UNFPA calls for review of judicial practices surrounding sexual behaviour in the Maldives

The UNFPA has this week released the State of the World Population Report, along with a report focusing on the local context, titled “Reproductive Health Knowledge and Behaviour of Young Unmarried Women in the Maldives”.

The report includes recommendations calling on the state to review existing practices related to the matter within the judicial process, law enforcement, education and health sectors.

Minister of Education Aishath Shiham inaugurated the event, highlighting the state’s plans to resume awareness programs for adolescents in schools in 2014.

“The UNFPA’s Life Skills Package is the program that was most systematically and effectively run in Maldivian schools to tackle the issue of adolescent pregnancies. Over a 1000 people have been trained to be able to conduct this program. I am announcing here today that with the start of the new administrative year in 2014, the UNFPA Life Skill Package will be reintroduced,” she stated.

The minister further noted the importance of including similar concepts in teacher training courses.

Youth sexual behaviour outside marriage

The report states that while the age of marriage has been increased to 18 in the year 2000 – following which the average age of first marriage has risen to 19 in recent years – sexual and reproductive health services and commodity supplies remain available solely to married couples.

It states that while the “underlying assumption is that sexual intimacy does not or should not occur before marriage”, and while this is in accordance with societal and religious views, there is “ample evidence that this is inconsistent with the social realities of youth sexual behaviour”.

The report provides a number of studies supporting their findings, including a youth perception study conducted, in which 90 percent agreed that it is more common for “couples to initiate sexual intercourse before marriage”.

It further notes the existence of young female sex workers, citing the Biological and Behavioural Survey of 2008 which noted a prevalence of “unprotected sex with multiple partners” within the 15 – 17 age group and above.

Another cited study indicated that unsafe practices of abortion are more common among unmarried youth than their married counterparts.

“Pregnancy outside marriage is in fact, a criminal offence…Nevertheless, it has to be acknowledged that sexual activity is a consistent social reality…” the report stated, before pointing out that the issue contributes to the “public health burden of the country”, and that it stems from “a complex mix of health, social and legal consequences, primarily connected to the occurrence of pregnancy outside marriage”.

As the clearest evidence of extra-marital pregnancies, the report cites IGMH’s Family Protection Unit’s data, showing the occurrence of such pregnancies to be the third most common issue among patients it has attended to since it opened in 2006. It states that out of 41 cases recorded in an year, some have resulted from rape and sexual abuse.

“The social and legal implications connected to out of wedlock pregnancy creates an intricate link between pregnancy outside marriage and abortion. Consequently, unsafe abortion is a key issue among young Maldivian women,” it said.

Sexual and reproductive health knowledge

The report highlights that due to societal and religious taboos, sexual and reproductive health (SRH) knowledge among youth – especially unmarried youth – is alarmingly low.

The report states that information related to SRH is taught in schools within the Biology and Islam syllabuses, though not at a meaningful or significant level.

Highlighting the disparity between the number of men and women prosecuted for fornication under Sharia law, the report stated that “paternity testing is not used as admissible evidence in court and the opportunity for men to deny guilt makes male accountability something of a farce”.

The report concluded with a variety of recommendations to the health, education, judicial sectors, as well as media outlets.

In addition to encouraging various forms of awareness raising, the UNFPA called on the law enforcement sector to revise sentencing practices in which gender discrimination occurs, to review the current punitive practice of dissolving marriages if a child is born within a gestation timeframe inconsistent with the duration of marriage, and to review the non-acceptance of paternity testing in cases of extra-marital pregnancies.

Read the full report here (english).


CCHDC backs sex education in schools to combat rising sexual health problems

Age appropriate sexual and reproductive health education needs to taught in schools to combat the increasing “sexual health illnesses” in the Maldives, according to the Centre for Community Health and Disease Control (CCHDC).

CCHDC’s Public Health Programme Coordinator Nazeera Nazeeb revealed that studies have found high risk behaviors young people – including “unprotected sex, drug and alcohol abuse, homosexuality and prostitution” – are putting them at high risk of  sexually transmitted diseases and HIV risk.

During a rapid situation assessment of drug abuse in Maldives in 2003 conducted by the Narcotics Control Board it was found that as many as 75 percent of youth surveyed have had reported having at least one sexual experience by age 21. In 2005, a similar outcome was derived in a Youth Ministry survey, which showed  that 14 percent of males and five percent of females under the legal age of 18, admitted to being sexually active.

In both of the unpublished surveys many adolescents and youth reported their sexual encounters were “without condom use”, the basic defense against  sexually transmitted diseases (STI), HIV and unwanted pregnancies.

Meanwhile, in 2008 Biological and Behavioral Survey (BBS) conducted among the five most-at-risk groups – including seafarers, men having sex with men, adolescent youths commercial sex workers, and injecting drug users  – further highlighted the magnitude of vulnerability these group face.

The report noted that unprotected sex with multiple partners is prevalent among these high risk groups and that the sharing of unsteriled needle and syringes is common among drug users. This study also found risky behaviors among the 15-17 year olds and the older youth, including buying and selling of sex for money often to finance drug use habits, sex with non-regular partners, pre-marital sex, group sex and injecting drugs.

The first anticipated outcome of these high risk behaviors were recorded in a report releases by CCHDC in 2011, which states 18 HIV positive cases were detected and over 400 cases of STIs in 2010, of which 97 percent cases involved women.

Detected STIs included chlamydia and gonorrhea – both conditions that can cause infertility if left untreated.

In addition to the heightening figures on sexually transmitted diseases, Najeeb leading the reproductive health unit of CCHDC said that the centre is witnessing an alarming increase in cases of underage and unplanned pregnancies where some girls are getting pregnant “without even knowing it”.

“These unwanted pregnancies are subsequently resulting in more unsafe abortions, baby dumping or infanticide,” she noted.

In last two years, three newborns have been found dead and two alive. The dead infants included two fetuses, one hidden in a milk tin and the other at the bottom of Male’s municipal swimming pool, while another fully-developed baby was thrown into a park having apparently been strangled by the underwear tied around its neck. Two babies were found abandoned and alive, and have now been placed under state care.

During the five year anniversary of IGMH’sFamily Protection Unit (FPU) in 2010, the hospital officials revealed that a total of 121 unmarried pregnancies were reported to the unit involving several women and girls as young as 14.

Unless it is proved that the conception is the result of rape or that the pregnancy is a threat to the mother’s health, these mothers do not have the legal right to abortion and are forced to take extreme measures due to the  stigma of having a child out of marriage.

Speaking about the figures at the time, leading gynecologist at IGMH Dr Aseel Jaleel acknowledged that in such cases pregnant mothers often attempt self-induced abortions, which pose great  risks to the mother’s life and pose potential fertility problems later in life.

He reported that two women had died that year from unsafe abortions.

Meanwhile, Najeeb adds: “Not just that, sexual violence committed against girls such as sexual abuse and rapes, remain at alarmingly high levels. “In most cases, abused girls did not even know what happened them, because no one talks to them about it.”

FPU reported that the centre received 42 cases of rape over the five years, of which over half involved minors. Authorities observe that several more cases are likely to be under reported from the Male and especially from  the islands which accommodate two thirds of the Maldives’ 350,000 population.

In 2008 the Global School Based Student Health Survey (GSHS) conducted among 1516 students from secondary school signaled an astonishing amount of sexual violence: 17 percent students reported being “physically forced” to have sex.

Furthermore it found high rates of alcohol consumption (6.7 percent) and life time drug use (5.7 percent) while, almost 20 percent of students surveyed reported having suicidal tendencies.

FPU had reported that in cases of rape and abuse, victims often attempt suicide or suffer grave emotional trauma and found an evident connection between substance abuse and gender based violence.

Despite these eye-opening findings and anecdotal evidence on sexual health problems, Najeeb said that many parents feel reluctant to talk to their children about sex and drugs, while the current school curriculum provides little to no information about reproductive health, leaving adolescents and youth unguarded and vulnerable.

In an effort to provide such information, she said that Life Skill Education (LSE) program and the Youth Health Cafe’ program was initiated by the authorities, but over the years both remained active only on a small scale and had not been successful in expanding systemic outreach to vulnerable groups.

When asked whether incorporating compulsory sex education into Maldivian education system could be a solution, Najeeb responded that “adolescents must receive age appropriate reproductive health education in schools.”

She explained: “Students, except for those studying biology, have little to no information about their reproductive system. In school Islam lessons they teach students about marriage, divorce, cleansing, fornication. They are telling kids what is Haram [forbidden] and Halal [allowed]. But they are not teaching kids about the ramifications of those acts [sex] and reasons for it being forbidden.”

“Teenage years are a very explorative and experimental age. At that age, if the adolescents are not taught about the sexual and reproductive health and ramifications of high risk behaviors such as unprotected sex and drug abuse, they are likely to be more vulnerable and go astray,” Najeeb further noted.

She admitted that the suggested sex education programs in schools was a controversial subject, considering the religious and cultural background of Maldives, a 100 percent Muslim nation.

Therefore, she said authorities must together consult and come to a consensus on the subject of supporting adolescents and youth to protect their bodies and lives.

“We need to take action together. This is not a problem we can solve alone,” Najeeb concluded.

Meanwhile, in an interview to Minivan News, Former Minister for Gender and Family Aneesa Ahmed also echoed Najeeb’s suggestions: “If we can teach children about nose and ears, why can’t we teach them about their sex organs in an age appropriate manner? There is absolutely no shame in it. After all, it is also part of the human body.”

“Today the scale of of sexual abuse, unwanted and underage pregnancies, abortions and infanticide in the community has  gone to extreme levels. Everyone needs to take responsibility for this. Parents, schools and the society as a whole,” said Aneesa, recipient of this years’ US State Secretary’s Women of Courage Award.

Young girls and boys need to be educated about their responsibilities, and given means to guard their bodies and dignity, she added.

Before assuming office as Health Minister, Dr Ahmed Jamsheed, the former Director General of the CCHDC, also publicly stated his support for sex education in schools.

In a blog entry in 2010, he wrote that broader reproductive health should be taught in the schools, either incorporated to the curriculum or as a separate programme.

He wrote: “I believe that we should introduce a comprehensive sex education programme in an appropriate manner in the school. I understand that this is a sensitive terminology with a lot of misunderstanding and misconceptions associated with it. But such a programme would address vital reproductive health issues including abstinence, medically accurate and age/developmentally appropriate information about sexuality.”

Such a programme, he said, should include information on relationship, emotional relations, reproductive rights and responsibilities, decision-making, assertiveness, and skill building; empowering and enabling the youth to resist social or peer pressure and become responsible citizens with safer and healthier behaviors.

“Children should also be taught building their skills on avoiding experimentation on risky and harmful habits like smoking, using drugs, etc. I believe there is no better time to start interventions than in primary education and gradually go along the academic ladder in an age and culturally appropriate and sensitive manner.” he explained.

In the same post,Dr Jamsheed also called for all barriers to access contraceptives be removed: “I understand that some people would condemn this opinion, arguing that this will promote unlawful and out of wedlock sex. However, I don’t believe that the availability or non-availability of condom or contraceptives would ever be a factor determining whether two people who want to have sex will have it or not.”

However, since taking office Dr Jamsheed has not introduced any explicit policies on addressing the sexual health epidemic. “I will talk on the issue later”, he recently told Minivan News.

Minivan News meanwhile wrote  two months ago to the Education Ministry requesting it clarify the ministry’s stand on expanding sex education in schools under the ongoing curriculum review, but it had not responded at time of press.

However an official from the curriculum development unit anonymously confirmed that “every time sex education topic is raised in review meetings, some conservative individuals are blocking it, saying such a measure would increase promiscuity.”

UNFPA Assistant Representative Shadiya Ibrahim however argued that “sex education does not increase promiscuity”. Of 68 studies on family life and sex education in a scientific review, she observed, 65 studies found no associated increases in sexual behavior.

“Young people taking part in such programs had higher levels of abstinence, later start of sexual activity, higher use of contraceptives, fewer sexual partners and/or reduced rates of STDs and unplanned pregnancy,”  Ibrahim noted.

Domestic Violence Act “incomplete” without Family Protection Authority

Members will be next week appointed to the primary body tasked  with implementing the Domestic Violence (DV) Act, President Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik said on Wednesday.

According to Dr Waheed names have been nominated by the Gender Ministry to the Family Protection Authority (FPA) board.

“I have been informed that the Gender Ministry has prepared the proposal. So the members will be appointed without further delay,” Waheed said:”Next week”.

Under the landmark piece of legislation passed and ratified last April, a seven member board has to be appointed to the FPA.

The authority is mandated under the law to conduct programs setting out measures for taking all necessary steps to prevent domestic violence including rehabilitating perpetrators of such crimes, arrange flexible reporting mechanisms, facilitate the investigations and provide all necessary support and shelter to victims of abuse.

According to the Gender Advocacy Working Group (GAWG) created by UNFPA Maldives,  a letter was forwarded to the President’s Office with recommended people to be appointed for the FPA board.

“It is important to nominate people who have strong expertise on the issue from different sectors.” Michiyo Yamada, Gender Specialist at UN Women Maldives noted.

“We urge the government to establish the Family Protection Authority as soon as possible, since they are mandated to lead the implementation of the DV Act, such as creating public awareness, providing services to survivors, coordinating the work of relevant institutions including police and health.” she observed.

She also noted that GAWG will support and cooperate with all institutions to implement the legislation. The multi-sectoral group represents interested organisations and individuals, promoting gender equality and non-discrimination.

“Extensive ground work is needed to implement the act by training service providers and setting up the system to prevent and respond to domestic violence across the country,” Michiyo added.

Recommended names were not released by the group as it is being reviewed by the government.

A Gender Ministry official confirmed to Minivan News that GAWG’s nominations were taken under consideration while shortlisting the names for President’s office.

Stakeholder’s concerns

All stakeholders from government, civil society, judiciary and state institutions gathered at the Tuesday’s national consultation workshop on UN Secretary General’s Unite Campaign to end violence against women, and “agreed” on the urgency of forming a central authority to prevent domestic abuse and overcoming the existing challenges in providing protection and justice to those victims.

According to Human Rights Lawyer Mohamed Anil, who participated in the DV Act’s drafting process, the “legislation is incomplete without the authority”.

“It is already created from the date of ratification. On paper it exists now. But without the members authority is nonexistent, ” Anil observed.

He added that the when the legislation fully comes into operation it will bring “significant new changes”, one of which he pointed out is the additional power granted to the security forces to investigate abuse and violence within domestic spheres.

Should the police find reasonable evidence to believe  a person is a victim of domestic abuse, the DV legislation stipulates the police can enter the place of crime without a court order and arrest perpetrators and even request for a protective order on behalf of the victim.

Due to these “extra-powers” Anil said, police are required to compile an internal regulation outlining the guidelines in dealing with domestic abuse cases.

Should the authorities fail to report or address a case of domestic abuse, they can be held accountable under the law.

The law also mandates the police to remove the victim from the abusive environment to a shelter, if necessary on the institution’s own expenses.

In the most recent case of alleged infanticide on Feydhoo island, the council and islanders have been claiming in the local media that the authorities had failed to relocate the 15 year-old mother of the dead baby despite several complaints of sexual abuse within her home.

Stakeholders at the meeting highlighted that the Family and Children Center (FCC) shelters on the islands are under-equipped and too short staffed to accommodate and help victims, while budget constraint are further hampering the process.

“Look at the condition of FCC on islands. We once had to keep a sexually abused girl at the atoll state house because the shelter did not have any facilities and there was no other safe place to keep her,” Shaviyani atoll Council President Moosa Fathy noted at the workshop.

“Everyone talks about these issues on stages. It is merely a political fashion show.” he added, noting that there has been several cases where police and state institutions have denied support to the councils.

Therefore, at the end of the workshop, participants promised to make a coordinated effort to end violence against women and girls and promote gender equality.

“We need more commitment and concrete action.” a participant noted.


Delays slow implementation of public sex offenders registry

Almost one in seven children of secondary school age in the Maldives have been sexually abused at some time in their lives, according to an unpublished 2009 study on violence against children.

Gut-wrenching details of heinous child sexual abuse cases grabbing headlines in the past few years eventually gathered enough public pressure in the Maldive  for the  authorities to pass a law stipulating stringent punishments for sexual predators.

Since the passage of “Stringent Punishments for Perpetrators of Sexual Violence Against Children Act’ in 2009, several pedophiles have been incarcerated for 10 to 20 years of life.

According to Prosecutor General Office (PGO), 46 cases of sexually abusing a minor were submitted to the courts in 2011. In 2010, 35 cases were submitted. The year before, 41 cases.

Some high profile cases make headlines but often cases go under-reported. With no public statistics on the number of incarcerations, the total figures on how many cases are successfully prosecuted and who has been put behind bars are unknown.

Yet, more cases are being reported and investigated.

In 2010, the magistrate court on Ungoofaaru island alone convicted eight people in relation to 10 different child abuse cases from Raa Atoll. Among them were fathers who raped their daughters, a mother who hid her husband’s sexually deviant crimes,  and men who abused little boys no older than 10.

Do you know who they are? No – but it is definitely your legal right to know.

Article 77 of the aforementioned legislation not only obligates the authorities to publicise  the identity of the offenders convicted under the law, but also tells the authorities to create a website through which the can public know who the sexual offenders are.

Were the system stated in law to be established, people can even retrieve information on sex offenders by sending a text. Almost four year after the law has been passed, the Gender Department says the system “is still under maintenance.”

According to Police Sergeant Abdul Jaleel fromt the police Family and Children Protection Department (FCPD), discussions are underway between the authorities to create the database of offenders. He admitted, “the delays are unfortunate and we need to make it a priority issue.”

Stressing on the importance of such a database, Jaleed recalled an incident in Meemu Atoll where a man who had a record of child abuse was found to have committed the same crime against another child.

“This man was banished to an island onto an island in Meemu Atoll. When we were investigating a child abuse case in 2009, we found that this man was responsible and he even had a previous record of abusing children.” Jaleel noted. “But the islanders did not know that.”

He noted that the dispersion of the 300,000-strong population over 190 islands made it easier for perpetrators to switch islands, and blend in among people unaware of their crimes.

“Therefore, a central website where sex offenders can be tracked, monitored and public can find about the convicted offenders is crucial to safeguard children and adults from such perpetrators.” Sergeant Jaleel observed.

“It would also definitely expedite our investigations with better coordination between authorities on different islands.”

Several countries worldwide have adopted such measures.

For example, the National Sex Offender Public Website (NSOPW) in the US, provides not only an opportunity for several states  to participate in an unprecedented public safety resource by sharing public sex offender data nationwide, but provides a platform for parents and authorities to collaborate for the safety of both adults and children.

However, often arguments are taken against such public registries as it may be defamatory and makes life difficult for a person identified as a “sexual predator”.

Jaleel agreed that the idea of a public sex offenders registry is new to the Maldives and may face similar challenges.

However, he argued that legislation can be made clarifying who can be included or not depending on the magnitude of the crime. “If we look at domestic violence cases, the perpetrator’s name can be avoided depending on whether it was first offence or the matter is solved if its between a couple.”

“But in heinous crimes such as sexually abusing a child, there should be no excuses,” he contended. “And repeat offenders must be made public too.”

He also said provisions can be made whereby police or authorities can decide to release a name of a person not convicted for the sexual offence, should they have reason and substantial evidence to believe the person is a threat to society.

Aishath Ibrahim, the mother of a five year old working as a teacher in Male’ says, “It will be very easy for parents to identify potential threats and protect our children if we can know who the offenders are.”

“Today we don’t even know who is our neighbor,” she added.

In the crowded capital Male’, people live closely together in rented housing or shared apartments within large family units, a factor that has been identified as contributing to instances of child sexual abuse.


Maldives’ first protective order issued to a woman allegedly abused by husband for 21 years

A woman allegedly abused by her husband for 21 years has received a protective order against her husband, the first to be granted under the recently enacted Domestic Violence (DV) Law which provides protection for victims of domestic violence.

According to the police, the protective order – intended to protect the victim from further harm or harassment – was requested by the Ungoofaaru Police Station following a complaint filed by the victim at the station on April 30.

In a statement released on Thursday, the police said that the woman has been “a victim of domestic abuse for 21 years” and has faced various forms of abuse from her husband over the years.

“During the investigation police found that the woman definitely needs protection,” the statement read.

Police media official Sub-Inspector Hassan Haneef told Minivan News that the case is under further investigation and no arrests have been made yet.

Meanwhile, the woman remains protected from any further abuse under the protective order, he observed.

“A great help”

“The enactment of the Domestic Violence Act has certainly facilitated  police investigations into domestic violence cases. But more importantly, it is a great help for victims of such crimes,” the Sub-Inspector added.

Should the police find reasonable evidence to believe  a person is a victim of domestic abuse, the DV legislation stipulates the police can enter the place of crime without a court order and arrest perpetrators and even request for a protective order on behalf of the victim.

Furthermore, if requested, the courts can command the accused person to refrain from certain activities (a restraining order) in a domestic violence case and even  issue a maintenance order to ensure a means of support or livelihood to the victim.

The court can grant a three-month provisional order without a trial, or the knowledge of the alleged perpetrator, while he or she is given the right to challenge the order during the trial to make the order permanent.

The Domestic Violence Act defines sexual, physical and emotional abuse of victims, economic and psychological abuse, intimidation, stalking and harassment, deliberate damage to property of the victims as offences while the perpetrators can be subjected to the punishments and court orders.

Violations of these orders are considered criminal offences and the perpetrator can face a maximum fine of Rf50, 000 (US$3242) and a maximum three years of imprisonment.

In addition, the legislation stipulates the formation of “Family Protection Authority”, mandated to conduct programs to support victims of domestic violence, setting out measures for taking all necessary steps to prevent domestic violenceincluding rehabilitating perpetrators of such crimes, arrange easy reporting mechanisms and facilitating the investigations.

A seven member board needs to be appointed to the FPA . The board will be appointed soon, President Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan said after ratifying the legislation on April 23.

The passage to endorsement took over a year longer than anticipated, mostly due to the resistance from several MPs who had argued the bill was “un-Islamic” and criticised it for “unduly favouring women” while at the same time making life “extremely difficult” for men, who they said, were wronged by women.

Maldives has a high rate of gender-related violence, particularly affecting women and girls. A national survey on “Women’s Health and Life Experiences” conducted with the support of UNFPA, UNICEF, and WHO showed that one in every three Maldivian women aged 15-49 reported experiencing some form of physical or sexual violence at least once during their lifetime.


Rise in female unemployment, growth in gender pay disparity

A woman working in the Maldives between 2006 and 2010 monthly earned a third less than her male counterpart in the same job, according the results of a new survey by the Department of National Planning, while young female entrants  are struggling to find jobs.

High female unemployment

According to the ‘Household Income and Expenditure Survey 2009-2010’, 38,493 people (28 percent) were unemployed in 2010, of which 14,142 (37 percent) were male while 24,351 were female – almost double the male rate of unemployment.

The report highlights that between 2006 and 2010 unemployment increased by 20,000 – an increase of over 100 percent. The number of jobless women and men rose by 93 percent and 141 percent respectively.

According to the report, unemployment continued to be highest among females. In 2006, the overall unemployment rate for women was 15 percent, increasing to 39 percent in 2010, while male unemployment increased 10 percent to 19 percent in the same period.

Furthermore, nearly half the population of working-age women (45 percent) were recorded as not economically active, while only a fourth of the male working age population fell in this category. However the study did not take into account the high proportion of women working in small household-manufacturing activities, or those working on industrial islands or resorts – which if included, will significantly affect the results drawn under this survey.

While 40 percent women surveyed reported the reason for their unemployment as “unable to find suitable employment”, the second highest reason for female joblessness was due to their “engagement in household chores”. This was followed by “lack of opportunities” and “school attendance”.

The report also concluded that most unemployment existed in the young age groups, with the 15- 19 years and 20 – 24 years age group accounting for about 43 percent of the unemployment in the country. Out of the 17,083 unemployed youth, 51 percent are males, and 49 percent female.

The planning department stated that “for policy purposes, it is very important to decipher the reasons for the high levels of unemployment, in the youth age group as well as among the females, and understanding the differences between locations.”

Among the reasons for unemployment in the youth group (15 – 24 years), “unable to find suitable employment” ranks the highest followed by “lack of opportunities” and in third “youth engaged in studies”, according to the survey.

Struggle for work

Employment of males increased four percent during the four year period, while employment of women fell seven percent.

The planning department concluded that “this indicates a huge influx of ‘new working age population’ to the labour force, of which more male entrants succeeded in obtaining a job while the fairer sex did not.”

“It is clear from the rising levels of unemployment that the Maldives has been unable to create jobs to accommodate new job seekers. Particularly young new entrants, and specifically females in the job market, struggle to find a job.”

“For males, it is the age groups at both ends that experience significant unemployment, while for the females, all age groups have similar unemployment rates except for the 65 years and above,” the department added.

Between 2006 and 2010, the total working age population increased significantly, however, “new jobs did not emerge to absorb this huge increase, boosting unemployment,” the report observed. “In fact compared to 2006, in 2010 there were close to 600 fewer jobs in the labour market.”

The total larbor force amounted to 136,886 people in 2010, of which 45 percent were women.

According to a UNDP report “Women in Public Life in the Maldives” published last year  a “considerable gap”  exists in women’s opportunities in taking active part in economic and political life” while “there were no policies in place that provide equal opportunities for women’s employment.”

“The absence of childcare facilities make it difficult for women to remain employed after they have children. The HRCM also received reports that some employers discouraged women from marriage or pregnancy, as it could result in employment termination or demotion,” the report said.

Restriction on women’s mobility and reluctance from family members to allow women to travel alone to other islands for work were also identified as key obstacle to employment.

While the tourism industry contributes indirectly to over 70 percent of the national income, a report published in September 2011found that social stigma prevented women from working in the sector.

According to the study, “Women in Tourism: Challenges of Including Women in the Maldivian Resort Sector”, Maldivian women accounted for only three percent of all women working in the sector – which was already 92 percent male dominated.

Gender earning gaps

The planning department found during the survey that “similar work  paid different remunerations depending on sex and location.”

According to the report, on average a male earned Rf7036 (US$456) per month, whereas a female earned about a third less of what a male earned – Rf4674 (US$303). This discrepancy is observed across Male’ as well as the atolls.

For example, in the ‘Financial Intermediation’ and ‘Extra-territorial’ industries, which account for highest monthly incomes, a male earned more than Rf11,000 (US$713) whereas a female in this same industry earned 19 percent less – Rf9000 (US$583). Men earned more than women in almost all industries studied.

Meanwhile, legislators, senior officials and managers across the board on average earned the highest monthly income, with males in this occupation category earning more than Rf13,000 (US$843) while females earned only a little more than Rf 9000 (US$583).

“Those employed in Male’ earn more than those in the atolls for all industries except quarrying and the financial intermediation industries,” noted the Planning Department in the report. “This signifies that across all industries, males are paid higher than females and earners in Male’ are paid higher than those in the atolls.”

“It is interesting to study the returns to employment for wage earners by occupation, by location, and gender. The question why males are paid higher incomes than females, for the same jobs and in the same occupation or same industry, is worth additional research,” the department suggested.

Financial intermediation sector and extra-territorial organizations and bodies sector were found to have the slightest indication of gender balance in the workforce, while all other industries were dominated by male or female.

More women were employed in elementary occupations with a substantial 21 percent increase while male employment decreased in this occupation by three percent, the report noted. A high proportion of these jobs are concentrated in the public administration, with a higher share of women amongst the government employees.


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


Comment: Disempowered women in Maldivian society

I looked at the women outside the Family Court. Some women were pregnant, some were already young mothers. More women came and went, many with an expression either of frustration, desperation, depression, or anger.

Some were fighting to be divorced, some were being divorced, but most of them were fighting for the rights of their children for the maintenance money from their father.

‘Maintenance money’ sounds technical and cold. It is money that children need from their fathers for their basic needs to be met. The Maldivian divorce regulation grants a child Rf 300 (US$23) per month from the father thus turning them into a financial burden for their single parent mothers (or guardian), and a long term social burden of yet another dispensed and ignored sector of the Maldivian society.

How far are the women responsible for the situation they are in?

How educated were they and what opportunities did they forego to abide by traditional and conservative but widely accepted norms in the Maldivian society?

How influenced were they by the cultural beliefs, the religious preaching and their family politics and upbringing? How young were these women when they committed themselves to marriages that left them with one child or more and no husband or male relative to take care of them?

How well informed were they to the rights given to them by their religion?

How misled were they to believe their role was only in the family, to serve their husbands at any time and any moment?

How did they differentiate between their obligations and what they understood as “duties” to the marriage?

What are the stories of these women? Where do they stand in the Maldivian society? What do they know of their constitutional and human rights?

Hundreds of questions raced my mind but I realised how irrelevant all these questions were. The bottom line is these women were powerless and left alone with children with no financial support fighting bitterly a losing battle in a system that was rigid, unjust and refusing to acknowledge the importance of women’s welfare to the betterment of the country.

While Maldives is under pressure to mainstream gender issues, the onslaught of conservative religious preachers is confining more and more women to the four walls of their homes.

Within this isolation, women succumb to a resigned lifestyle removing them from social and professional live, stripping them of their self worth and self confidence over time. It hits hard when the husband starts an extra-marital affair and soon deserts his prime family to start another life with the new woman. In many instances, family and friends joins the deserting husband to re-instate that the man left the woman for reasons such as failing to fulfill the needs of the man, further victimising the woman. Left alone and without love and care, the blamed woman has no one to turn to, within her family or otherwise.

Islam preaches that a divorced woman returns to her father or the eldest brother. Islam, serving to protect the child also expects the Muslim man to provide generously for the child to ensure that the child maintains the highest standard of life as afforded for the father himself.

The truth is the divorced woman’s father has grown too old to care for the divorced daughter and her children; the brother has started his own family (or two families) and is struggling to make ends meet.

Islam gives the men double inheritance to carry these responsibilities. In many instances, divorced women cannot leave the home of her ex-husband because she has nowhere to go. There are many women who continue to stay in the house of the ex-husband, and the divorced couple fall into a pattern of living together without renewing the marriage. On the other hand, it is not always convenient for the man to have his divorced wife living in his house anymore.

While the law on inheritance is unfailingly respected, and men inherit generously, the Maldivian man and the Maldivian courts fail miserably in their religious responsibilities and accountability. The behavior of men and the system is highly secularised when it comes to sharing resources, rights and power with women.

Recently I met a Maldivian lady. She was the typical contemporary Maldivian woman abiding by the social norms, highly defined in her clothing. She stays home looking after three children from a husband who is not home any more. Instead of talking about herself, she spoke about her friend and neighbor. The woman (her friend) had three children and a relationship with a man who supports her financially. He is very good to her and has even built two rooms for her and her children. But he will not marry her.

Women, who are powerless and have not financial independence, slide down on the social scale. They are dependent on men who give them the support that they do not have from relatives and ex-husbands. They succumb to settling down in relationships that are compromised. Fingers point at them for being loose (prostituting) and living in sin.

Here is the difference between choice and compulsion. This situation is created by the Maldivian society. Who is responsible for this increasing issue?

Defining the powerless woman

The powerless women are those who deny their own needs of physical, spiritual and psychological development, do not seek financial independence and do not accept the responsibility of their own well-being. Their financial dependence is self construed and often subject to tribal influences. The powerless women are fearful of stepping out of their familiar disempowering environment; are emotionally dependent, fearful of the unknown; the terror of dislocation and disconnection; scared of predators; devalue themselves; behave like second class citizens; panic about responsibility for their children’s under-performance, and fear of being unable to spare their children from suffering.

Unable to escape their circumstance; insecure about their own role in her life and lastly, refusing to claim their constitutional rights and use whatever structural, institutional or regulatory tools that are available for her to fight for herself.

Powerless women weighs down the social and economical growth of Maldives. Women are poorer than men, carry family responsibilities of children’s upbringing irrespective of the circumstance, and make up half of the Maldivian population. Women head 47 percent of households either as single (when husband remarries or leaves the island to work somewhere else) or divorced parent. The social cost of the disempowered women is high leaving aside reasons of equity and social justice.

The direct consequence of domestic violence results in a crippled workforce and loss of income for both the employer and employee. Disempowered women are vulnerable to manipulation both at home, at workplace and in the society, subject to enforced sex, dependability for her basic material needs and that of her children, mentally and physically unhealthy, more disconnected and therefore less maternal and susceptible to bad parenting.

Confronting the powerlessness and becoming empowered

I glanced back at the women as I left the premises. The common factor that would empower these women was financial independence.

The Maldivian woman must stop curtailing her future when a man enters her life. Women must get informed of their religious and political rights without compromising their individuality and right to a dignified living. Women must become active either professionally or enterprisingly. Women must keep their dreams and not expect someone else to fulfill them. Women must learn to create balance between home and public life.

A financially empowered woman achieves complete independence from socially determined practices. She is able to afford healthcare, education, provide for basic needs and protect and nurture herself and her needs.

Confronting disempowerment and transforming to empowerment must happen at various levels. There is personal development which means assessing personal behaviors, beliefs and expectations, confronting pains and fears, and taking action that empowers. The want and the willingness to be empowered and not to live in the losing circumstance is with the Woman and lies in physical, economic, political and spiritual empowerment.

Who can support women’s empowerment?

Women as mothers and nurturers of the family play a fundamental role in determining the future of their children. Today children grow up in gender defined roles. Mothers must define what they want for their daughters. Influencing and empowering both boys and girls and streamline their thinking to grow up into powerful people, where respect, fairness, sharing responsibility, being accountable and financially independent lies with Mothers who spend most of their time with her children. This is a first step.

Restrictive activities such as motions against women’s participation in various spheres must be stopped. Active inclusion of women through quotas set within a period till women’s participation becomes accepted must be introduced. The political and the diplomatic institutions must assign positions and work to women like they assign it to men. Political parties must stop paying lip service and decorating their windows with women’s chapters. Women in the parties have expressed that although they put selected women for the front-lines of the local council elections, they were not supported like their male counterparts. Many expressed disappointment at the way women in politics were labeled when they ran for office as compared to men who had lifelong records of misconduct.

Compliance laws on polygamy, divorces, child care and alimony, inheritance (including full representation of underage girls and orphan children), compensation and so forth must be covered with civil laws to ensure women are protected and fairly compensated in proportion to what the husband has been able to accumulate in wealth and earning during the marriage.

Women must be educated about “Rung” (customary price money before the marriage), its definition, purpose and the options including what a woman can ask for and under what conditions it must be paid/returned by the man or the woman. Withholding information is a deliberate act of abuse by the state and religious authorities, and women have been misinformed for decades.

Finally it comes down to women to take the leap. The first step lies with women to break through their own glass ceilings. The encouraging factor is some women have done it and so can all others if they will stop the self-fulfilling prophecy of “I can’t make it”.

The perspectives are good and women must capitalise on the opportunities. Each Ministry has a gender focal point. Making them answerable in their roles is something women must do. If you do not want to stay outside the Family Court, begging for child maintenance through a male dominant justice system, live off men, succumb to enforced sex and domestic violence, provide for your children and be healthy mentally and physically, then be truthful to yourself and start earning your own money.

Through individual commitment and participation in formalised groups, women must lobby for changes not compromising the essence of being the woman.

Aminath Arif is the founder of SALAAM School.

All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to [email protected]


Maldives celebrates International Women’s Day

The Maldives celebrated the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day yesterday evening at a function jointly organised by the UNFPA and NGO Thirees Nuvaeh.

Speakers included the country’s first female MP and former Health Minister Aneesa Ahmed, serving MP Eva Abdulla, Sheikh Mohamed Qubadh Abubakru and Savithri Goonesekara, Emeritus Professor of Law at the University of Colombo in Sri Lanka.

UNFPA Country Lene Christiansen observed that women in the Maldives carried a lot of responsibility, with the country having of the highest ratios of female-led households in the world at 47 percent. Half of the time this was due to migration of the spouse for work, and in one in six cases, because of the divorce or death of the spouse, she explained.

However female unemployment was three times higher than for men, she noted, and had a mere six percent representation in parliament. In addition, a third of women aged 15-49 had reported suffering physical or sexual violence.

Christiansen also noted the rising practice of home schooling of girls, “which denies them access to the school system including higher level education, and restricts other opportunities in life.”

“The constitution upholds gender equality and non discrimination, but in reality women are disadvantaged and cannot participate in economic and political activities,” she said.

Civil society had a crucial role to play as “a watchdog” for women’s rights, and in ensuring that politicians were held accountable to the female half of their constituencies.

Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) MP Eva Abdulla claimed that the Maldives’ newfound freedom of expression, which many women had fought for, was now being misused “to attack and demean women in the name of religion.”

Instead, Abdulla said, “Islam is the religion that taught us to respect our mothers and our women above all else.”

“We have been reluctant to address this issue head on. Women have been under constant attack for two years and we have not been able to counter it – we simply don’t have confidence [do to so],” she said.

Equality was, she said, about ensuring women had equal access to opportunity – something that had not happened despite the efforts of women to bring about democracy and human rights in the Maldives.

“A lot of women were involved in the last five years of the democratic movement,” Abdulla said, “but [afterwards], men inherited all the jobs.”

In her speech, Goonesekara emphasised that “women in the West had to fight for aspirations for equal life chances and for their rights a century ago. They struggled for the right to vote, to work, and for safe and fair conditions of work and employment.”

The origin of women’s day stemmed from working women, she said, who united after a fire in a US garment factory at the turn of the 20th century that killed 146 women.

“We have to remind ourselves that we are members of the international community,” she said, “and sometimes in our countries our own traditions and governance are seen as something different from those of the international community. But we live in a connected world and are bound by principles of the UN charter on human rights.”

“Equality,” she said, “is a much misunderstood word, but it is precisely about giving women equal life chances and sharing the world with men.”

The event concluded with entertainment including Boduberu/Dhigudhandi by Villigili and Hura Groups, Dhivehi Peoms, Bandhi, Raivaru, and Buzura Dance.