Hope for Women launch workshops for woman councilors and Island Women’s Development Committees.

Women’s rights advocacy group Hope for Women (HFW) has launched a new initiative focusing on woman councillors and members of Island Women’s Development Committees, (IWDC) aiming to “increase their involvement in decision and policy making processes.”

In a press statement on Sunday, (August 14) HFW stated it will “facilitate a three day training workshop in 11 targeted islands for representatives from the IWDCs and training in Malé for the 59 newly elected women councilors.”

“These workshops will focus on identifying challenges and solutions to improve the performance of IWDCs in assisting island councilors to develop and implement an effective strategic action plan.”

IWDCs are a subcommittee of the island council and are responsible for fund raising and activities to empower women. Only women are eligible to vote for IWDC members.

The majority of local councilors are men, with women having relatively few decision making powers at island level. The People’s Majlis in 2010 rejected a provision to include a quota for women in local councils.

Earlier this year, the government proposed abolishing the committees as part of a streamlining of local governance.

A recent publication by European Union Election Observation Mission for the Majlis elections in March noted that “women have traditionally been relegated to the private rather than the public sphere of life.”

HFW, one of the few NGOs working solely on the rights of women, conducts various programmes aimed at empowering women and supporting victims of gender discrimination. It recently launched an initiative to provide legal counseling on family law and prevention of domestic violence law.

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Maldives achieves 5 of 8 Millennium Development Goals

The Maldives has achieved all but three of the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), local media has reported.

However, the country must do more to promote gender equality and empowering women, ensuring environmental sustainability, and creating global partnerships for development, according to Haveeru.

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) made the announcement Monday (June 18), adding that the Maldives’ country report on the MDGs will be released this year.

The last report on the Maldives’ progress in trying to achieve the eight MDGs was published in 2010.

Thus far, the Maldives has achieved the MDGs of universal primary education, reducing child mortality rates, improving maternal health, as well as combating HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases.

However, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) recently announced that the Maldives has also met part of the goal to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger by halving the percentage of hungry people in the country.

The MDGs are a blueprint agreed upon by all the world’s countries and leading development institutions to galvanize efforts to meet needs of the world’s poorest, with the achievement target date of 2015.

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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].

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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

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Stigma against female employment in resorts confused, workers say

The stigma against female employment in resorts presents challenges for reducing the 32 percent unemployment rate, over two-thirds of which is accounted for by women.

Sources familiar with the issue, however, claim that the stigma is “fueled by misinformation and fear”.

A recent report from Sweden’s Lund University claimed that community perceptions of resort life as ‘western’ and offensive to Islam are giving the industry a negative reputation, and are preventing women from pursuing employment in the Maldives’ most lucrative sector.

Ima* recently spoke to Minivan News about her employment in the resort sector. She was one of the first Maldivian females to be hired at a resort ten years ago, and previously lived on a local island.

“It’s very much like a family,” she said. “I know of hardly any issues with harassment from guys, people look out for each other.”

By contrast, several women working in Male’ told Minivan News that they often face sexual discrimination and harassment in the workplace. One source said there is no support against such treatment.

According to Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) MP Eva Abdulla, “I don’t know if we have made it comfortable for women to talk to each other here.”

The thesis, “Women in Tourism: Challenges of Including Women in the Maldivian Resort Sector” was prepared by Eva Alm and Susanna Johansson during their five-month stay in the Maldives in 2010. Their findings identify “culture, religion, and women’s role in the family, the role of the family, safety, geographical spread, transportation, education and awareness” as obstacles to female employment in resorts.

Parents play a significant role in a woman’s professional future. “In the Maldives, in our religion, we are not allowed to drink or be with just any guys and things like that. So our parents are scared about that,” said one young woman quoted in the thesis.

According to the thesis, resorts are widely believed to be threatening to traditional Muslim values. At the same time, growing religious fundamentalism is projected to prevent women from participating in the local economy.

Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) MP Rozaina Adam said a rise in fundamentalism would be an economic setback: “Instead of working, women will be lying around. That is not constructive for a growing economy and country.”

Tourism directly accounts for 30 percent of the Maldives’ GDP, and for 70 percent indirectly. Maldivian women account for a mere three percent of resort employees.

Ima said most community anxiety is due to a lack of information.

“When I go home and tell people that I work at a resort, their first perception is that I must be a good cook. But you know, they also don’t have a good idea of what my job title means. And I think that that’s a big reason behind the misperceptions in many Maldivian island communities. Many people have never been to a resort, if there was more interaction then they would understand what the resort lifestyle is. As it is, most just can’t relate to the kind of work we do here.”

One resort manager quoted in the thesis said awareness is a major challenge to promoting female employment. “Convincing the parents is difficult. They are very possessive of the girls. The parent’s perception is that they will mix with the European culture and do bad things such as drinking alcohol.”

The Maldives has one of the world’s highest divorce rates, and girls often drop out of school and get married in their late teens. Aspiration rates among youth ages 17 to 25 were recently calculated at six percent.

These statistics do not refer to the resort community.

Ima says resort life has significant benefits. “For local islanders, it can be an easy transition to resort life. Many people leave home to live or work in Male’. I think that that’s much more dangerous than working at a resort. At a resort, the lifestyle is much healthier, safer, and there is more opportunity to save.”

A source familiar with the issue told Minivan News that saving is not common for Maldivian women. She gave the example of a cleaning lady who was proud that her daughter gave her entire salary as a family contribution. “I know you want to respect your family, but how can a woman save up for herself? What option does she have for herself?” she said.

The Maldives was recently criticised for lagging behind other countries in gender equality, as defined by the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). At the UNDP’s Democracy Day ceremony earlier this month, advisor Ferdinand von Habsburg-Lothringen warned that with only half of the Maldives’ work force engaged in the economy, “growth would not flourish.”

Several resorts have tried to accommodate social preferences by outsourcing tasks to local islands and providing daily transportation so Maldivian women do not have to live away from home.

Ima said that at the end of the day, success depends on the individual’s self confidence.

“The way you perceive colleagues and portray yourself matters for anybody, male or female. It’s about how you value yourself and the beliefs you hold. If you can stick to that, and show people who you are and how to respect you, then you can succeed,” she said.

*Name changed on request

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Social stigma limiting employment of local women in resort industry, report finds

A new study finds that Maldivian women are the least employed demographic in the resort industry, accounting for only three percent of the total eight percent of female workers at resorts in 2010. Local and foreign men constitute 92 percent of the industry.

Tourism directly accounts for 30 percent of the Maldives’ GDP, and for 70 percent indirectly.

The thesis, “Women in Tourism: Challenges of Including Women in the Maldivian Resort Sector” was prepared by Eva Alm and Susanna Johansson during their five-month stay in the Maldives in 2010.

According to their findings, “culture, religion, and women’s role in the family, the role of the family, safety, geographical spread, transportation, education and awareness” were the main factors preventing women from seeking resort employment.

Interviews show that resort life is perceived as ‘western’ and imposes the negative practices of consuming pork and alcohol, supporting nudity, and allowing extramarital sexual encounters on Muslim Maldivian women.

By contrast, Maldivian male resort employees are exempt from these risks.

“Working in a resort as a woman is perceived as bad, as going the wrong way, as not a good place for a woman to be,” said one source.

Women interviewed said social stigma prevented them from seeking resort employment. The combination of not being able to come home at night and working at a resort with a significantly higher ratio of men to women is considered intimidating, sources said.

One father said, “If my daughter would not have the possibility of going home every night, I would not let her work in the resort, it is not safe […] if a woman will not come home at night after work, and she would maybe have a relationship with a man in the resort, which could result in a pregnancy […] this would have very bad impact on the family and would not be tolerated.”

Maldivians who engage in extramarital intercourse risk social ostracism, and women sometimes face punishment for pregnancy outside marriage. The country has among the highest divorce rates in the world.

Parents are said to play a significant role in a woman’s professional future. “In Maldives, in our religion, we are not allowed to drink or be with just any guys and things like that. So our parents are scared about that,” said one young woman.

One resort manager said awareness is a major challenge to promoting female employment. “Convincing the parents is difficult. They are very possessive of the girls. The parent’s perception is that they will mix with the European culture and do bad things such as drinking alcohol.”

A government representative added that “there needs to be a focus on educating mothers and fathers of the women who are willing to join the industry and demonstrate that it is perfectly in order for their daughters to work in the resort sector.”

Female unemployment in the Maldives is estimated at 24 percent, while male unemployment is only eight percent. Reports indicate that the industrialization of fishing, an enterprise previously shared between women and men, and the beginning of tourism eliminated the need for two incomes per household.

According to the report, Maldivian culture does not encourage women to take on entrepreneurial or leadership roles in business. Women are found to be raised to follow men, and a lack of domestic care services prevent women from leaving their posts as mothers and wives.

Women interviewed said that in order to employ more women resorts should “become more Muslim.” Most said they would not work where they could not wear the burqa, although when told that several resorts allow the burqa they maintained their position.

Women were also unaware that many resorts provide mosques for their Muslim employees.

Separating resorts from local island culture was an early tourism strategy, claims the report. Tourism officials at the time were said to believe the policy would protect local culture.

The separation is now considered a factor in island underdevelopment. “The problem we have is that we have first class resorts in the Maldives, next to them are the third world local communities, the villages,” said a government representative quoted in the study. “We have to get these engaged as the people from the island communities can get direct benefit from the resort industry through participatory involvement and inclusive growth.”

Some resort companies, such as Hilton and Soneva, try to compensate for this gap by outsourcing tasks to local islands.

Hilton resort began the “Green Ladies” program, bringing in groups of women from neighboring islands to sweep the resort during the day. Soneva supported the Veymandhoo women’s production of chili sauce in 2008.

Soneva’s Social and Environmental Manager said localizing resort development made Muslim women more comfortable in new professional opportunities. “It has got all the elements necessary for a solid livelihood project. You got women involved, it’s got livelihoods, it’s got commercial value to it, and it’s got localization aspect to it”.

Yet island production capacity does not meet resort demand. “’The communities have to be very much upscale to be able to manage small businesses, because resorts are big business and they wont rely on people who can‟t provide for their demands’”, said one source.

“Women in Tourism: Challenges of Including Women in the Maldivian Resort Sector” was presented at Sweden’s Lund University in May, and is due for publication this month.

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