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


Social stigma limiting employment of local women in resort industry, report finds

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.


Comment: Islamic Sharia is the solution to social evils

This article originally appeared on the website of the Islamic Foundation of the Maldives. Republished with permission.

Many westerners and human rights campaigners have the false notion that Maldives is a country ruled according to sharia (Islamic law). However, the truth is that apart from some aspects of marriage, divorce and legal issues involving inheritance, the courts in the Maldives do not decide matters according to Islamic sharia and this dreaded word sharia has nothing to do with most practices of the Maldivian people. There never was a time that sharia with all its principles was applied in the lives of Maldivians.

Just seeing burqa clad women and a few bushy bearded men on the streets is no proof to accuse Maldives becoming a safe haven for Islamic extremists or al-Qaeda terrorists. According to non-Muslim westerners, the hallmarks of an extremist or terrorist Islamic society is that adulterers are stoned to death, murderers are executed, hands of the thieves are chopped off, rapists, apostates and dealers in narcotics are beheaded, women are forced to wear burqa in public, men or women involved in immorality are openly flogged.

Apart from some few public lashings in the past none of the above mentioned methods of punishments continue to be used to punish criminals in the Maldives.

Nevertheless, the non-Muslim westerners fear that soon or later the Maldives will fall ‘victim’ to Islamic sharia and this country would cease to be a tolerant Muslim nation towards non-Muslims. They are disappointed to find that with the introduction of democracy the opportunity to obtain Maldivian citizenship for non-Muslims has failed to materialise.

The Article 9 (d) of the Maldives Constitution states, “..a non-Muslim may not become a citizen of the Maldives.” Moreover, the law no. 6/94 prohibits both Muslims and non-Muslims alike of carrying out Christian missionary work in the Maldives, and also of acting in a manner that may endanger the religious harmony of the people of this country.

Another appalling thing for the non-Muslim westerners is a clause in Article 142 of the Constitution of Maldives, which states, “..when deciding matters on which the Constitution or the law is silent, Judges must consider Islamic sharia.”

This sharia is something which makes the evangelists, the hypocrites, the LGBT’s, the agnostics and the irreligious tremble with fear. The hardcore democrats in this country believe that if sharia begins to take effect on people’s lives, the Maldives would lose its currently dignified place among the community of nations.

According to them, sharia means the husband taking three more wives to humiliate his first wife, the absolute enslavement of women folk in the society and the country becoming an enemy of the West and the United States in particular.

There are people who think otherwise by citing the example of Saudia Arabia which implements most aspects of sharia but remains a close friend of the United States and the European Union. Non-Muslims visiting Saudi Arabia and other gulf states are more secure than those visiting South Africa and Latin American countries. The high crime rates in those countries send a chill down the spine of anyone thinking of visiting those countries. ]

The Islamic Republic of Iran, a country accused of all sorts of intolerance towards non-Muslims by the West, attracted 2.3 million tourists in 2009, whereas the number of tourists visiting Maldives only reached 500,000 for the same period. Out of the 2.3 million tourists visiting Iran, a significant number come from the West and the European Union.

Muslim countries are often singled out for criticism for not allowing drinking in public, setting a guideline for women to dress up in public and harsh penalty for heinous crimes such as child molestation, rape, murder, homosexuality, arson and robbery, etc.

The Westerners and the so called human rights activists fail to realise that many non-Muslim countries have the death penalty embodied in their constitution. In the United States, many criminals are sentenced to be executed by lethal injection or sending them to electric chair. In 2009 alone, the United States executed 52 criminals; out of this number, 51 were put to death by lethal injection.

The official method of execution in China is by firing squad. Currently there are 68 crimes that are eligible for capital punishment in China. Singapore and Vietnam are among the countries with the highest per capita execution rate in the world. No state is willing to tolerate people involved in committing brutal and callous crimes and acts of high treason or subversion. Take the case of Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber who was executed by lethal injection in June 2001.

Another embarrassment for the evangelists, atheists and islamophobiacs is the Article 10 (a) and (b) of the Maldives Constitution which states, “The religion of the State of Maldives is Islam. Islam shall be one of the bases of all the laws of the Maldives.” “No law contrary to any tenet of Islam shall be enacted in the Maldives.”

A complication arises when a native Muslim Maldivian renounces his faith and becomes a non-Muslim. The Article 9 (a) (1.2.3) of the Maldives Constitution states the ground rules to qualify for the citizenship of this country. Though the Constitution states that no citizen of the Maldives may be deprived of citizenship, conversion from Islam to other faiths automatically invalidates a person’s citizenship as the act nullifies the condition for receiving or retaining citizenship.

Most law experts in Maldives are of the view that an apostate (renegade) who refuses to repent and continues in the state of unbelief, then the State is under obligation to annul his citizenship.

Some people mistakenly believe that sharia only deals with crimes and punishments. Though the prescribed punishments are included within the framework of sharia, punishments are just a small portion of sharia.

Islam insists on blocking all the roads leading to evil and crime before imposing sharia punishments on the people. Therefore, the poor and the destitute have to be provided for by means of zakath, state assistance, various forms of charity or employment, etc. It would be a total injustice to chop off the hands of poor people for stealing food whose children are dying of hunger. It would certainly be a ridiculous thing to allow brothels to be run and implement sharia punishments for fornication or adultery.

Also allowing women folk to appear semi-naked and drunk in public and beheading rapists is nonsensical. Most rapists in the West are repeated offenders. You allow rapists to come out of the prison after a year or so for him to come and rape you , your mother or your sister again. Which way of life is barbaric? A way of life which allows notorious criminals to move freely around and create more mischief and corruption in the land, or a way of life that eliminates the dangerous criminals once and for all?

Some religions, including Christianity, insist that married couples are joined in holy matrimony until death does them apart. No matter what the problems that arises between the spouses, men and women of totally different temperaments have to remain married to live a miserable life together. The result is desertion or separation or what they call ‘domestic violence’ which is very common in the West.

Many people with problems in marriage fall victim to drugs and say they do it to find consolation or free themselves from anxiety. Islamic sharia provides a solution for ending such misery by divorce. However, divorce has to be carried out only after all possible ways to reconcile the couples have failed. If the couple has got children and if they stay with the mother, the husband has to provide enough money for their proper upbringing and also meet them occasionally to make sure they do not miss their father’s love. Divorced women can remarry after their waiting period is over. Which of these ways of life are better?

It is a misconception that prescribed sharia punishments are carried out on individuals on the grounds of suspicion and the sharia courts are more like kangaroo courts or military tribunals. Islam too insists that all are innocent until proven guilty. It is a false notion to believe that the ruler of a Muslim state has the power to condemn people to death on the grounds of suspicion for trying to seize power or commit crimes against the state. If we look at the past, we find that sharia courts in Muslim lands were independent and the rulers had no power to impose judgements. There were instances in the history that Muslim judges passed sentences against the ruler of the state. The sentences passed in sharia courts are not based on hearsay or suspicion but on proofs.

When sharia as a whole is implemented in a Muslim society, people’s lives become much easier and they begin to feel a sense of security. Muslim societies will not attain the desired stability, calmness or tranquility unless sharia is implemented. There are many reasons for this, the first and foremost is, a Muslim society without sharia is devoid of the blessings of Almighty Allah (God). There will always be some Muslims who continuously keep building pressure by one way or the other in trying to persuade people to accept sharia as a sole guide.

It is totally absurd that President Mohamed Nasheed openly criticised sharia punishments saying that an executed person cannot be brought back to life from the dead after it has been found that he was innocent. If that is so, is it a fair thing for a person to spend 25 years behind bars and die in prison to be proven innocent later?

It is absolutely stunning that President Nasheed sought assistance from German government to amend or rewrite the little of the remaining sharia law enforced in the Maldives. He did this on the grounds of consolidating the young democracy in the Maldives. After a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the Earth Times quotes him saying that he would welcome German assistance in building up a new version of sharia law in the Maldives. The proposed new version of sharia certainly is not going to be the sharia derived from the revealed Scripture because a new version of any book, law or legal document always negates the old version of it.

Seeking German assistance in matters of sharia is a ridiculous thing while there is Al-Azhar University and the Islamic University of Medina, both of which can offer a more sound judgement on sharia related issues. It is better for President Nasheed to stop trying to mess with what remains of sharia in this country and leave it to the legislature and the judiciary.

In Feburuary 2008, Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, argued that adopting parts of Islamic sharia law would help maintain social cohesion in Britain. He said Muslims should be allowed to choose to have marital disputes or financial matters dealt with in a sharia court. Not long after Dr Williams said sharia law in UK seemed unavoidable, Islamic law was officially adopted in Britain. In September 2008, sharia courts were given powers to rule on Muslim civil cases and their verdict is binding under Arbitration Act 1996. However, Muslims in Britain still have a long way to go for them to be able to enforce prescribed punishments in Islamic sharia.

The parliament in Somalia, a country with an ongoing civil war, unanimously approved to implement sharia (Islamic law) with the aim of diffusing tension between the shaky government in Mogadishu and al-shabab rebels. Also Sudan, a country with a long history of civil war seems to have become more stable after sharia was adopted.

If prescribed sharia punishments begin to be enforced in a Muslim society, its instant favourable effects starts to take shape on people’s lives. Heinous crimes such as banditry, gang rape, drug trafficking, fraud, murder, etc begin to decrease drastically throughout the country.

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