Britons urged to boycott Maldives over sexist laws

As 15-year-old rape victim faces 100 lashes, women's rights groups have urged David Cameron to intervene

David Cameron faces calls to intervene in the case of a 15-year-old female rape victim sentenced to 100 lashes in the Maldives as new figures showed the appalling state of women's rights in the Commonwealth country.

British couples are being asked to avoid the Maldives as a honeymoon destination to force the country's government to overturn the conviction of the girl, who was given the draconian sentence after being raped by her stepfather.

Many of the 500,000 tourists who holiday on the "paradise" islands every year are unaware of the country's appalling record on women's rights, with not one single conviction for rape in the past three years.

The Maldivian government's own figures show that 90 per cent of people sentenced to flogging are female, while one in three women between the ages of 15 and 49 have suffered physical or sexual abuse over the past five years.

A new poll of Maldivians for the global campaign group Avaaz reveals that 92 per cent of people think laws to protect girls and women from sexual assault should be reformed, while 79 per cent think current systems are not adequate or fair. The Asia Research partners poll also reveals that 73 per cent think punishments for sexual crimes are unfair to women, while 62 per cent want a reintroduction of the moratorium on flogging.

More than two million people worldwide have signed an online petition on Avaaz.org calling for the country's President, Mohammed Waheed Hassan, who seized power in a coup last year, to do more to protect women and children in the country.

Eva Abdulla, a Maldivian MP in the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party, said yesterday: "Britain is an emerging tourist market for the Maldivian tourism industry. We need the British and all other tourists to be aware of just where they are going to when they book that ticket to the Maldives. Following the coup of 7 February 2012, everyone, including all the women, have been disenfranchised, robbed of their vote.

"Visiting tourists also need to be aware of the institutional discrimination against women within the judicial system. Consider the statistics on flogging: that 90 per cent of the cases are women. Consider the statistics on rape charges: 0 per cent success rate of prosecution, with the latest being the release of four men accused of raping a 16-year-old, on the grounds that there wasn't enough evidence.

"The British Prime Minister should highlight the issue. The increasing religious fundamentalism followed by the attempts to subjugate women, both politically and otherwise, should be cause for alarm. This is a country of traditionally very strong women. However, increasingly, the Adhaalath Party, a self-claimed religious party which is in alliance with the current government, uses the religious card to scare off women. We women MPs are often threatened whenever we speak against the party."

The girl's sentence is due to be carried out when she turns 18. She is currently living in a state-run care home. Avaaz has concerns about her well-being as they were denied access to the girl and have been given very little information about the level and quality of social care.

Ms Abdulla said women have been subjected to beatings, sexual harassment and imprisonment by the police, and many are being prosecuted on charges ranging from "obstruction of police duty" to using foul language at the police.

At the time of the sentencing in March, Sir Richard Branson wrote to President Waheed, who responded by saying he would review the case. Bianca Jagger, the human rights campaigner, said last night: "It shocks me to see the unconscionable levels of discrimination and violence that women and girls are facing in the Maldives. I call on those in power to address the systemic problems of gender discrimination, violence against women and girls and the culture of impunity. Gender equality is not only possible, but necessary."

Despite promises from the Maldives government, the 15-year-old girl still faces being flogged. Alice Jay, campaign director at Avaaz, said: "While honeymooners relax in paradise, a war against women is being waged in the Maldives, which the government is refusing to stop. Over two million people from around the world want them to act, and now 92 per cent of Maldivians want laws against rape and sexual abuse. President Waheed can easily pass a law banning flogging but refuses to act to end this medieval practice."

A Foreign Office spokesman said that following the girl's sentencing in March, officials at the British High Commission in Colombo, which covers the Maldives, spoke to the Maldivian Deputy Foreign Minister to convey Britain's "deep concern" at the decision. At the time, Foreign Office minister Alistair Burt said he was "appalled" by the sentence, adding: "It is self-evident that a child subjected to such abuse should be treated as a victim, and given the appropriate counselling and legal help, and not be treated as a criminal."

Harmonious honeymoons

Maldives An appalling record on women's rights could keep honeymooners away. Barbados, with its excellence in literacy, education and sterling effort to protect citizens against climate change, is a great alternative.

Sri Lanka Widespread allegations of human rights abuses during and since the civil war will deter newlyweds. Samoa offers tranquillity in an island paradise while being a role model in the Pacific region for welfare and social cohesion.

Belize Human trafficking problems and laws that make it the only country in Central America to criminalise homosexuality make it off-putting as a honeymoon and tourism destination. Uruguay, however, has human rights laws that include the most liberal LG BT rights in South America.

Mexico Drug killings, narco-terrorism and general chaos should be sufficient to persuade those embarking on married life to divert to Costa Rica, ranked the No 1 Happiest Country in the Happy Planet Index.

South Africa Violence against women and children mar this popular honeymoon destination. But neighbouring Botswana also has attractive game reserves as well as a strong human rights record.

Kashmira Gander

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