
I have had the great pleasure of knowing Shafeea for most of my life, and every year she continues to make me prouder to call her my friend.
She is not the first, nor will she be the last, to pursue law with the intention of making the world a better and more just place, with equal rights and voices for all. However, in this writer’s humble opinion, it takes a truly remarkable person to follow through with the kind of idealism typically reserved only for graduate students.
“We are still growing, little by little, every day. This year, we hope to launch counselling services and a support group for survivors. On our website, we’ve added a new segment called Our Shared Stories, where we encourage readers to share their own experiences,” explains Shafeea.
“It all comes down to helping people. I believe that it can be therapeutic to share your stories, especially in a space that seeks to understand, to receive that empathy yourself and learn from the trials of another, makes a difference.”
Shafeea has often told me that she wishes Family Legal Clinic to outlast herself, an honourable sentiment that is echoed within her team. Together, these extraordinary people work tirelessly to bridge a gap that is the cause of unimaginable suffering to everyday Maldivians, so that everyone may exercise their legal rights, regardless of where they come from.
Donating professional services to those in need is a wonderful thing, but when it saves lives and offers people a second chance at life - it is nothing short of noble.
Today marks four years since Family Legal Clinic had their very first consultation. Since then, they have spent 11,280 hours helping over 200 people.