Women leading youth brain drain due to “stifling environment”

“There is a lot of brain drain here, that’s part of why I came back. I didn’t want to be a brain drainer. I wanted to fix it.”

Halifa* is a 25 year-old Maldivian woman, educated and living abroad, who returned to work in the Maldives for a one year contract in a highly specialised professional field.

For many young people, Halifa says, Maldivian culture is an obstacle to growth and employment.

“Many youth wish they weren’t even Maldivian, they don’t know why they had to get stuck here,” she says. “When I talk to one of my friends, she says she wants to get out and come back when it’s better. That attitude is actually quite common.”

The Maldives has an unemployment rate of 32 percent, with women accounting for 24 percent overall. Young people comprise 40 percent of the population of the capital Male’. Of these youth, few females hold diplomas and many are unemployed.

“Lots of girls quit school to get married, and before long they’re having kids and trying to raise a family aged 19 or 20,” Halifa says.

For those who do look for jobs, the options are few.

“Most bosses hire for looks,” says Halifa. “Girls are often hit on by bosses, and some give in. Maybe they think they can handle it if it will improve their CV. But after the relationship, most girls leave the job and maybe take up the burqa. The experience may be so bad that they won’t look for another job.”

Growing religious fundamentalism is causing ripples of concern over female employment – although the Constitution allows for equal rights, few stand up for them. Instead, women increasingly accept a “culture of timidity and submissiveness,” in the words of another Maldivian woman, who is pursuing her doctorate.

It is a significant time for the strengthening of Maldivian democracy following the introduction of multi-party elections and many new freedoms. But it seems that women are both dissuaded from and reluctant to participate in the job sector. Frustrated by social, political and religious obstacles, youth are looking to apply themselves elsewhere. Is the Maldives facing a female brain drain?

“The ultimate goal is to raise an educated housewife”

A 2007 UNICEF report found that girls were almost 10 percent more likely to pass from primary to secondary schooling than boys, and repeated primary school less often. But sources say fewer girls are fulfilling their potential.

A government official who spoke to Minivan News said that many women lose their motivation to pursue higher education at grade 11, choosing marriage instead. The official said things are changing, but opportunities remain scarce for both genders.

“I think what women lack really is higher education, and men as well. If we want to move ahead, we need to focus on providing higher education,” she says.

Cost and accessibility contribute to the low achievement rates. Higher education is expensive by Maldivian standards, and the wait for scholarships is demoralising, says Halifa. Students who study abroad are often from wealthy families, and therefore not selected for their intelligence or ambition.

Halifa adds that Maldivian culture does not justify the effort of getting a degree: “Education is valuable in the Maldives, everyone wants their kids to have degrees. But then what do they do? They still expect them to be at home.”

According to an Asian Development Bank (ADB) report dated 2007, Maldivian cultural standards make it difficult for girls to pursue professional degrees.

“Cultural expectations regarding young women living away from home impact upon the numbers of female students studying abroad and hence female attainment of tertiary qualifications. From 1995 to 2000 a total of 876 students were awarded government scholarships to study abroad, 42% of which went to girls. From 2001 to 2005, 39% of undergraduate scholarships went to girls, 38% of post-graduate scholarships and 22% of doctorate scholarships.”

The Maldivian parliament has 77 members, only five of whom are female. MP for the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), Eva Abdulla, said the lack of higher education affects a woman’s chances in the job sector.

“It is difficult for women to get the education necessary to compete with men of the same age for the same job. Statistics show that women are receiving less education than men after tenth grade, whereas up until secondary school they are on par.”

Abdul said the pressure to stay home and become a mother was significant. She also acknowledged that a woman’s path to employment is unclear.

“Equality in the work force and equal opportunities for women won’t happen naturally if we just improve education. We need to make some real changes to show an improvement in the ratio of men to women in the work force,” she said.

In some cases, however, employers see education as a threat instead of an asset. Halifa’s boss allegedly told her she was lucky to be hired with a degree. Since the boss only held a diploma, she preferred hiring employees whose qualifications did not jeopardise her own.

“Cover up and wear the burqa”

Halifa says her boss made unflattering assumptions about her personal life since she was over 20 and unmarried.

“I was guilty before I even knew I was being judged,” she says.

There is “not one single resource” for women who feel they are receiving unfair treatment at work, said Abdulla. “I don’t know if we have even made it comfortable for women to talk to each other here.”

Halifa adds that complaints of sexual harassment only provoke criticism of her religious practice: “They just tell me to cover up more and wear the burqa,” she says.

Although Maldivian law and society allow for equal rights between genders, speaking out is considered brash and unfeminine, and the cultural mindset of wearing the burqa means more girls are being married young without finishing their education. One woman called this shift in behavior “brain wastage: a deliberate refusal to apply the brains that one has – and this is the biggest problem that Maldivian women face today.”

Behind the pack

“Gender equality is an area in which the Maldives is lagging behind most countries in achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs),” UNDP advisor Ferdinand von Habsburg-Lothringen observed at the Democracy Day ceremony earlier this month. “Democracy is dependent on not just 50 percent of the people. With only half of the eligible work force participating, growth will not flourish in the Maldives.”

According to Abdulla, women want to work but cannot find the domestic support necessary for them to work outside the home.

“I have not met many who say they would rather stay home,” she said. “But the pressure of managing a career and a home is serious. Women have two jobs: one paid, one unpaid.”

The stress on women is detrimental to economic growth.

ADB reports that almost half of Maldivian households are headed by women, while less than four percent of men contribute to household tasks. Approximately 25 percent of women-headed households depend on income from a husband who works away from home, and one sixth are run by widows or divorcees.

“Divorced women and their children are particularly economically vulnerable and [have] limited choices to improve their situation apart from remarrying: Maldivian women have on average four marriages by the time they reach 50 years of age,” states the report.

In 2007, ADB found that female-headed households accounted for 47 percent of the population, one of the highest rates worldwide. Only 21 percent of these households were economically active.

A government official familiar with the issue said “the middle market is the primary area of employment for women”, with few women advancing to the top. She added that she is often the only woman at a business meeting.

Most sources agreed that the recent rise in religious fundamentalism could have a long-term effect on women’s employment prospects.

In 2009, opposition Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) MP Rozaina Adam introduced the Soft Loans Provision for Women to enable women to borrow small amounts of money and set up small businesses from home. She said the bill would particularly benefit island women who have fewer employment options.

The bill was stopped when it reached the Islamic Ministry, which declared interest haram.

“This is ridiculous, because our banks operate with interest,” Adam said. “But when interest involves women the Ministry calls it haram. And it’s only a tiny amount of interest, about six percent maximum.”

Adam said the loans provided by the bill would range from Rf5,000 to Rf300,000.

“Unless we do something about the growing religious fundamentalism in the Maldives, women will only stay at home and breed children in the coming years. That is not constructive for a growing country and economy. It would be a major economic setback,” said Adam.

“We are a country in transition so what happens during this time defines what happens next.”

Women face many challenges to employment: complicated social expectations, unclear motives for education, an increasingly strict Islamic code, and scrutinising work environments. If current social trends continue, there will be little room and few incentives for the next generation to contribute to the country’s growth.

“Educated Maldivians find themselves intellectually stifled in the current climate, especially with the astonishing gains that ultra-religious conservatives have made in Maldivian society in the last decade,” observed one source.

At this year’s 55th session of the Commission on the Status of Women, Abdulla said gender stereotyping and violence “threaten[ed] to erode our gains and erect obstacles to future progress.” She warned that unless key institutions such as Parliament include more women in their decision-making processes, “policies will continue to lack the multifaceted approaches required to address the complex social, political and economic needs of our country.”

Recent initiatives such as the Domestic Violence Bill and the National University Act are positive steps. But Abdulla said evidence suggests more families are removing girls from education systems and keeping them in the domestic circuit. “We believe that religious extremism that shapes negative attitudes towards women and girls forms the genesis of this devolution towards female education and empowerment,” Abdulla said at the session.

One woman warned that if religious and social trends continue, “in ten years women would be lucky to leave the house, let alone the country.”

Although most sources agreed that religious fundamentalism challenges the thinking, working woman, some say it is not actively preventing women from going to work or improving their lot.

Halifa is optimistic about her generation, but said success depends on key changes. “I think when our generation is in charge they will be people who have gotten out, who have seen other cultures, who are more familiar with the power of women. The religious guys are still an issue for development,” she says.

One government source added that compared to Mexicans, Maldivians do not have a strong urge to cross a border.

Adam cautioned that the Maldives should be aware of the outside world’s appeal to youth. “If we can’t offer challenging jobs and salaries that are competitive with what other countries are offering, we have a hard time keeping our educated youth involved at home,” she said.

Abdulla says she believes that there would be significant opportunities for youth in the government and private sectors in the next five years, but felt that more needed to be done to improve the working environment.

“Equality in the work force and equal opportunities for women won’t happen naturally if we just improve education,” she said. “We need to make some real changes to show an improvement in the ratio of men to women in the work force.”

*Name changed according to request


28 thoughts on “Women leading youth brain drain due to “stifling environment””

  1. minivan news. just before reading this report i knew they will be throwing dirt on religion someway or the other.

  2. I prefer to read short reports.
    This is a far too long for my liking.
    This could have been published in parts, like those of a soap opera.

    (PS. Anyone knows what a soap opera is called a soap opera? Is there a shampoo opera as well? And a conditioner opera?)

  3. @fathimath: call a spade a spade. the rapidly spreading religiousness in the country is a datriment to womens development and empowerment. It's true whether you like it or not

  4. Good report.

    As usual, it will not sit well with those who would rather live in their carefully constructed alternate reality.

    As the first comment shows, we'd much rather shoot the messenger than either acknowledge the facts, or provide a reasoned counter argument.

  5. Great article...I dont know why people instead of reflecting on what the article says, criticizes Minivan news for raising the issue.. shoot the messenger, that'll solve the problem!

    When I first started working back in 1999, it was a more even playing field for women in terms of social attitude... It's changed quite a lot, am still left wandering when and why things had changed so rapidly...

  6. The "rapidly spreading religiousness" is not the root cause itself.

    Consider this story:

    Young Aisha irons shirts and peels onions as a hobby. Young Ahmed watches sports and texts long-distance girlfriends as his pastime. Both live in H. Houseofathousandcorpses.

    The only mental stimulation Aisha gets is from catching the local gossip when she sneaks out with her friends for a jugo. The only trivia Ahmed can quote is secondhand knowledge of soccer matches learned over Nescafe' milks with his friends at Haabaru Kada No. 467.

    Aisha finishes her O'levels and applies for a fairly high-paying position as a "secretary" at the Maldives Godknowswhat Council. She is not given a job description, no day to day tasks to do or projects to handle at her job. She sits and chats on facebook and types the occasional letter.

    Ahmed and his friends decide that he should run for the Island Council. They go to various cafe's at various hours of the day to discuss how good Ahmed would be for his constituency.

    Aisha buys phones, jewellery, lingerie and stuffed snakes off Ebay to satisfy her boredom and lack of direction. She befriends a skinny boy with a fair complexion and buys him gifts to make sure that he does not love her rival, his wife more than he does her.

    Ahmed provides his friends with Nasigoreng, Bamigoreng and the whole spectrum of Fried Rice to make sure that they will help him in his campaign. The occasional renting of a guest house room ensures that all his friends are "completely" satisfied.

    Aisha gets pregnant. Her boyfriend chooses to stay with his wife. She gets an abortion. Her best friend lets everyone know. Her spending sprees on Ebay puts her in debt. Her single mother becomes verbally abusive.

    Ahmed's political ambitions go up in smoke. His wild spending sprees on his "campaign managers" put him in debt. He cannot change his lifestyle so he borrows to support his Lavazzas and Fried Rice/Noodles/Koththu Roshi. Lands himself in more debt.

    Finally Ahmed turns to religion to save himself from depression. His friends at the mosque provide him with funds and a way to alleviate his boredom and take out the anger at his lack of success on society.

    Aisha decides to escape the life she lives in and meets a religious community on the internet where she hopes to meet a man.

    Aisha meets Ahmed. They get married. Aisha wears a hijab. Ahmed grows his beard. They spend extravagantly, make mistakes due to their poor education and ignorance and listen to Sheikh Rafeeq because his voice sounds good and his promise of damnation for the rich make them feel better.

  7. I must say I slightly disagree with the phrase "the cultural mindset of wearing the burqa means more girls are being married young without finishing their education. "

    While the arab-style burqa is indeed increasing in popularity, I do not believe that the garment presents any impediment to education.

    There are plenty of Maldivian schoolchildren and working women who wear it, and are doing well.

    There are other factors, however, that do pose a threat to women, not the least of which is the attempts of the Salafis in our country to define a woman's role as belonging inside the kitchen or the bedroom.

    They also dangerously spread the idea that it is unIslamic for a woman to so much as step out the house with a male escort, which is unacceptable.

    Such attempts to keep 50% of the population restrained should be confronted strongly by liberal society and women themselves.

  8. @tsk tsk

    The small "fictional" reflects very well whats going on.

    One thing that bugs me is all these people believe that they are above average in intellect and knowledge and somehow feel smug with a iPhone in hand.

  9. Good! We have no room for outspoken feminist jezebelles in our fair and peaceful islands, where the women are to be virtuous, diligent and obedient to their fathers, then husbands, then daughters and sons. The idea of them leaving home and living independently and probably in sin, as do the Westerners, is an abomination and most detestably contrary to the proper station of their delicate gender, members of which are best suited to the tasks of quiet religious study, home-making, child breeding and filial devotion.

    For only good Muslim sisters can produce good Muslim brothers. With proper viture, all shall be well fed! All shall be well bred!

  10. Does this whole brain drain mean that eventually Maldives would get dumber and Dumber, since brainy smart people are moving out of the country.

    @tsk tsk
    The small “fictional” tale reflects very well whats going on.
    One thing that bugs me is all these people believe that they are above average in intellect and knowledge and somehow feel smug with a iPhone in hand.

  11. I am more than 100% sure this Fathimath is a man using a woman's name. If not, you are one twisted woman who is absolutely blind to the plight of women in this country. Do you not get it? The whole purpose of the religious groups are aimed at punishing us, it is not about the religion that you and I love. In every corner of our lives people are trying to trample and stifle us. We have no jobs, we are not educated, we look after our children single handedly and are blamed when they become addicts… we are left by husbands who walks off with the poor servant girl in the house (she is duped as well), we are not allowed to express ourselves, we are denied even our own beauty, we are harassed and hit on every where, even if we get rapped it is our fault. Wake up women (man!). Chances are your grandmother had a freer more independent life than you are doing now (if you are a woman) If you cannot stand with the women of this country at least shut up…. Aminath,( named after my grandmother who certainly had a freer life a century ago, that I can only dream of)

  12. @ Briko

    "One thing that bugs me is all these people believe that they are above average in intellect and knowledge and somehow feel smug with a iPhone in hand."

    Whats wrong in thiing that someone is "above average in intellect and knowledge?"

  13. “This is ridiculous, because our banks operate with interest,” Adam said. “But when interest involves women the Ministry calls it haram. And it’s only a tiny amount of interest, about six percent maximum.” HARAAM IS HARAAM THERE IS NO LIMIT...

  14. TSK TSK story is only 98.9% accurate. sad but true. this is the sorry state of our maldivian society. only thing that needs to be added is that Aisha was probably sexually abused by her uncle as a child and that Ahmed starts smoking brown sugar after his political career ends but before he finds enlightenment in Sheik Fareed. that would make this 100% accurate.

  15. "minivan news. just before reading this report i knew they will be throwing dirt on religion someway or the other."
    ... dirt has to be thrown at people who use religion to subjugate women. Islam is a religion of respect for all genders. Don't victimize urself

  16. I am a women i would say pushed by society to work..I work in a company where half the senior management are women. I have also pursued higher studies and wear buruga, and i feel embaressed to stay home just to look after my kids as people might think I am dumb and stupid.given the choice I would stay home to give a better quality of life to my three kids who are looked after by my sri lankan nanny. I get no support to quit my job from my family and friends. I know so many women who dream of having one job at home like me, but who are forced to take two jobs (one at home and one at office) to be considered normal and liberated. There was a time when being a mother alone or a homemaker alone was respectable. But nowadays society doesnt give a women breathing space. it slave drives her to do more than she desires... please stop advocating for our rights...we are denied none whether muslim or not in this society

  17. I agree with Yaamyn that the hijab in any of it's forms should be no hindrance to either education or a career. I know a couple of ladies who wear the niqab as well as the full hijab who hold a PhD and a Masters Degree, respectively. In addition to that there are numerous other ladies who wear just the hijab who have attained various levels of higher education and have persued careers as well. The root cause of this "brain drain" is not the wearing of hijab, or even niqab; it is the societal mindset that women somehow are inferior to men, and that they would be better off at home. It is the mindset that women who dare to compete in the world of politics or business or law or anywhere else other than the home environment are somehow lesser beings. It is also the lack of opportunities and the lack of intelligent policies to combat any brain drain, be it for men or women. The sad truth is that for the past decade or so, while every other politician has been busy trying to win points, the fundamental establishment (such ad Adhaalath and Jamiyathul Salaf) have been well organized with their recruitment of our youth into their belief systems. While there is nothing wrong with being religious, the average fundamentalist view of the woman is sadly not held in high regard, other than as a wife and a mother and a home-maker. So without a more established organized moderate Islamic view, and without a clear redirection of the people's mindset guided through government policy, the brain drain will not only continue, it will get worse, in regard to both genders. Viva la revolution.

  18. @women,

    I agree, there might be some bias against women who chose to stay at home and look after their family.. I personally think it's a much harder job than a 9-5 job. However, I think it is increasingly becoming more acceptable to stay at home than to go out and work.. On the contrary, the winds are changing (for worse) for women who chose to go out and work.. There are people in our society who now believes we women should not go out without a 'Mahram'!!

    The same way you should be NOT judged for your decision to stay at home out of CHOICE, women who chose to go out and work should not be judged either..

  19. @Tsk Tsk

    Spot on, Briko makes your story even more accurate. In our country, parents don't encourage their kids to aim for something higher, something different. They want their son to be in a random office working for minimum wages, and their daughter, who probably has just a grade 10 education, married off to an older man who has a higher income. I can surely say that this has become the dream of many parents. And the government has failed miserably in the education industry. Instead of trying to provide the best education, and encouraging more students to pursue higher education, they settle for teaching at the lowest standards. I remember when I was in secondary school, trainee teachers came to teach us, and their english speaking level was lower than the dumbest guy in class. And yet, these same teachers, I see them today as full time teachers in my former school. At this rate, children aren't going to get any better, they will continue being dumber and dumber, and it is VERY evident that the 0.1% or even less who have decided to go abroad for higher education, aren't coming back. Especially the ones in western countries, because many don't feel that they have a secure future in the Maldives, even if they return with better education. I'm not saying I'm the smartest person out there, but I'm currently in a western country, and I'm in University, with absolutely no desire to come back. Maldivians should start taking risks, away from just politics. Young kids should be encouraged to aim at starting businesses, becoming biologists and whatnot. Instead, what we see today is parents encouraging their boys to get employed as soon as they finish grade 10 education, and scream filth at the front of political gatherings. The girls are encouraged to get married to a rich dude, and become a housewife.

  20. @ women, Stop pushing your luck! if you stay at home the kids will hardly recognize you and that shirt you so wanted to iron…. well you would definitely want to burn it. If you stay at home you will be so damn bored and lonely, (chances are you will still hang on to you Sri Lankan nanny as well while you watch Kasauti); you will have less income and worse that is now no longer under your control. You will want to seek alternative entertainment, next thing you know you are texting your childhood boyfriend who mind you, you left because he was a sleaze ball in the first place. Your husband is still a jolly good fellow. Anyway, now you cannot even pay your own phone bill so your husband is paying for you to cheat on him. Again, I humbly ask you, if you do not want to work for rights of women in the country at least don’t try to destroy what we have.

  21. the gender issues in this country is not all due to rise of religous fundamentalism...it exists at all levels, and is very much ingrained into the brains of maldivian men from an early age, including all those videos where scantily clad maldivian girls gyrate their bodies and is shown harrassed by a bloke, and ultimately ends up falling for that guy.

  22. i believe most of it is true, some of it is just exaggerated version. Minivan can't jump into conclusions without doing research

  23. Im a Maldivian studying in Australia and more than half of the girls studying over here wear Burga.. I seriously dont think that this problem exists to the extend described by minivan anywhere in Maldives.. The motive of publishing such an article is very questionable

  24. @Shahudh,

    Return to the Maldives at once!

    It is most odious and detestable that our Muslimmah flowers are living in these corrupt and decadent Western orgy-filled Nations, away from the supervision of their families, where they will become culturally contaminated and thereupon be rendered unsuitable to the task of breeding faithful sons and daughters, diligent and attentive to the principles and duties of our glorious religion!

  25. @Shahudh

    The problem DOES exist to the entent described by Minivan. Of course you wouldn't see it, considering the fact that you start reading with the assertion that this article is a Zionist, gay, Christian Atheist propaganda piece.

  26. i am a maldivian woman, with a western training in a specialised field like many of my batchmates. it was my choice to come back to my roots. Almost all my former classmates both men and woman have had the opportunity to further education and growth in their professional careers, (those that had the grades and the work ethic that is!) there are plenty of opportunity to maldives both in the public service and in the private sector and there are many decent of men i have worked with in maldives,

    like any other country, Maldives too has its fair share of social evils including mysogyny. do your background, and trust your instinct, and the right fit of people to work with.

    women of this country who are chosing to migrate, i believe are doing so for some other reason, perhaps economic, perhaps better quality of services and wider choices available elsewhere......most men, (except perhaps danish men) are, i find usually the same mix everywhere......pretty sexist the world over.

    this is just another attempt by minivan to paint maldives and maldivians as uncouth barbarians.....


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