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Can Engaging with Gang Members in the Maldives Break Cycle of Violence?

May 22, 2013

With presidential elections in the island nation of the Maldives approaching in September, anxiety over an increase in gang-led violence is on the rise, despite the Maldives Police Service having successfully reduced crime on the streets of the capital, Male, in recent months. As in most fledgling democracies, political uncertainty can breed violent acts in an effort to achieve narrow political gains. The Maldives is no exception – just last year, the country was torn by weeks of political violent protests on the streets, and clashes between the police and protesters ending with the unexpected resignation of President Mohamed Nasheed. This uncertainty, combined with social issues such as high unemployment and rising cases of domestic violence, have resulted in a significant number of people joining gangs.

Last year, The Asia Foundation conducted a seminal study that revealed the diverse reasons why people join gangs, including unemployment, a need to belong, a search for brotherhood and identity, drugs, desire for an affluent lifestyle, and bullying at school. The study indicated that there are 20 to 30 violent gangs in Male with 50 to 400 members each. The findings also suggest that due to high levels of domestic violence, divorce, and broken homes, joining gangs has become a popular choice for Maldivian youth looking outside of traditional family structures for support and protection. Since then, the Foundation has been piloting a series of programs in partnership with the Maldives Institute for Psychological Services, Training, and Research (MIPSTAR), a local civil society organization, to counter the growth of gang-related violence. Since the program began in September 2012, 34 gang members from 11 different gangs from across the city of Male, some of whom were gang leaders, have voluntarily registered for the program and have been actively engaged since its inception. While this sampling is small, the preliminary results have been positive.

MaldivesGangWorkshop

Gang members visit Kudabandos island, an hour-long ferry ride from Male, for a workshop organized by MIPSTAR.

Monthly meetings with the police to discuss grievances and strategies to address potential violence serve as a fulcrum to bring all gang members together. They come dressed neatly; arriving promptly to discuss among themselves the key issues that they would like to highlight in the monthly meeting with senior representatives from the Maldives Police Service. In the meeting last month, *Azim, who has been involved in gangs since he was 16 and is now a senior member, pointed out frustration over police harassment on the streets and arrests without evidence. He also said that being labeled a gang member results in closer scrutiny by the police officers, which he said was acceptable as long as they are not wrongfully arrested for crimes not committed by them.

These meetings with the police result in some honest reflection, with both parties proactively collaborating to find solutions to their respective challenges. The discussions reveal that one of the root causes for harassment and wrongful arrests were the beat police officers (police constables and sergeants who are permanently assigned to a neighborhood) who tend to view all gang members with suspicion and hostility. To help mitigate this, MIPSTAR is beginning to organize regular meetings with the beat officers to bridge the relationship between gangs and the police officers patrolling the streets of the city. While the program is still new, we hope that it will also contribute to addressing the trust deficit, which currently runs high.

The gang members also participate in vocational training courses of their choice, which is a mandatory feature of the program. The courses range from training to be a water sport and diving instructor, tour guide, and computer programmer to completing formal education. *Ahmed Mahruf, a past gang member who recently completed his three-month water sports course, said that as a water sport instructor he is ensured of a job with a good salary. Six such gang members, the majority of whom have criminal records, completed the water sports course last month and are currently employed as assistant instructors, under probation, with resorts close to Male. For them to secure regular jobs, the Maldives Police Service will issue a letter of recommendation to ensure their employability. This is a significant step as it helps drive down unemployment, one of the key issues perpetuating gang violence. The three most dangerous gang members as identified by the police are enrolled in O-Level (High School Diploma) programs and regularly seek individual counseling also offered in the program. They expressed that the present context is challenging. On the one hand, they want to engage actively in the program and reform themselves; but on the other hand, there is also a pressure to engage in illegal activities including contract violence.

The program also helps gang members form goals for their future and develop realistic plans to achieve them. This along with psychosocial support offered through individual and group counseling sessions which focus on understanding their interests and motivations, managing anger and frustration, and developing conflict resolution strategies to keep out violence, are critical for self-development.

The project office serves as a drop-in center for gang members participating in the program, and is open until midnight during the week. It provides them with their own space not only to hang out and discuss their concerns with each other and the counselors but also to support the implementation of the program. For example, Ahmed and Azim have developed a five-minute video slickly edited to showcase the session on how to develop new career skills. Azim regularly types out the monthly meeting notes with the police and other gang members. He is also supporting MIPSTAR with the study of gang violence in the two atolls of Laamu and Fuvamulah by bringing the local gang leaders and some of its members on board.

Though the program is in the early stages and the sampling very small, it is noteworthy that none of the 34 gang members associated with the program has committed a crime over the past seven months. Based on this pilot, the Foundation will soon expand the program to work with gangs in Laamu and Fuvamulah. While it’s too soon to tell for certain, based on what we’ve seen so far, we are hopeful that by reaching a far greater pool of potential and current gang members, this program can contribute to addressing some of the most pressing issues in the Maldives.

*Names have been changed for privacy.

Gita Sabharwal is The Asia Foundation’s deputy country representative in Sri Lanka. She can be reached at gsabharwal@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not necessarily those of The Asia Foundation.

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