The Friendship Association of India and Maldives (FAIM) will conduct its second ‘Let’s talk’ seminar this Friday, this time covering the topic of expatriates in the Maldives.
The seminar will take place at 8:30pm this Friday (August 15) at the CHSE hall in Malé. Officials from the high commissions of India and Sri Lanka, and the consulate of the Philippines will participate in the panel discussion.
Questions tackled during the discussion will include: do we need to employ expatriates in the Maldives, does expatriate skill and labour contribute to the wellbeing of the Maldives, and does the presence of expatriates enrich the society of the Maldives?
Government estimates of the Maldives’ expatriate work report around 88,175, growing from less than 30,000 in the year 2000.
Local NGO Transparency Maldives, however, has suggested that overall figure may be closer to 200,000 and has called for greater awareness of the abuses and poor conditions many workers are facing.
The FAIM invites members of the public to attend and join the debate.
When I started inviting people to join the launching session of “Lets Talk” program on Monday night, my expectations for the turn out were not too unrealistic given the history of people’s poor participation in most social events organised by civil society.
Let’s bring at least 30 people, I told my friends at the Friendship Association of India Maldives (FAIM) ,who backed the concept of “Lets Talk”: a monthly forum with people from diverse backgrounds to have discuss various topics and issues concerning society.
So with the table, chairs, projector and coffee to keep people awake, FAIM was ready at Social Center seminar room, eagerly waiting for its first round of talkers.
As the clock’s hands ticked their way to 9:00pm – the planned starting time – only five or six people had arrived, of which most were the special invitees – officials from Labor Relations Authority, police and immigration. They were prepared to talk and answer any question the participants had regarding the chosen topic: sexual harassment, abuse and discrimination faced by both local and migrant women working in Maldives.
I panicked. “What if no one comes?” kept dancing through my head. It was indeed a stressful moment.
“Why did you organise it, when people are not coming?” one person asked as I kept ringing the people who had promised to attend the event.
At one point, in a desperate attempt, I almost dragged in a group of women from the gym class next door, but of course they were quite busy with their aerobics.
Fortunately, however some more familiar faces showed. The talkers slowly reached 22. That was fewer than the targeted audience but delighted, I began with the introduction and ice breakers. Soon the participants were all actively engaged in the discussion.
Local girls and ladies from Britain, the US, and Holland shared their experiences of being the targets of constant sexual harassment on the streets, and the “helplessness” they felt in such situations.
One female participant asked” “Are we to ignore and just walk away when they call us a “s**y b***h”,”beautiful tits” or ask us “how much?”.
They also complained of lack of police follow up, even after harassment cases were filed.
Though the forum attracted only one talker of Asian descent, the participants unanimously agreed that it was mostly Asian women working in Maldives who bore the brunt of sexual harassment.
A women from the Phillipines working as a resort rep who had talked to me prior to the forum said: “I always get teased on the streets. Mostly by young boys, but old men do it too. They whistle at me, pass comments about my body or ask me “how much”. It’s very difficult to walk on the streets when I know that people think of me as a prostitute. It’s very upsetting.”
Police officers present at the forum acknowledged the “seriousness” of the problems and encouraged the participants to report such incidents, offering assurances that sexual harassment cases would be taken more seriously.
Meanwhile, a more serious concern was raised: the increasing number of migrant women who are being trafficked into the country, exploited by employers, and often forced into sex work.
Responding to the questions on the subject, immigration officers admitted that the lack of legal provisions and non-existence of victim support mechanisms prevented the institution from protecting the rights of those women and other victims of trafficking. The only option was deportation or repatriation.
They explained that institutional efforts were underway to help victims of trafficking, but without support from the grass-roots level, change was difficult, they said.
“We are witnessing the presence of mass xenophobia in the Maldives. There is a widespread hatred towards foreigners of certain ethnicities. They are not even regarded as human beings,” one officer explained. “We need to educate and create awareness to change people’s attitude.”
Meanwhile, few members from Indian community who participated also highlighted the suffering of Indian expatriates working in Maldives, of whom many are women, and who are being intimidated and exploited by employers.
Their passports are withheld, salaries are not paid and in some circumstances they are not even given the leave to attend the funerals of family members, according to one participant.
Foreign women (and men also) are harassed, mugged and threatened, one Indian participant observed, adding that “if such crimes continue, these women – who are working as nurses, teachers and doctors – will no longer come to the Maldives.”
Despite the low turn out, the honest discussion and sharing of experiences made the soft launch of Lets Talk program a “good start”, if not a success.
UK national Sarah Harvey, who participated in the forum, said: “It was really great that I got the chance to share my own experiences and listen to others as well. Foreign women are facing sexual harassment on a daily basis. It very upsetting and intimidating, and a lot of girls don’t feel comfortable walking down the streets because of it.”
“We are putting effort into adapting to the culture and following appropriate dress codes. I just hope that people recognise that,” the British writer noted.
She also added that foreign women would work in Maldives for longer if they did not keep having these horrible experiences: “It’s one of the major downsides of living here,” she contended.
Marketing director Sanne Wesselman, from Holland, described the forum as “a great effort”, but suggested that “It will take a lot more than these events to raise awareness of the problem.”
Wesselman is right. Following the two-hour long discussions and personal accounts of discrimination and harassment, participants were asked to write one recommended action to solve these problems.
These recommendations included; educating and encouraging a culture of respect for women of all ages and race, and through awareness raising programs, conducting sensitisation program for school students on zero-tolerance of racial discrimination and violence against women and girls. Suggestions also included establishing a helpline for women and girls to report abuse, exploitation and provide counseling advice on request.
Telecasting short advertisements promoting zero-tolerance of harassment and discrimination, hanging posters with such messages in restaurant and streets, and letting respective embassies, high commissions and consulates open safe deposit boxes to keep passports instead of allowing employers to retain the documents were also suggested, among other recommendations.
The Friendship Association of India-Maldives said the recommendations will be forwarded to the Maldivian government through the Indian Embassy, and the NGO will provide support with implementation.
The organisation is meanwhile preparing for its second session of talks, with the hope of attracting a large and diverse group of talkers.
The Friendship Association of India-Maldives (FAIM),is an NGO jointly run by Indians and Maldivians to build a strong bond between the peoples of India and the Maldives through economic, social & welfare initiatives. Please write to [email protected] to join or support the organisation.
Two years after registration the Friendship Association of India-Maldives (FAIM) launched its website last night in honor of India’s Republic Day, pledging new opportunities for cross-cultural dialogue between the two nations.
Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed said the country would “continue to get aspirations and lessons from the Indian experience.”
In conjunction with the cultural classes and services available through the Indian Cultural Center (ICC), FAIM aims “to strengthen the relationship, create friendships and build mutual understanding between the peoples of India and Maldives through organizing social, cultural, academic and other activities of mutual interest.”
Highlighting India’s artistic traditions, FAIM staff expressed a strong interest in supporting arts in the Maldives.
“The Maldives has very little internal support for the arts,” said a FAIM secretary. “We would really like to see what we can provide,” he said, acknowledging that the Maldivian community has a lot of hidden talent.
India and the Maldives enjoy close partnerships in education, technology and transportation development; India recently passed a regulation allowing Maldivians visa-free entry for 30 days.
In addition to encouraging cultural exchange, FAIM encourages a greater understanding of the distinct cultures. “Although archaeological finds indicate that the Maldives was inhabited as early as 1500 BC, much of the country’s origin is lost in history – most of which is as much folklore and myth as fact,” states the FAIM website.
While welcoming guests for “a light evening”, Indian High Commissioner and FAIM patron Dynaneshwar Mulay addressed the ongoing political turbulence and judicial crisis in the Maldives by affirming the close ties shared between the two nations.
“A democracy will see upheavals,” he said. “The Maldives is perhaps one of India’s closest partners. The Indian High Commission will always be there to help the Maldives.”
Mulay recollected that the Indian public protested against corruption last year, upholding rights embedded in its 1950 constitution. The protests, triggered by Anna Hazare’s Ghanid-esque hunger strike in April, captured world audiences and was voted one of Time Magazine’s Top Ten Stories of 2011.
Affirming the importance of India’s warm relationship with the Maldives, President Mohamed Nasheed said consolidation of democracy, including establishing a rule of law and an independent judiciary, is “our biggest and most important project.”
Thanking the Indian “people, its government and its institutions for the very necessary and good assistance they continue to give to the Maldives in our work to become a democratic society,” the President assured those gathered that the government shares concerns raised about the nation’s judicial crisis but views them as part and parcel of the task at hand.
“We have heard many criticisms, and we will continue to hear them. Would the end justify the means?” he queried.
“What I am sure of is that the people of this country aspire for a free and fair judiciary. And they want the judiciary to look like them. They wanted the presidency to look like them. They wanted the Parliament to look like them. And therefore the new judiciary has to look like them. They have to look like the Maldives. That is what has been asked of me, and that is what I am going to do.”
“Very often we have to invent, and invent out of the box,” the President said, asking for other powers to understand the Maldives’ current situation as a necessary, if complex, path to a stronger democracy.
Emphasising the value of cross-cultural dialogue in diplomatic matters, the President expressed hope that the traditional Indian thabla music would “broaden our minds and give us means to understand what is happening around us.”