The Maldives celebrated the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day yesterday evening at a function jointly organised by the UNFPA and NGO Thirees Nuvaeh.
Speakers included the country’s first female MP and former Health Minister Aneesa Ahmed, serving MP Eva Abdulla, Sheikh Mohamed Qubadh Abubakru and Savithri Goonesekara, Emeritus Professor of Law at the University of Colombo in Sri Lanka.
UNFPA Country Lene Christiansen observed that women in the Maldives carried a lot of responsibility, with the country having of the highest ratios of female-led households in the world at 47 percent. Half of the time this was due to migration of the spouse for work, and in one in six cases, because of the divorce or death of the spouse, she explained.
However female unemployment was three times higher than for men, she noted, and had a mere six percent representation in parliament. In addition, a third of women aged 15-49 had reported suffering physical or sexual violence.
Christiansen also noted the rising practice of home schooling of girls, “which denies them access to the school system including higher level education, and restricts other opportunities in life.”
“The constitution upholds gender equality and non discrimination, but in reality women are disadvantaged and cannot participate in economic and political activities,” she said.
Civil society had a crucial role to play as “a watchdog” for women’s rights, and in ensuring that politicians were held accountable to the female half of their constituencies.
Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) MP Eva Abdulla claimed that the Maldives’ newfound freedom of expression, which many women had fought for, was now being misused “to attack and demean women in the name of religion.”
Instead, Abdulla said, “Islam is the religion that taught us to respect our mothers and our women above all else.”
“We have been reluctant to address this issue head on. Women have been under constant attack for two years and we have not been able to counter it – we simply don’t have confidence [do to so],” she said.
Equality was, she said, about ensuring women had equal access to opportunity – something that had not happened despite the efforts of women to bring about democracy and human rights in the Maldives.
“A lot of women were involved in the last five years of the democratic movement,” Abdulla said, “but [afterwards], men inherited all the jobs.”
In her speech, Goonesekara emphasised that “women in the West had to fight for aspirations for equal life chances and for their rights a century ago. They struggled for the right to vote, to work, and for safe and fair conditions of work and employment.”
The origin of women’s day stemmed from working women, she said, who united after a fire in a US garment factory at the turn of the 20th century that killed 146 women.
“We have to remind ourselves that we are members of the international community,” she said, “and sometimes in our countries our own traditions and governance are seen as something different from those of the international community. But we live in a connected world and are bound by principles of the UN charter on human rights.”
“Equality,” she said, “is a much misunderstood word, but it is precisely about giving women equal life chances and sharing the world with men.”
The event concluded with entertainment including Boduberu/Dhigudhandi by Villigili and Hura Groups, Dhivehi Peoms, Bandhi, Raivaru, and Buzura Dance.