A new study finds that Maldivian women are the least employed demographic in the resort industry, accounting for only three percent of the total eight percent of female workers at resorts in 2010. Local and foreign men constitute 92 percent of the industry.
Tourism directly accounts for 30 percent of the Maldives’ GDP, and for 70 percent indirectly.
The thesis, “Women in Tourism: Challenges of Including Women in the Maldivian Resort Sector” was prepared by Eva Alm and Susanna Johansson during their five-month stay in the Maldives in 2010.
According to their findings, “culture, religion, and women’s role in the family, the role of the family, safety, geographical spread, transportation, education and awareness” were the main factors preventing women from seeking resort employment.
Interviews show that resort life is perceived as ‘western’ and imposes the negative practices of consuming pork and alcohol, supporting nudity, and allowing extramarital sexual encounters on Muslim Maldivian women.
By contrast, Maldivian male resort employees are exempt from these risks.
“Working in a resort as a woman is perceived as bad, as going the wrong way, as not a good place for a woman to be,” said one source.
Women interviewed said social stigma prevented them from seeking resort employment. The combination of not being able to come home at night and working at a resort with a significantly higher ratio of men to women is considered intimidating, sources said.
One father said, “If my daughter would not have the possibility of going home every night, I would not let her work in the resort, it is not safe […] if a woman will not come home at night after work, and she would maybe have a relationship with a man in the resort, which could result in a pregnancy […] this would have very bad impact on the family and would not be tolerated.”
Maldivians who engage in extramarital intercourse risk social ostracism, and women sometimes face punishment for pregnancy outside marriage. The country has among the highest divorce rates in the world.
Parents are said to play a significant role in a woman’s professional future. “In Maldives, in our religion, we are not allowed to drink or be with just any guys and things like that. So our parents are scared about that,” said one young woman.
One resort manager said awareness is a major challenge to promoting female employment. “Convincing the parents is difficult. They are very possessive of the girls. The parent’s perception is that they will mix with the European culture and do bad things such as drinking alcohol.”
A government representative added that “there needs to be a focus on educating mothers and fathers of the women who are willing to join the industry and demonstrate that it is perfectly in order for their daughters to work in the resort sector.”
Female unemployment in the Maldives is estimated at 24 percent, while male unemployment is only eight percent. Reports indicate that the industrialization of fishing, an enterprise previously shared between women and men, and the beginning of tourism eliminated the need for two incomes per household.
According to the report, Maldivian culture does not encourage women to take on entrepreneurial or leadership roles in business. Women are found to be raised to follow men, and a lack of domestic care services prevent women from leaving their posts as mothers and wives.
Women interviewed said that in order to employ more women resorts should “become more Muslim.” Most said they would not work where they could not wear the burqa, although when told that several resorts allow the burqa they maintained their position.
Women were also unaware that many resorts provide mosques for their Muslim employees.
Separating resorts from local island culture was an early tourism strategy, claims the report. Tourism officials at the time were said to believe the policy would protect local culture.
The separation is now considered a factor in island underdevelopment. “The problem we have is that we have first class resorts in the Maldives, next to them are the third world local communities, the villages,” said a government representative quoted in the study. “We have to get these engaged as the people from the island communities can get direct benefit from the resort industry through participatory involvement and inclusive growth.”
Some resort companies, such as Hilton and Soneva, try to compensate for this gap by outsourcing tasks to local islands.
Hilton resort began the “Green Ladies” program, bringing in groups of women from neighboring islands to sweep the resort during the day. Soneva supported the Veymandhoo women’s production of chili sauce in 2008.
Soneva’s Social and Environmental Manager said localizing resort development made Muslim women more comfortable in new professional opportunities. “It has got all the elements necessary for a solid livelihood project. You got women involved, it’s got livelihoods, it’s got commercial value to it, and it’s got localization aspect to it”.
Yet island production capacity does not meet resort demand. “’The communities have to be very much upscale to be able to manage small businesses, because resorts are big business and they wont rely on people who can‟t provide for their demands’”, said one source.
“Women in Tourism: Challenges of Including Women in the Maldivian Resort Sector” was presented at Sweden’s Lund University in May, and is due for publication this month.