Rising religious fundamentalism, conservative thinking impacting women: Department of National Planning

Progress toward achieving gender equality has not kept pace with other development achievements in the Maldives, as reflected by the 12 percent of women who have suffered sexual abuse before the age of 15 while one in three have been the victim of violence, a Department of National Planning study has found.

The study examined how much human development progress has been achieved in the Maldives in terms of population and development, reproductive health and rights, gender equity, equality and empowerment of women as well as education during the period 1994 – 2012.

The “Maldives Operational Review for the ICPD Beyond 2014” study was conducted under the supervision of the Department of National Planning (DNP), in collaboration with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), to determine whether the Maldives has met the 1994 Cairo International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) thematic Programme of Action (PoA) goals.

The study found that “Despite impressive advancements in all development areas, the progress towards achieving gender equality and equity and the empowerment of women have not been the same.”

“Even though, the Maldivian Constitution guarantees equal rights and freedom for all Maldivians without any discrimination, prevailing traditions and socio-cultural norms have limited women’s participation in the workforce and in the community,” the study determined.

“The increasing level of religious fundamentalism and conservative thinking has worsened the situation,” it added.

Although the Domestic Violence Act 3/2012 was “a historical milestone for women in the country,” domestic violence and violence against women remains a “major concern” in the Maldives.

“One out of three females aged between 15-49 years has experienced some form of violence within their lifetime. Further, 12 percent of women reported having experienced sexual abuse before their 15th birthday,” the report stated. “Most of the time, the perpetrators are a close family member or intimate partner and the incidence goes unreported and undocumented.”

Victims to not receive appropriate and timely support, since domestic and sexual violence are perceived as a private matter and often go unreported, the study found.

Additionally, “Women continue to be stereotyped and underrepresented at professional decision making levels,” noted the report.

The low level of women being represented in senior level positions is partly due to the “high domestic burden on females,” with women heading 47 percent of households in the Maldives, one of the highest rates in the world, the study determined.

Although women are represented in the workforce, they are “mostly represented in stereotypical roles” such as education (72 percent), health (68 percent), manufacturing (65 percent) and agriculture (64 percent), said the report.

Meanwhile, 40 percent of young women remain unemployed, with 10.5 of the overall youth population being neither employed nor seeking to further their studies, the report added. Employment opportunities for many have been obstructed primarily due to inadequate employment opportunities as well as the mismatch between skills and job requirements.

The report also found that the number of women continuing their studies beyond secondary education is low compared to men. This disparity is the result of “limited access to educational institutions at the island level, domestic responsibilities and hesitance to allow females to study on another island.”

“Special affirmative actions are needed to create more employment and livelihood opportunities for women and to increase the number of women in public and political life,” stated the report.

Despite the Maldives achieving the Millennium Development Goal target to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger, malnutrition and anemia are still limiting women’s equality, equity and empowerment, noted the study.

“Poor nutritional status and anemia are significantly high among pregnant women and women of reproductive age, [which] puts them in high risk for maternal mortality,” the report found. “Malnutrition among women puts them in high risk during pregnancy and hinders their full participation in education, employment and social activities.”

Women – and young women’s – health is also at risk due to the lack of access to quality services, particularly in regard to sexual and reproductive health.

“With regard to reproductive rights, men often control decisions regarding women’s reproductive health, often based on religious and cultural grounds,” the report noted.

“[Furthermore,] the sudden growth of religious fundamentalism and conservative thinking is an emerging challenge, particularly for women and young girls,” the study stated. “There have been increase towards certain trends such as preference for home schooling and refusing vaccination and other medical services for women based on religious beliefs.”

Violence against women

Despite the extensive provisions in the Domestic Violence act, it has done little to curb the abuse of women, minors and other vulnerable people; the police, the judiciary and wider Maldivian society have made minimal progress addressing domestic violence and abuse, former Gender Minister and Chairperson the Hope for Women NGO, Aneesa Ahmed, recently told Minivan News.

Meanwhile, support for women’s equality has experienced a “significant drop” despite overall progress in improving the human rights situation nationally, a Human Rights Commission of the Maldives (HRCM) second baseline survey recently concluded.

“Despite the freedoms that the constitution has provided for women, attitudes towards women’s empowerment show a negative trend,” stated Andrew Cox, the former UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP representative in the Maldives.

“Alarmingly, the study also suggests that there has been a regression in people’s sensitivity towards domestic violence and gender based violence,” he added.

Male attitudes have become “more conservative” regarding women’s rights issues, whereas female views have become more supportive of rights in some areas, the report stated.

In a reversal from the 2005 human rights study, more women than men now consider it inappropriate for men to hit their wives. However, significant numbers of respondents stated where there was a “substantive justification” – as opposed to something trivial – “violence against wives was justified,” the report determined.

Both genders in the Maldives were also found to believe that in the husband/wife relationship, women should play a “subordinate role”.

In spite of this culturally conservative shift regarding women’s rights, an “overwhelming” 92 percent ofMaldivians believe that laws and systems to protect women from sexual assault should be reformed, according to the results of a survey conducted by Asia Research Partners and social activism website Avaaz.org.

Of those polled, 62 percent supported an outright moratorium on the practice of flogging, while 73 percent declared existing punishments for sexual crimes were unfair to women.

The international community has echoed this sentiment, particularly in regard to the recent
case in which a 15 year-old rape victim was sentenced to 100 lashes and eight months’ house arrest for a separate offence of fornication garnered substantial international attention and condemnation.

In March, an Avaaz petition calling for the repeal of the sentence and a moratorium on flogging in the Maldives collected more than two million signatures – a figure more than double the number of tourists who visit the country annually.

Currently, British couples are being asked to avoid the Maldives as a honeymoon destination to force the country’s government to overturn the conviction of the girl, who was given the draconian sentence after being raped by her stepfather, while UK Prime Minister David Cameron has been asked to intervene in the case, writes Jane Merrick for the UK’s Independent newspaper.

Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) MP Eva Abdulla explained the current context of women’s rights in the Maldives to the publication.

“Consider the statistics on flogging: that 90 per cent of the cases are women. Consider the statistics on rape charges: 0 per cent success rate of prosecution, with the latest being the release of four men accused of raping a 16-year-old, on the grounds that there wasn’t enough evidence,” said Abdulla.

“The increasing religious fundamentalism followed by the attempts to subjugate women, both politically and otherwise, should be cause for alarm. This is a country of traditionally very strong women.

“However, increasingly, the Adhaalath Party, a self-claimed religious party which is in alliance with the current government, uses the religious card to scare off women. We women MPs are often threatened whenever we speak against the party,” she added.


Past and current presidents call for national rethink on gender rights

Former and current presidents of the Maldives have highlighted the importance of gender equality to national development on the occasion of International World Women’s Day on March 8.

President Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik, as well as former Presidents Mohamed Nasheed and Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, have all spoken during the last two days on the importance of addressing gender related issues in the Maldives in areas such as domestic abuse and education.

The comments have been made as local independent institutions and civil society groups have alleged that the country has seen a regression in the rights of women and minors in recent years.

Local NGO Voice of Women, which claims to work as an umbrella group supporting other female-focused organisations in the Maldives, said that despite increased participation of women in political activities, there had been a perceived regression in the rights of females and children during the last year.

“The institutions in place to protect them have instead targeted them directly or let them down passively due to inaction,” read a statement by the NGO.

“Experience shows that countries cannot build a true democracy without the full and unhindered participation of fifty percent of our population; today we take the opportunity to recognize the courage and valiantness of the Maldivian women who are fighting against all odds and often times against the most harsh discrimination without taking a single step back, pressing for political reform and to establish a fair democracy in the country.”

The NGO’s statement was particularly critical of the treatment of women under the administration of President Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik, which in recent months has pledged to review laws that it claims have previously victimised women and minors who are victims of sexual abuse.

“The government is unable to destroy the unwavering spirit and determination of the Maldivian women who are confronted with batons, kicked with boots, handcuffed, stomped with shields, pepper sprayed directly into the eyes, and water cannoned while peacefully protesting on the streets or jailed without charges, sexually abused and humiliated while in custody; these heroic women continue to fight for their rights, rights of their children, rights of their children’s children,” the Voice for Women statement claimed.

“They continue to fight for the freedom of their country, for justice, for peace and for democracy.”

Back in April last year, parliament passed the Domestic Violence Bill with broad cross party support as part of efforts to provide a legal framework to protect victims from domestic abuse through protective orders and improved monitoring mechanisms.

In a statement released yesterday addressing the rights of females, President Waheed delivered his best wishes to all women in the Maldives.

“The International Women’s Day is being marked to reflect on the status of women, assess their empowerment, advocate for greater opportunities for women to progress, and seek the support for all for those ends,” read a President’s Office statement.

“It is a high priority of the Maldivian government to support efforts in attaining gender equality in the society. The President highlighted women’s increasing contribution to national development. The increase in women’s contributions to and participation in the development of the country showed the change in the outlook of the people on gender related issues.”

Former presidents speak

Speaking Thursday (March 7) ahead of International Women’s Day, former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom said that under Islam, men and women were considered equal. He therefore requested an end to the practice of gender discrimination, particularly in obtaining education.

Local newspaper Haveeru quoted Gayoom, who is currently the president of the government-aligned Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), as saying that some Maldivian females continued to be denied the opportunity to undertake higher education by their families.

He claimed that “misguided religious beliefs” were often behind such gender discrimination.

Meanwhile, former President Mohamed Nasheed was quoted in local media yesterday as calling for a change in how Maldivian men perceived women in general.

According to the Sun Online news agency, Nasheed told Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) supporters gathered at the Dharubaaruge convention centre in Male’ that greater efforts needed to be made in empowering women “in all areas”.

“Not just because of efforts made by a gender ministry, but through transport ministry as well as health ministry as well as education ministry. We need to incorporate women into our main policies,” he was reported to have said.

Nasheed also called for new methods of protecting women against abuse during his address.

“Conservative” attitudes

Despite the calls of some of the nation’s most senior political figures, a recent national study found support for women’s equality was found to have experienced a “significant drop” despite overall progress in improving the human rights situation nationally.

The conclusions were made in the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives (HRCM’s) second baseline survey on behaviours and attitudes regarding human rights in the Maldives, which was published December 10, 2012.

Male attitudes have become “more conservative” regarding women’s rights issues, whereas female views have become more supportive of rights in some areas, was one of the conclusions raised in the The ‘Rights’ Side of Life” [report].