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Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 41, October 1, 2011

Maldives: Women, Abortion and Politics

Wednesday 5 October 2011

by ANKITA SHREE

High numbers of abortion cases, poor pre-and post-natal care facilities, and inadequate knowledge about contraceptives are malaises prevalent in South Asia, but the issue of abortion has become especially contentious in the Maldives. This is ever since the Adhaalath Party, a coalition partner of President Mohammad Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party, mooted for execution of women who have aborted their foetuses—a sin as per the prevailing Sharia law.

Unlike Western societies, South Asian societies are still characterised by their cultural affiliations whereby the personal freedoms of an individual such as consensual sex, child abortion etc. are dictated by cultural norms such as religion and personal laws relating to marriage, divorce, adoption, property rights etc. The condition in the Maldives is so severe that state involvement is oxymoronic, wherein the state is an inter-ventionist; it is dictating terms on individual rights, as well as being minimalist, having no response to the protection of individual rights from excessive demands, such as those raised by the Adhaalath Party. In the Maldives, it has become a debate between individualism and communitarianism, wherein individual rights are subdued over maintaining a homogenous religious society. No action has been taken on the issue of abortion, but it has raised some vital questions. First, why is this being made a big issue in the Maldives? Second, what are the social and political implications of the demand raised by the Adhaalath Party?

There are only a few countries in the world which outlaw abortion—Laos, the Maldives, Vatican City, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Tuvalu, Chile and Uruguay. In the other 195 nations and sovereign states, there are a wide variety of laws which govern abortion. Abortion in the Maldives is illegal unless it involves a life-and-death situation for the mother or child, or if the foetus suffers from a congenital defect such as thalassemia. According to the Population Policy Data Bank maintained by the Population Division of ECOSOC, United Nations, the total fertility rate for the Maldives during 1995-2000 was estimated at 5.4 children per woman, and half the population is estimated to be less than 15 years of age. All methods of contraception are legal, and the government supports family planning services. However, legal restrictions exist on contraceptives, including the requirement of prescriptions for all methods, among them the use of condoms, which limit the widespread use of contraceptives.

Under prevailing laws, both pre-marital sex and adultery are offences punishable by flogging, although attitudes towards sex reveal a discre-pancy whereby it is accepted in private, but condemned in public. A consequence is that adolescents are not taught about contraception at school, for it is feared that it would condone sex outside of marriage, which in turn aggravates the issue of contraceptive use in the country.

Contraceptive usage stands at a dismal 39 per cent, indicating the fundamental disconnect between the Maldivian Government’s encourage-ment of contraceptives and the reality of their actual usage. The discrepancy between the decline in fertility rate and the low rate of contraceptive use has raised unanswered questions. A study of the Reproductive Health Survey (2007) and the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) report suggest that unsafe abortions have become a serious social concern. Furthermore, high levels of promiscuity and low usage of contraceptives increase risks of HIV and other STDs spreading. UNFPA’s ‘Research on reproductive health knowledge and behaviour of young, unmarried women in the Maldives’, 2010 reports that prevailing commu-nity knowledge and supplementary statistics indicate that pregnancy out of wedlock and abortions are prevalent among adolescents in the Maldives. Adolescents, who account for 27.5 per cent of the Maldivian population, are grossly unaware of contraceptive usage. While according to the 2004 Reproductive Health Survey 61 per cent polled youth believed that condoms prevented unwanted pregnancy, the usage was still limited with 45 per cent not having used a condom. This can also be ascribed to the legal measures mentioned earlier.

While the Maldivian women enjoy greater economic and social empowerment, with state patronage, in comparison to their brethren in other South Asian countries with similar cultural and religious backgrounds, the society prescribes a predominantly domestic and traditional role for women. Certain social and cultural factors disadvantage the Maldivian women and perpetuate gender inequalities, especially in the areas of health, education and economic status. The UN Country Profile data of 2010 reveal that only 69.9 per cent of the Maldivian women complete their third-level studies. In terms of representation women constitute only 6.5 per cent of the seats in Parliament. There is limited information available on the health status of the Maldivian women with no proper research commissioned on the subject. In such circumstances the condition of poor, uneducated and financially dependent women being circumscribed to such mindless demand can be well imagined.

WORRYINGLY, ‘honour killings’ are also reported, whereby unmarried pregnant girls undergo forced abortion, to preserve the honour for the parents. Pregnant women are operated upon by amateur abortionists, or even turn to harmful vaginal preparations, which contain chemicals such as bleach or kerosene. Though infrequent, some reports exist of uteral inserts being used to induce abdominal trauma. In some cases people have even started moving to Sri Lanka and India for abortions, as these are illegal in the Maldives. Given these circumstances, the demand raised by the conservative Adhaalath Party under the guise of curbing “fornication” come as no surprise. The demand, however, ignores the decision of women within marriage to go for abortions owing to reasons of optimal family size, economic hardship, infidelity, domestic violence etc. The party also demanded a perma-nent solution for illegal prostitution conducted inside massage parlours and medical centres, which it held as ‘sinful’ activities. However, what is disconcerting is the silence of the government on the issue. The problem is becoming severe day-by-day with social networking sites being used as a tool to promote moral policing. For example, Facebook was found to have an Anti-Abortion in Maldives community which upheld the right of the child to live against abortion and calls for redemption from the parents who committed the “sin”; these show sectional support being developed in the society on the demand raised by the Adhaalath Party, which is not healthy for the Maldivian society.

Politically, raising demands such as this is also indicative of growing radicalisation corresponding to the introduction of democracy in 2008, when the elected government of Mohammad Nasheed replaced thirty years of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s dictatorship. Augmenting woes for the incum-bent government were recent protests due to economic stagnation (which are actually the result of the policies taken under the previous authoritarian government) and against the ‘Westernised’ ways of President Nasheed. Also, drug trafficking and abuse have became a major social problem in the Maldives, marring the liberalisation and development that have characterised the Nasheed Government till date.

The government is certainly not in a position to offend its coalition partner, the Adhaalath Party, but also does not want to move away from the normative standards of being a hundred per cent Muslim country by discussing contra-ception and safe sex in public, thereby effectively being cornered into shying away from the larger issues that are connected to the debate. The Health Ministry, for example, has expressed its concern on HIV-AIDS through prostitution but it has been visibly hesitant to initiate pro-grammes and surveys on the issue, in spite of the huge informational lacunae which is critical to assessing the government policy that affects other spheres such as public health and demographics. Though it cannot be denied that alternatives cannot be explored. For instance, if students cannot be taught about contraception, they can be alerted about the dangers of unsafe abortions. The Health Ministry can redouble its efforts to promote contraception among married couples.

The abortion problem does not appear to have a solution in the near future if the govern-ment continues to shy away from sensitive issues that surround abortion; then couples will continue to find themselves in the same quandary. Political will has a major role to play in curbing the problem. Rather than seeing abortion as a problem, stress should be given on its origins, with awareness programmes on safe sex, use of contraceptives and dispersal of emergency contraceptive pills by the govern-ment. Medical facilities also need enhancement to reduce the cases of unsafe abortions and high MMR and IMR. The government can work in cooperation with organisations such as the United Nations to bring about qualitative changes similar to cooperation during its combat against drug abuse.

Furthermore, NGOs and voluntary organi-sations should be encouraged to undertake projects to educate people about the plausible consequences of unsafe sex and abortion. Policies that take the bull by the horns, and help break the taboo, can assist in moving towards some solution to the problem; else, as the local Minivan News observes, “society would continue to be marked by dualism: a public façade that does not reflect in the private sphere”.

The author is a Researcher at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS), New Delhi.

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