The Maldives has been a development success, with robust growth, considerable development of the country’s infrastructure and connectivity, according to the World Bank. The country has a literacy rate approaching 100% and life expectancy above 78 years. More than 30 per cent of the population lives in the capital Male’, making it one of the world most densely populated cities.
The country has also made important steps towards strengthening its protection of children and youth. In 1991, the country was among the first to sign and ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child. And in early 2020, the Government of Maldives decided to ratify the Child Rights Protection Act which marked a significant change in the legal protection of children at the national level. The new legal framework introduces a number of important child protective measures, such as the prohibition of child labour, marrying any child below the age of 18, and death penalty in case of a child coming in contact with the law.
However, the country is now faced with the challenge of implementing the new child rights legislation in a time when the covid-19 pandemic has been a huge setback for the country’s economy – putting vulnerable children at increased risk of exploitation, abuse, and neglect. In this situation girls and boys without parental care are the most vulnerable.
The system of alternative care is set up for children without parents, other primary caregivers or who have been separated from their parents/caregivers for various reasons. With the new Act, the country has now started a process of decentralising to answer to the requirements of the Act and a national policy of decentralisation.
“The alternative care system has been centralised consisting of two large facilities housing around 200 children in the capital of Male’. A new multi-sectoral and holistic system is now being planned and established to ensure these children are adequately protected and in the environment they need to develop properly,” Kate Halvorsen says.
She is a NORCAP expert on child protection and was deployed in January 2021 to the UNICEF office in the Maldives to support the implementation of the new Act during the covid-19 pandemic.
A right to be seen and heard
The two large state care facilities in the capital are being downsized and reorganized at the same time as children are being placed in eleven smaller state care facilities spread across the country’s 185 small inhabited islands. Kate’s most important task is to provide advice, guidance and support to the government on the new alternative care system to ensure improvements are made for the children.
According to the new Act and international standards, all children have the right to be heard and express their views on decisions that affect them. This requires that the child is heard in any judicial or administrative proceedings related to alternative care. In addition, the children’s views must be taken into consideration and their participation in all matters affecting them must be duly considered before making a decision on their behalf.
“I spoke with kids who had been moved to a new care facility in January 2021. They were still adjusting to the new place and environment, new care-givers, new school and new friends. It is important that the children who are moved from the central facilities to the islands are well informed and thoroughly prepared for the relocation,” she says.
Even though the country has progressed significantly in the area of education, the children in alternative care have not enjoyed this progress at the same level as children living with their parents. The development gap between the two groups is in some cases wide and offers the most vulnerable children a poor starting point.
“Data from 2020 showed that at least half of the teenagers were not at the educational level they should be at according to their age, and some of them were very far behind. I talked with some 14- 15-year olds who were doing English and math at primary school level. These children need individual, accelerated education plans to catch up,” she says.
The education gap is part of a larger picture of vulnerability. Most of the children in state care have experienced trauma and need psychological support. Furthermore, Kate reports that the lack of qualified staff in the alternative care system is a key problem affecting these children.
“The children need psychological assessments. All of them have experienced a form of trauma or other psychological injury, and it is crucial that they receive treatment to get the tools they need to deal with those experiences,” she says.
“The staff have a big responsibility – taking the parental role of these children. The law requires a minimum qualification of the care givers, but often staff are too few, and without adequate training, especially in parenting skills. There is a need for more resources to ensure training, continuous follow-up and supervision,” she says.
The children and youth in the Maldives are at risk of violence, drug abuse, gangs and trafficking. Children in state care at a higher risk, and Kate is worried for their safety.
“During the Covid-19 pandemic there is underreporting of cases, it is believed. Some kids are living with parents that are not capable of providing a safe home. And even though state care has its weaknesses, it is still a better option than remaining at home in an abusive relationship,” Kate says.
Covid-19: a significant set-back for the protection of children
However, implementing the new Act will require time and resources, and the covid-19 pandemic has had a devastating effect on the Maldives. The country is a small island nation highly dependent on the tourist industry which represents more than 30 per cent of the country’s income. During the first wave of the pandemic, the country was closed for around six months and only eased up on restrictions during the last 3 to 4 months of the year.
“This had catastrophic consequence on the country’s economy and far-reaching effects on all areas of society, including income loss and increased poverty, isolation and mental health problems. Children are extra vulnerable and negatively impacted in several ways. There has been an increase in violence against children cases reported, an increase in calls to helplines about child abuse and a significant increase in sexual violence against both girls and boys. We see increased numbers of domestic violence. All this has resulted in health problems such as stress, depression, anxiety, suicide attempts and other issues being more common among children,” Kate says.
The new wave of Covid-19 infections starting in mid-April and hitting all of South-Asia has made an already bad situation much worse. The infection rate and death-toll in the month of May 2021 was higher than the whole year of 2020. The capital Male had the highest infections and death rate per capita in the world. Although the official numbers were lower, anecdotal evidence suggested that half of the population in the capital were infected.
“This has serious repercussions on the people who work to protect and assist children. Police officers reporting and investigating violence are sick, social workers and care-workers are infected. Teachers are absent, and staff on NGOs who are doing important work for these children are also ill. The most vulnerable families are now in need of food and preparations are being made for aid. Within a month, the covid-19 pandemic became an acute emergency and children are suffering more than ever as schools are again shut down and more parents have lost their jobs,” Kate says.
Urgent change is needed
Kate Halvorsen is working with a team of colleagues who are supporting the Government to improve the situation of children without parental care, children in contact with the law, and to combat violence against children. Kate has finalized the reports on alternative care and they have been presented to the Ministry of Gender, Family and Social Services, which is responsible for following up on recommendations and way forward.
“There is a lot of goodwill in the Government. The people we meet are very competent, and we are on the same page. However, unfortunately the pandemic is slowing things down, but I am confident that the new system, when properly implemented, will ensure a better life for these kids. But the children we work with, need change now! My concern is how much time it will take to implement these changes, and how many children will suffer in the meantime,” Kate says.