Trouble seems to be brewing in the Maldives, an island nation situated in the Indian Ocean, known for its unbounded natural beauty and luxurious island resorts.
by Agney M.
Preferred by the rich and famous as the ultimate romantic getaway destination, the country depends upon the tourism industry for about 28% of its GDP and more than 60% of its foreign exchange. It enjoys the highest GDP per capita among the South Asian countries. After suffering extensive property damage exceeding $400 million in the December 2004 tsunami, the economy has bounced back largely due to tourism, post-tsunami reconstruction and the development of new resorts.
Male, the capital, is an island city located at the southern edge of the North Male Atoll and is the centre of all administration and bureaucracy as well as the commercial hub of the Maldives. It is the fourth most densely populated island in the world. Despite Islam being the official religion, the city is extensively urbanized and western influences are visible as well. In 2008, the first free and fair presidential elections were held after demands of political reform were made by the people, in which Mohamed Nasheed was elected as President.
Presently there is political strife in the country due to the controversial resignation of Mohamed Nasheed as president on 7 February 2012, following a mutiny by elements of the national police force. He was succeeded immediately by Vice-president Mohammad Waheed Hassan, who is still currently in office.
Among the many problems affecting Maldivian society, the battle with drug abuse remains a major adversary to this day. Post-tsunami, a massive surge in the drug use among youth has been observed, posing a continued threat to the health and security of the people. By conservative estimates, one in every 100 adults in the Maldives struggles with substance abuse.
The problem is so deep-rooted that every Maldivian family has at least one member who is an addict. UNICEF statistics show that the average age for first time drug users is 12.
According to the National Narcotics Control Bureau, around 20% of the population under the age of 15 is using banned substances. Heroin, which is one of the most highly addictive and destructive drugs, is the most frequently abused in the country.
The increased use of injection drugs in turn elevates the risk of HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C and other blood-borne diseases. Heroin use among girls also leaves them vulnerable to sexual exploitation and abuse.
The rise in drug abuse has been induced by poor employment prospects, overcrowding on the islands and boredom among the youth. Peer pressure and social acceptance is also a major cause of this problem as drug use has become a recreational activity. The city’s parks and seaside haunts, earlier places for youth to socialize, have become sites of crime and drug use. Addicts are no longer even discreet about their activities as they openly deal drugs on the main streets. Narcotics are easily smuggled into the Maldives as it is spread over 1,192 islands clustered into 20 atolls which are close to international sea lanes. Within the last 100 days of President Mohammad Waheed’s presidency, the police have confiscated narcotics worth MVR 1,357,900, claims Commissioner of Police Abdulla Riyaz.
The country’s main Drug Rehabilitation Center located at Himmafushi Island, about 15km from Male, treats about 250 addicts annually. They are encouraged to engage in creative activities and the gardens are maintained by the residents. Some recovering users re-embrace religion in order to obtain some structure, order and spiritual guidance in their life.
Journey, a UNICEF-supported NGO, was initiated by former addicts and helps recovering addicts sustain their recovery. It offers counseling, educational outreach and other support activities. According to estimates, more than 80% of recovering addicts relapse after rehabilitation.
The National Drug Agency (NDA) is one of the prime agencies making serious efforts to fight the growing drug problem. The National Drug Use Survey is conducted by them with technical assistance from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) and United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). A special drug court has also been established to deal specifically with drug related cases. This court works in close coordination with the NDA and the Prosecutor-General’s office.
Despite strict measures by the government and filling of Maldivian prisons, the number of addicts doesn’t appear to have reduced. Recovering addicts are often lead back down the same road by their friends. Being a small place, it is difficult to avoid such friends as most people know each other. Moreover, even the addicts who have undergone rehabilitation are looked at with suspicion and find great difficulty in getting employment anywhere.
The easy availability of drugs and the lack of future prospects often force them to relapse into the habit. The current political instability in the country keeps the police forces busy, encouraging the addicts to blatantly trade and use drugs in public.
According to Abdulla Faseeh, Senior Counselor at the NDA, the main reason for the persistence of the problem is the attitude of the public.
“People often dismiss the problem as someone else’s. They don’t realize that the problem is a social one, not an individual one. It affects everyone.” He also claims that drug abuse is not the problem but the cause of several other problems such as crime and social deviancy. “It may not be apparent, but the addicts are equally desperate to get out of the habit. But the social structure and attitude of suspicion is what drives them back to drugs. A little empathy and understanding on the part of the people and families of the recovering addicts can go a long way in assisting their recovery.”