Despite government pledges to ensure all woman across the country are being given basic support and education, one award-winning female entrepreneur believes that the Maldives currently provides little assistance for educated women hoping to own a business or pursue career development.
Aminath Arif, founder of a vocational training and community development group for young people called Salaam School, told Minivan News that she believed the government is on one hand very committed to grass root education to allow women to provide for themselves on a basic level. However, she added, efforts towards encouraging women to establish businesses of their own and become entrepreneurs were very limited.
Arif last month received a South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Women Entrepreneurs Excellence Award for her work in trying to provide training for women and young people across the country’s secluded islands and atolls.
The awards were handed out as part of an exhibition outlining the work of SAARC’s Women’s Entrepreneur Council that represents female business from across the 12 states that make up the association’s membership; such as the Maldives, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and India.
Arif was one of 12 women to receive the award at the ceremony at the Taj Coromandel in Chennai, in recognition of her “significant contribution to women and youth [and] her initiative in establishing an institute that reaches nationwide, and her innovative approach to address a very challenging issue.”
Annisul Huq, President for the SAARC’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry, addressed attendees during the award ceremony and exhibition, calling for greater government focus on empowering more women to become entrepreneurs in South Asia.
Arif told Minivan News that in the Maldives, women face a unique set of challenges pursuing business ambitions, preventing them from competing equally with male entrepreneurs who are institutionally-favoured by current regulation.
“We live in a very male environment,” she said. “Most women are resigned to it.”
Arif conceded that it was important to accept that a number of Maldivian men are also being marginalised in the hunt for skills and employment within the country, particularly on some islands where young people are provided with limited opportunities upon leaving school.
This lack of opportunities was seen by the Salaam School founder as being a major contributor to a sense of restlessness and lack of self confidence in some individuals. Beyond these shared challenges though, she claimed that women face additional difficulties and stigmas related solely to their gender rather than financial or business acumen.
One particular example, Arif said, were board meetings.
“When a woman sits across a table, she can face attitudes from male colleagues or peers that are difficult to overcome even with a solid business plan,” she explained.
Citing banks as another example of the challenges faced, she claimed that both male and female bank workers had a tendency to look less-favourably on a female business person looking for loans or financial support, solely on the issue of gender and societal attitudes.
In order to try and overcome potential challenges of gender discrimination in business, a step-by-step approach was needed to help encourage a greater entrepreneurial spirit in Maldivian women, Arif suggested.
Arif said that Salaam School was offering vocational certification to women in areas such as office and administration skills, in the hope that females can work closer to home and both support family and develop careers of their own. These skills are increasingly being offered among training in areas such as hospitality and literacy.
The Maldives National Chamber of Commerce and Industry (MNCCI) suggested that in its experience, it did not believe it was women, but rather small and medium businesses as a whole, that were being the hardest hit in the current national finance market.
“We are not going to differentiate between genders in business,” said a spokesperson for the chamber, who asked not to be identified.
With five of its 18 board members represented by women in fields such as resort ownership, the MNCCI said that its primary concern for its members was in trying to keep small and medium enterprises competitive against larger groups that hold more extensive resources and funding.
In the current market, the spokesperson claimed that business legislation in the Maldives was failing to differentiate between larger and more modestly-earning companies.
Offsetting societal concerns about women being at a disadvantage in the business world, the chamber spokesperson claimed that the commercialised banks within the Maldives looked towards “low risk investments” as a guiding principal.
The MNCCI said it believed therefore that banking groups in the Maldives looked solely for good collateral on loans rather than at specific genders to inform their decisions on business.