As the world struggles to navigate unprecedented change amidst a global health pandemic, along with resultant economic collapse, political conflicts, and an ongoing climate crisis all at once, young girls remain one of the most marginalised and vulnerable groups affected by the calamities unfurling across the planet.
"Every day, hundreds of thousands of girls around the world are subjected to practices that harm them physically or psychologically, or both, with the full knowledge and consent of their families, friends and communities".
The aforementioned statement by United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) is disconcerting but more worrisome is the fact that the ripple effect caused by such practices end up further reinforcing the gender stereotypes and inequalities that gave rise to these persisting issues in the first place.
Globally, the most concerning harmful practices highlighted by UNFPA include child marriage, female genital mutilation (FGM) and 'son preference', which is extreme bias against daughters -- all rooted in gender inequality.
Out of these practices, the most pertinent to Maldives, based on recent incidents, is the increasingly concerning issue of child marriage.
"When a girl is married, her schooling usually ends. Childbearing begins. Opportunities evaporate. Doors to the future slam shut".
Despite the horrifying consequences of child marriage, UNFPA noted that this practice is commonly imposed on girls by their own family members, community members or society at large, "regardless of whether the victim provides, or is able to provide, full, free and informed consent".
UNFPA reported that child marriages undermine a girl's ability to make autonomous choices about her own body and future.
Moreover, "married girls have earlier pregnancies, more pregnancies, and closer together pregnancies", the organisation said.
The direct and indirect outcomes of the practice feed a cycle of poverty for the victim's family and community and undercut the development of a productive workforce, which affect the economy.
According to the State of the World Population (SWOP) 2020 report, 33,000 child marriages take place globally, every single day, spanning over various countries, cultures, religions ad ethnicities.
The report, titled 'Against my will: defying the practices that harm women and girls and undermine equality', described child marriage as an "often transactional" practice which aims to offload a burden or secure the promise of the girl's care.
"These transactions are outright and financial in nature", the report read.
As per UNFPA's findings, child brides are more likely to develop mental illnesses and substance abuse issues, in addition to feeling a sense of powerlessness, being socially isolated and more prone to committing suicide.
Girls married off at a young age are also often subject to early or unintended pregnancies, higher risks during pregnancy and childbirth, higher rates of newborn mortality and domestic violence.
Although child marriage is criminalised and banned in most countries, the practice continues to be a complicated obstacle to overcome, as enforcing such bans is difficult.
In 2019, the Ministry of Gender, Family and Social Services investigated five cases of children being raped under the guise of marriage in Maldives.
Contracting marriages out of court in violation of the Maldivian constitution was slowly becoming normalised amongst some communities within the country -- a culture fueled by extremist religious ideologies.
Classified statutory rape under the Sexual Offences Bill, the consummation of child marriage is also prohibited under the recently ratified Child Rights Protection Bill which raised the marriageable age to 18.
An official of the ministry had highlighted that although only five such cases were investigated, it is highly likely that many similar cases go unreported, considering that victims' families are known to cover-up and condone the crime in most instances of child marriage.
Lack of cooperation with the authorities and certain groups of the community turning a blind eye to vile acts committed under the justification of extremist beliefs only adds to the challenge in addressing and curtailing the concerning issue.
At the beginning of this July, two separate cases of minors that were impregnated due to rape were reported to the authorities. Although allegations on social media claimed that the two minors were also victims of child marriages, no relevant government institution confirmed these rumours.
The Maldives Police Service revealed that three child marriages were reported in 2014 while another incident was brought to attention in 2015 after an underage ‘bride’ became pregnant. Investigations concerning the latter case are ongoing and as of yet, no individual has been punished.
Moreover, the suspect detained over the high-profile case which kickstarted the recent conversation of child marriage in Maldives, following a 13-year-old 'bride' giving birth to the child of her rapist, has yet to be convicted as well.
Even though the conversation about child marriages fell silent amidst the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, public outrage over a string of rape and sexual assault cases, concerning victims of all ages, has resulted in harsh criticism of the incumbent administration to conduct proper investigations and convict perpetrators.
During June and July, various demonstrations were held on the streets to demand proper legislative measures, implementation of existing laws, funding for social services and arrest of "influential" offenders that escape due process by misusing their positions of power and political connections.
The conversation around survivors of rape, sexual assault and harassment are, it is safe to say, the loudest it has ever been. Multiple victims have publicly come forward to name their offenders and share their stories, triggering a #MeToo movement in the country, which has resulted in some high-level state appointees being fired from their positions.
However, the question remains whether cases of child marriage connected to religious ideologies lessened over time, or the number of reported instances decreased due to other factors, such as forced isolation due to the ongoing health crisis.
Silence is perhaps the most damaging enabler of mistreatment and injustice. Turning a blind eye to harmful practices will provide a resistance-free pathway for the actions to take root and become normalised in society.
"In Maldives, there is a lack of honest conversations around gender, sexuality, consent and a lack of reproductive and health education in the school curriculum", said Sara Naseem, founding member of the anti-street harassment campaign 'Nufoshey'.
"[Due to this] a lot of young women feel like what they had to go through was their fault".
Representing Maldives at the online panel discussion held to launch 2020's SWOP report, Sara highlighted the importance of starting conversations on normalised issues that needed to be addressed for positive change to take place.
She explained how the 'Nufoshey' (which roughly translates to 'Do Not Harass') initiative is aimed at creating a space where women can share their stories and make a stand against harassment.
"For me, street harassment is also symbolic of a lot of root causes in our society -- the power imbalance, the denial of bodily autonomy, the normalisation of abuse against women, especially in public spaces which allow so much worse to happen behind closed doors", she said.
Over the recent years, more and more individuals in the community, especially the youth, have become more vocal about harassment, gender inequality, domestic violence, rape and sexual assault as well as child abuse.
In the tech-savvy archipelago of Maldives, housing a small population of people, social media platforms have turned into hubs for raising awareness and educating the masses, through engaging conversations, infographics, posters and various forms of art.
Tackling the harmful practices that plague the world will undoubtedly be a tiring feat. Despite the progress made on the front of initiating conversations and breaking the silence on taboo topics, there is much work to be done to reduce the frequency of gender-based violence within societies.
The easiest way to reach the goal would be for each and every individual to change themselves to be an ally to the cause and actively work on dismantling the toxic culture and damaging practices that were normalised over generations.
Speaking at the panel discussion, UNFPA's Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific Björn Andersson described "respect, protect and fulfil" as the three pillars of human rights "that provide a strong framework within which to tackle harmful practices and ills that plague our world".
He urged every individual to foster respect for women "by changing entrenched attitudes that dehumanise and commodifies them", which meant disrupting root causes of inequality and ensuring respect for girls' autonomy.
Andersson also called for authorities to protect women and girls by enacting and enforcing laws against harmful practices, changing attitudes and negative social norms, and fulfilling the obligations under human rights treaties and commitment made under international frameworks.
In Male City, a collective of gender equality advocates who are known from their work in both Family Legal Clinic (FLC) and Nufoshey, together with other lawyers and media personnel, launched the #FundOurSafety initiative, voicing demands to declare rape and sexual offences as serious criminal offences and reallocate state funds for the protection of victims.
A series of protests were also held, the most recent being the 'JaagaEhNei' protest held on Sunday afternoon, to demand that perpetrators and authorities are held accountable and justice ensured for victims and survivors.
It is clear that much work needs to be done to ensure the safety of women and children in society, but the cacophony of voices that announce their solidarity with survivors every time a new case of abuse surfaces may be an indicator that the future will be brighter than the past.