“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