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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Violence against women

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Planning statistics show surge in unhealthy eating

Statistics for Maldives household food expenditure show a disturbing shift towards an “adverse dietary pattern”, with increased intakes of high-fat and sugary products, the Planning Department has revealed.

Health experts in the country have blamed the unhealthy diet of Maldivians for the high prevalence of cardiovascular diseases and metabolic disorders such diabetes among Maldivians, which account for almost 50 percent of the all deaths in the country. The comparative figure for the US is 25 percent.

According to the Household Income and Expenditure Survey, the structure of the Maldivian diet has shifted towards a “higher energy density diet with a greater role for fat and added sugars in foods, greater saturated fat intake, reduced intakes of complex carbohydrates and dietary fiber, and reduced fruit, vegetable and fish intakes.”

Eating less vegetables, fruits and fish

Overall, household expenditure on all the food groups has increased except for fruits and nuts, fish and vegetables.

The food expenditure on fruits and nuts reduced by 41.8 percent in the Maldives, although the percentage of the decline was higher among atolls, where a 45 percent reduction in fruits and nuts was recorded compared to the 30 percent decline in the capital Male’.

Within this group, food expenditure on bananas, tender coconut, papayas, coconut and apples declined by 50 percent or more in in 2010 compared to 2003, while the statistics further flagged a growing trend of substituting natural fruits with preserved or canned fruits.

“The household food expenditure on fruit cocktail and other canned and preserved fruits has increased over the period significantly,” the report read.

Household expenses on vegetables meanwhile recorded a 4 percent decline nationally, although an 18 percent and 33 percent increase was recorded in the atolls and Male’ respectively.

The Planning Department explained that expenditure on vegetables such as breadfruit, curry leaves and green chilli had reduced significantly, while spending on vegetables such as cabbage, onion and other fresh vegetables had “increased significantly.”

The department concluded: “If the changes in the prices are taken into account, in real terms, there is a decline in the household expenditure on fruits and vegetables. It is likely that there is an under-reporting of the consumption of own-produced fruits and vegetables such as breadfruits, green chili, curry leaves, coconut, papaya, etc, particularly in the atolls, as there is a difficulty valuing them in monetary terms.”

In the fish category – the traditional source of food for Maldivians – a net decrease of eight percent was recorded nationally in 2010.

In the same period, the spending patterns shows that eating fish declined by 23 percent in the atolls and in Male’ by 28 percent.

According the Planning department, the decline has most likely been caused by the decline in the overall fish catch since 2007 – therefore, shifting the people’s demand to the available alternative, imported meat.

“The household expenditure on frozen chicken and chicken products increased by 105 percent while the demand for sausages has increased by 306 percent,” the report observed.

“Sugar high”

According to the planning department, the food category that showed a “huge increase” in expenditure was sugar, jam, honey, syrups, chocolate and confectionery.

The major food products in this category that had a huge increase in the household expenditure included ice-creams, accounting to a staggering 4,630 percent increase in 2010, while chocolate increased by 1,071 percent, jelly by 1,332 percent and honey by 719 percent.

Although the planning department’s report does not specify, demand for caffeine, and energy drinks made with high fructose syrups or added sugar is on the rise among young.

Studies have concluded that added sugar is one of the greatest factors in the rise in obesity and other health conditions such as diabetes, tooth decay, poor nutrition and elevated triglycerides.

Furthermore, recent studies have also found eating too much sugar can make people forgetful and potentially cause permanent brain damage.

Meanwhile, spending on spices, short-eats and other snacks such as chicken rings, potato chips, popcorn – high in saturated fats –  increased substantially over the period.

Health concerns

Growing consumption of high-fat and sugary products, combined with behavioral risk factors such as physical inactivity and tobacco use,  has put a high number of people at the risk of non-communicable diseases such as heart and blood-related diseases, diabetes mellitus and other degenerative and chronic diseases, according to health experts.

Statistics from Health Mininstry show that in 2009, a total of 459 people (39 percent) died from circulatory system diseases which includes strokes, placing it at as the most common cause of death among all age groups, followed by respiratory diseases (12.3 percent).

Speaking to Minivan News, Internist Dr Ahmed Razee noted that consumption of healthy foods such as vegetables and fruits never reached the “preference levels” in the Maldives.

“Spending on vegetables or fruits have not declined. In fact, the truth is that it never increased,” Dr Raazee argued. “Junk food is commercially marketed and made available easily while the same thing has not be done for the vegetables and fruits,” he added.

Meanwhile, with unhealthy eating habits more people are in the having high levels of cholesterol and blood glucose, resulting in a higher risk of endocrine abnormalities leading to strokes and metabolic disorders among young people, said Dr Raazee, who has a special interest in diabetes and kidney diseases.

In an earlier interview to Minivan News, Public Health Programme Coordinator for the Center for Community Health and Disease Control (CCHDC), Dr Fathmath Nazla Rafeeq, also observed that malnutrition in the country was “quite alarming” considering the number of medical advances made in the country over the last few years.

Her comments, made on World Health Day, related specifically to fears over the national promotion of healthy diets, including issues of vitamin deficiency in expectant mothers and children, to the consumption of high-calorie junk food and energy drinks by young people.

According to figures published in 2009 by the World Health Organisation (WHO), 17.8 percent of children under five years of age were found to be underweight in the Maldives according to international standards for ascertaining health in young people. The same figures found that 6.5 percent of children were classed as overweight in the country. 20.3 percent of children in the same age group were found to be suffering from ’stunting’, a term describing children suffering growth retardation as a result of poor diet and infection.


Malnutrition impeding children’s growth

Malnutrition is the biggest impediment to the healthy growth of children here, the Health Ministry has said.

A 2009 survey by the Community Health and Disease Control Unit showed substantial percentages of children not achieving the expected height, strength or weight for their ages, reports Haveeru.

A programme was launched in seven atolls four years ago to monitor the growth of children who could not achieve the desired height as a result of malnutrition. The programme also includes teaching parents to make nutritious meals from locally sourced products.

Haveeru sources, however, noted that the programme had not had much impact.