The events of recent weeks could create the impression that the only issues of importance for the Maldives involve the arguments of politicians, the statements of judges and the pronouncements of international diplomats.
by Dr Hassan Saeed
For most people in the Maldives the challenges they face are much closer to home and it’s important that everyone involved in our public policy debates remembers that.
A few days back a father of six called me asking for my help. He lives in a small rented apartment and supports his family with the income from a taxi that he drives.
He asked for my help because his two teenage sons were in trouble. One had been dismissed from their school and the other had been suspended.
As a result those sons have plenty of time on their hands and nothing much to do. The small flat they live in is so tiny that going outdoors is a relief. So naturally they are out on the streets mixing with all sorts of people. Often the wrong sort of people.
The desperate father has no idea what to do. He knew that it was only a matter of time before his two sons ended up in more serious trouble with the law.
There is no community support. There are no NGOs he could turn to. The school could not keep them because other parents vehemently objected to the return of his sons. There were no real options open to him to help resolve this family dilemma.
This is just one of hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of fathers’ and mothers’ stories most of which are swept under the carpet as if they do not exist. The easy response might be to blame the parents and the children. But does that resolve the issue?
We have a major problem in our education system which is in turn contributing to a host of social ills and criminal activities.
Our constitution requires the state to provide free primary and secondary education. We have some 80,000 enrolled students of which some 10-15% do not attend classes. However there is no way we can force them to go to school because, despite the requirement to provide education, attendance is not compulsory.
As the story I recounted earlier shows, we also have a problem of undisciplined students. We suspend them. When they get in real trouble we dismiss them. Often this is because the parents of other children will not agree to keep these students in the school. In addition our teachers are not trained to cope with disruptive children like these. As a result it is often in the best interests of the majority of our children to keep the difficult and disruptive ones out of the school system.
But what happens to the child who is suspended or dismissed?
If a young person - or an adult for that matter - ends up addicted to drugs we will spent some 12,000 Rufiyaa per month on their rehabilitation. If he or she ends up in prison, the tax payers will also have to part with some 17,000 Rufiyaa per month for every inmate.
However to keep a child in the education system only costs the taxpayer around 1,300 Rufiyaa per month – a very much smaller sum than we spend on drug rehabilitation and prisoners.
So from any long-term and cost/benefit perspective the solution is simple; we need to work on more effective ways to keep children in the education system until they reach adulthood.
We have to introduce compulsory education. There needs to be an early intervention process. Undisciplined children and those in trouble with the law should have a proper referral system where parents, teachers and even law enforcement officials should be able to identify and take action before the situation gets out of control.
This is an issue that I hope would gather wide public support. It must be seen as a serious priority. We all know we have budgetary constraints but surely we should consider the delay of a few harbour projects to urgently address this important task.
Failure to take action could see increasing numbers of our young people in the same position as those in the story above.
I hope that when our well-looked after MPs are back from their recess they will speed up important reforms such as the key one of compulsory education highlighted in this article.
I also hope that budget discussions focus not just on the usual strategy of money being distributed evenly and thinly to each island and every atoll with little direct impact, but on targeted, long-term solutions that can make a real difference.
It’s time we started thinking about important national issues like this and concentrating our energies on resolving them. It is only through that approach, focusing on issues that are relevant to the real needs of Maldivians, that politicians and our legislature can regain the trust they have lost in recent years.
Note: Dr Hassan Saeed is currently the Special Advisor to President Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik