Less than 48 hours is left before the ballot boxes open. On Saturday (September 7), the Maldives will choose its next president. The personalities and policies of four presidential hopefuls may differ from each other, but all do share one thing in common – they are all men.
And where are the women? They are standing behind their men.
Though no woman has a spot in the presidential race – dominated by four male candidates and their running mates – women have undoubtedly become an inextricable part of the elections.
As campaigning intensified over the past months, women and girls have been busy sewing more flags than they can count, cooking massive pots of Bondibaiy (sweetened rice) and spicy fish to quench the hunger brought on by mass rallies, and walking day and night to knock every door in order to win votes for their candidates.
Women are also seen taking the front line at every political demonstration or march around the island – donning blazing yellow burqas, glittering pink t-shirts, or bright red blouses – colours synonymous with their candidate’s parties. Without the female presence, political events would have neither the same magnitude nor diversity as currently seen.
Participation of women of all ages is a highlight of this, the second ever multiparty presidential elections to be hosted in the country.
Out of all the major political parties contesting in this year’s elections, the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) stands out in particular for the scores of women that are participating in party’s events.
“Women have become a very important part of our campaign. Women are mostly involved in door to door campaigning – talking to the people, collecting crucial information we need for policy making and campaigning.” says Aminath Shauna, leader of MDP’s youth wing. “Most of the patch agents and campaign team is largely women.”
The MDP is contesting to regain power, following the controversial end to its three year old government after the resignation of former President Mohamed Nasheed on February 7 last year. The party vehemently contends that Nasheed was forced to resign in a coup.
In the wake of Nasheed’s resignation, massive protests led by his supporters against the new regime were suppressed using force and dozens were severely injured in the process – many of them women and girls.
A peaceful sit down demonstration by MDP female supporters outside the President’s Office was dispersed with water canons, while several women were beaten on the southern atoll of Addu – where women took the streets to protest against what they call a “coup government”.
But, since February 7, female supporters of Nasheed have braved their way against pepper spray, batons and water cannons and continued to take lead in an army of yellow supporters, determined to fight till end to bring Nasheed back to power.
Shauna believes that this unwavering support by women is a result of policies adopted by the MDP’s short-lived government which mostly “benefited women”.
“If you look into the social protection program over 100,000 people directly benefited from it. It was largely spent on elderly, single parents who are mostly women. Also programs such as Hunaru [vocational education] and Second Chance program [rehabilitation and reintegration of inmates] largely accepted by women because, although women do not bring income to the family, its women who make household decisions and look after the elderly parents, take them to hospital and look after the children. So the person who really understood and felt the benefits of these programs were women,” Shauna observed.
During the campaigns, two out of four presidential candidates have announced women specific policies; including daycare centres, flexible working hours, online jobs and reserved seats, among other things.
Though MDP claims to hold the policies benefiting women, the party is one of the two that has not prioritised a policy towards achieving gender equality and improving women’s rights- one the few remanining development goals the country has so far failed to achieve due to widespread violence against women and low representation of women in political and economic life.
Second is Jumhoory Party’s Gasim Ibrahim. The party speaks of introducing a pregnancy allowance and ensure gynaecology services on every islands as policy on women. For a party backed by Islamist party Adhaalath which believes in strict enforcement of Sharia and patriarchal dominance within public and domestic spheres, having no progressive policies on women is unsurprising.
But why does MDP, a party which asserts to be an alternative to the rest, holding egalitarian and moderate views does not have a policy specifically aimed at women? The party has never been recognised for its suitable policies for women. In fact, MDP’s record of gender policies during its short-lived three year term does not score well either.
Take the issue of domestic abuse and gender-based violence in the country. With every one in three woman estimated to be a victim of physical or sexual abuse, it is one of the biggest challenge women face across all islands. However, Nasheed’s government and its parliamentary group failed to step up in bringing any necessary legal reforms while its rivals were instrumental in drafting, promoting and passing domestic violence and child abuse legislations.
Unemployment among women is double that of males, however, no day care centres, flexible working hours or economic policies specifically targeted to reducing female unemployment were introduced. Research suggests reasons behind female and male unemployment differs with young women finding more difficult to find work due to early marriage, household responsibilities, societal attitude.
Maldives holds the record of one of the highest divorce rates in the world with almost every one in two marriages falling apart. This often leaves women struggling to raise children under extreme financial hardship. The single parent allowance, despite the temporary relief it brings, is merely a band-aid solution for these families. Economic emancipation remains unachieved.
Meanwhile, women also continued to remain as a minority at state decision making level under Nasheed’s era. Any point in time, Nasheed’s cabinet were dominated by men and his female appointees made up less than a quarter of all political positions.
His party followed same track, or even worse.
Currently, women hold 5 seats in 77 member parliament and only 57 out of 1091 local councils.
MDP secured full seats in the city councils of Addu and Male’ – two of the most populated areas – but none of them were sadly women. The party did not take any public initiative in encouraging female candidates to these elected posts. They simply embarked on making laws, building cities and running the state without an equal say of women who make up half of the country.
But perhaps, this elections is a harbinger for change.
This week, Nasheed sat down with women to listen to their woes. He promised that his economic and social policies are targeted, though not directly, towards addressing the most serious problems women face. Including housing, jobs, education and healthcare.
However, he stopped short of promising women an equal representation in his government or party.
Several women are throwing their support behind Nasheed because they also believe in the values of equality and justice he preaches. Perhaps, it needs to be put into practice a little better.
A good place to start would be within the party itself.
Mariyam Zulfa, who served as Tourism Minister during last months of Nasheed’s rule recently gave a subtle warning to MDP’s main rival, Abdulla Yameen of PPM.
“Yameen please don’t have your eye on 2018, thats gonna be a year for women, we have waited patiently enough, like Hillary Clinton,” she posted on Facebook.
This status echoes an important message – MDP women are ready to climb to the top rung of the political ladder.
But, amid an environment of highly competitive and machiavellian men jostling for power, women often find themselves at crossroads. Whether to challenge the male dominance and risk losing or just be happy with the little voice she has. Choosing the latter also makes it easier to juggle the personal life often sacrificed by women pursuing a career.
Shauna is one the few young women who has bravely made it to the top tier of MDP, and she shared the challenges women face on the field.
“One of the reasons why we do not see women in elected posts is because women do not have access to campaign finance. We do not see many women in government senior posts because simply there is not policy that promotes it – working hours are not flexible for women with families, senior posts mean a lot of time and commitment. Working environment and hours do not give this women any flexibility. Harassment exists at all levels in the Maldives and there must be an end to that for more women to take up senior posts.” she explained.
These are problems can be resolved by changing MDP’s current gender mainstreaming policies to a more direct women empowerment strategies such us quotas for women, setting up a budget for funding female candidates, running political leadership training programs. When more women take part in decision making, the diversity of opinions and ideas leads to better results in developing the country.
MDP also has continued to voice against rising extremism and the resulting backlash in women’s role in public life.
“There is also a movement towards conservative Islam that is a threat for women in politics and social sphere.” Shauna observes. “If there is no counter movement to conservative views of Islam, I do not think we can have a female president anytime soon.”
There is no better way in countering extremism than encouraging those subjugated by it to be free and exercise their power. Several women have already put their faith and support behind the party. It is time for Nasheed and his party to return the favour and let women have the equal space they deserves.
Should MDP hesitate, it is bound to create rifts through its existing female support base. But for now, women cheering for Nasheed seems to have his back.
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