Comment: Changing cheerleaders into leaders

Less than 48 hours is left before the ballot boxes open. On Saturday (September 7), the Maldives will choose its next president. The personalities and policies of four presidential hopefuls may differ from each other, but all do share one thing in common – they are all men.

And where are the women? They are standing behind their men.

Though no woman has a spot in the presidential race – dominated by four male candidates and their running mates – women have undoubtedly become an inextricable part of the elections.

As campaigning intensified over the past months, women and girls have been busy sewing more flags than they can count, cooking massive pots of Bondibaiy (sweetened rice) and spicy fish to quench the hunger brought on by mass rallies, and walking day and night to knock every door in order to win votes for their candidates.

Women are  also seen taking the front line at every political demonstration or march around the island – donning blazing yellow burqas, glittering pink t-shirts, or bright red blouses – colours synonymous with their candidate’s parties. Without the female presence, political events would have neither the same magnitude nor diversity as currently seen.

Participation of women of all ages is a highlight of this, the second ever multiparty presidential elections to be hosted in the country.

Out of all the major political parties contesting in this year’s elections, the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) stands out in particular for the scores of women that are participating in party’s events.

“Women have become a very important part of our campaign. Women are mostly involved in door to door campaigning – talking to the people, collecting crucial information we need for policy making and campaigning.” says Aminath Shauna, leader of MDP’s youth wing. “Most of the patch agents and campaign team is largely women.”

The MDP is contesting to regain power, following the controversial end to its three year old government after the resignation of former President Mohamed Nasheed on February 7 last year. The party vehemently contends that Nasheed was forced to resign in a coup.

In the wake of Nasheed’s resignation, massive protests led by his supporters against the new regime were suppressed using force and dozens were severely injured in the process – many of them women and girls.

A peaceful sit down demonstration by MDP female supporters outside the President’s Office was dispersed with water canons, while several women were beaten on the southern atoll of Addu – where women took the streets to protest against what they call a “coup government”.

Woman injured during a police crackdown of pro-Nasheed protests in Addu

But, since February 7, female supporters of Nasheed have braved their way against pepper spray, batons and water cannons and continued to take lead in an army of yellow supporters, determined to fight till end to bring Nasheed back to power.

Shauna believes that this unwavering support by women is a result of policies adopted by the MDP’s short-lived government which mostly “benefited women”.

“If you look into the social protection program over 100,000 people directly benefited from it. It was largely spent on elderly, single parents who are mostly women. Also programs such as Hunaru [vocational education] and Second Chance program [rehabilitation and reintegration of inmates] largely accepted by women because, although women do not bring income to the family, its women who make household decisions and look after the elderly parents, take them to hospital and look after the children. So the person who really understood and felt the benefits of these programs were women,” Shauna observed.

During the campaigns, two out of four presidential candidates have  announced women specific policies; including daycare centres, flexible working hours, online jobs and reserved seats, among other things.

Though MDP claims to hold the policies benefiting women, the party is one of the two that has not prioritised a policy towards achieving gender equality and improving women’s rights- one the  few remanining development goals the country has so far failed to achieve due to widespread violence against women and  low representation of women in political and economic life.

Second is Jumhoory Party’s Gasim Ibrahim. The party speaks of introducing a pregnancy allowance and ensure gynaecology services on every islands as policy on women. For a party backed by Islamist party Adhaalath which believes in strict enforcement of Sharia and patriarchal dominance within public and domestic spheres, having no progressive policies on women is unsurprising.

But why does MDP, a party which asserts to be an alternative to the rest, holding egalitarian and moderate views does not have a policy specifically aimed at women? The party has never been recognised for its suitable policies for women. In fact, MDP’s record of gender policies during its short-lived three year term does not score well either.

Take the issue of domestic abuse and gender-based violence in the country. With every one in three woman estimated to be a victim of physical or sexual abuse, it is one of the biggest challenge women face across all islands. However, Nasheed’s government and its parliamentary group failed to step up in bringing any necessary legal reforms while its rivals were instrumental in drafting, promoting and passing domestic violence and child abuse legislations.

Unemployment among women is double that of males, however, no day care centres, flexible working hours or economic policies specifically targeted to reducing female unemployment were introduced. Research suggests reasons behind female and male unemployment differs with young women finding more difficult to find work due to early marriage, household responsibilities, societal attitude.

Maldives holds the record of one of the highest divorce rates in the world with almost every one in two marriages falling apart. This often leaves women struggling to raise children under extreme financial hardship. The single parent allowance, despite the temporary relief it brings, is merely a band-aid solution for these families. Economic emancipation remains unachieved.

Meanwhile, women also continued to remain as a minority at state decision making level under Nasheed’s era. Any point in time, Nasheed’s cabinet were dominated by men and his female appointees made up less than a quarter of all political positions.

His party followed same track, or even worse.

Currently, women hold 5 seats in 77 member parliament and only 57 out of 1091 local councils.

MDP secured full seats in the city councils of Addu and Male’ – two of the most populated areas – but none of them were sadly women. The party did not take any public initiative in encouraging female candidates to these elected posts. They simply embarked on making laws, building cities and running the state without an equal say of women who make up half of the country.

But perhaps, this elections is a harbinger for change.

This week, Nasheed sat down with women to listen to their woes. He promised that his economic and social policies are targeted, though not directly, towards addressing the most serious problems women face. Including housing, jobs, education and healthcare.

However, he stopped short of promising women an equal representation in his government or party.

Several women are throwing their support behind Nasheed because they also believe in the values of equality and justice he preaches. Perhaps, it needs to be put into practice a little better.

A good place to start would be within the party itself.

Mariyam Zulfa, who served as Tourism Minister during last months of Nasheed’s rule recently gave a subtle warning to MDP’s main rival, Abdulla Yameen of PPM.

“Yameen please don’t have your eye on 2018, thats gonna be a year for women, we have waited patiently enough, like Hillary Clinton,” she posted on Facebook.

This status echoes an important message – MDP women are ready  to climb to the top rung of the political ladder.

But, amid an environment of highly competitive and machiavellian men jostling for power, women often find themselves at crossroads. Whether to challenge the male dominance and risk losing or just be happy with the little voice she has. Choosing the latter also makes it easier to juggle the personal life often sacrificed by women pursuing a career.

MDP Youth Wing leader Shauna at an anti-coup protest

Shauna is one the few young women who has bravely made it to the top tier of MDP, and she shared the challenges women face on the field.

“One of the reasons why we do not see women in elected posts is because women do not have access to campaign finance. We do not see many women in government senior posts because simply there is not policy that promotes it – working hours are not flexible for women with families, senior posts mean a lot of time and commitment. Working environment and hours do not give this women any flexibility. Harassment exists at all levels in the Maldives and there must be an end to that for more women to take up senior posts.” she explained.

These are problems can be resolved by changing  MDP’s current gender mainstreaming policies to a more direct women empowerment strategies such us quotas for women, setting up a budget for funding female candidates, running political leadership training programs. When more women take part in decision making, the diversity of opinions and ideas leads to better results in developing the country.

MDP also has continued to voice against rising extremism and the resulting backlash in women’s role in public life.

“There is also a movement towards conservative Islam that is a threat for women in politics and social sphere.” Shauna observes. “If there is no counter movement to conservative views of Islam, I do not think we can have a female president anytime soon.”

There is no better way in countering extremism than encouraging those subjugated by it to be free and exercise their power. Several women have already put their faith and support behind the party. It is time for Nasheed and his party to return the favour and let women have the equal space they deserves.

Should MDP hesitate, it is bound to create rifts through its existing female support base. But for now, women cheering for Nasheed seems to have his back.

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]

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Hope For Women publishes book on women rights in Islam to counter oppression, intimidation

Local NGO Hope For Women has released a book on women’s rights in Islam in an effort to counter what it has described as a growth in “conservative Islamic teachings or religious justifications, that use Islam as a tool to intimidate and repress women”.

The book, titled “Women’s Rights Through an Islamic Lens”, has been compiled by Hope For Women with support from renowned local Islamic scholar Dr Ibrahim Zakariyya Moosa.

Minivan News was told during the launch that the publication attempts to challenge a perceived emergence of more religious conservative viewpoints in Maldivian society regarding the role of women and gender equality.

Issues addressed by the book include polygamy, a husband’s right to beat his wife, inheritance and the right to divorce.

Hope For Women’s co-founder, former Gender Minister Aneesa Ahmed, expressed particular concern over the growth of conservative views that she argued were limiting the role of women in society to domestic spheres and portraying them as being inferior to men.

She recalled hearing an Islamic scholar preaching on television that women become a “property” of their husbands following marriage, and said such preaching has to be stopped.

“This kind of conservative views that belittle a person is a major obstacle to building harmonious relationships on which a strong family and society is built on,” Aneesa noted.

“Many of the problems existing in our society roots back to inferior roles women and girls have within their households,” she observed. “I hope these publications will clarify the rights and status of women in Islam and create more awareness within our society.”

The NGO has also translated three publications from the international organisation ‘Sisters of Islam’ – including “Are Muslim men allowed to beat their wives?”, “Are women and men equal before Allah?” and “Musawah Framework for Action”.

Musawah is described as a holistic framework created by a group of 12 Muslim activists and scholars from 11 countries on “promoting concepts of justice and equality in Islam, and the Muslim family in particular,” according to its website.

Hope for Women said it had “become incumbent upon all civil society actors to speak out and stand up against the widespread prejudices that encourage women to be relegated to a marginalised existence and sometimes subjected to extraordinary acts of violence.”

Speaking at the launching ceremony of the project yesterday (July 30), newly appointed Gender Minister Dr Aamaal Ali observed that “outdated ways of thinking are being preached today as the Islamic way, and this has resulted in a backlash against women’s role in society”

“My students tell me they hear a certain sermon when they get into a taxi. They face discrimination at some gatherings from other women and outside forces are influencing their family life. Some girls also tell me their husbands are pressuring them for a second marriage,” explained Dr Amaal, who has served as a teacher and principal at the all-girls Ameeniya School in Male’.

“Sometimes when I think, I wonder if women are seen as disposable, to throw away once they become old. Because women are today often being treated as disposable beings,” she added.

The minister noted that if young women in the country informed themselves about religion with education, as well as providing themselves with empowerment and economic emancipation, it would help reduce many of the problems they faced such as domestic violence.

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“Women only” Islamic fashion show to be held in Male’

A local clothing retailer which had organised a fashion show featuring clothing for women “within the bounds of Islam” is now promoting the event as an “Abaya Show”, following complaints that the original concept was too western.

The event is being organised by local clothing retailer Miskul Khair and will display only hijab (head scarf) and abaya (robe-like, loose fitting dress) clothes to demonstrate the ‘Islamic look’ of how Muslim women should dress.

“The aim is not to have a western style fashion show, but rather to give women the news, the message, that this is the perfect way of dressing [in Islam],” Miskul Khair Sales Manager Moosa Nafih told Minivan News.

“This event is not related to a western [fashion] show, it will feature almost all the abayas sold in the shop,” said Nafih.

He explained that following complaints the event was too westernised, the “concept has been a little changed, but the show will be conducted as planned” and will be promoted as an “Abaya Show” instead.

“There will be very strict monitoring, security will be very high. Men, photography or videography of the event will not be permitted,” Nafih emphasised.

The event will be only for ladies as Islam does not support the mixing of opposite sexes, explained Nafih.

“This fashion show will be very different from other fashion shows held in Maldives. Clothes on display will fit Islamic parameters,” a Miskul Khair spokesperson told local media.

“We believe that through such an event in sha Allah, it may encourage sisters who do not wear hijab/buruga to love to wear hijabs/buruga. We believe that this is a new approach to Dawah. May Allah Reward us all and look into our intentions,” read a statement on the Miskul Khair Facebook page.

Former Gender Minister and current Chairperson for the Hope for Women NGO Aneesa Ahmed believes the event is being held as a way to “draw people in”.

“As things are, there are many with strong conservative views. There is so much advocacy on conservatism, people are falling under that influence,” Aneesa told Minivan News today.

“[Currently,] there is a lot of confusion among people,” she noted. “It could upset them if a woman does not dress with adequate modesty.”

Aneesa explained that individuals hold different beliefs on what constitutes appropriate women’s attire.

While she believes dressing like a Muslim – for men and women – requires modesty, Islam does not necessarily require a woman’s body to be fully covered, she said.

“Islam is not only how a person dresses, it is about faith and upholding the five pillars of Islam,” Aneesa said

She noted that there are some women who are fully covered but wear tight fitting clothes, which is less modest than wearing loose fitting clothing with some skin showing.

“[Additionally,] we don’t know if a fully covered woman is doing her prayers, as that is between her and Allah,” Aneesa continued.

“However, the perception remains that if you are dressed in a certain way then society considers you a good Muslim,” she noted.

Aneesa believes that overall “It is in the best interest of the society to dress modestly.”

“What we call modest dress is the same style, an [unofficial] dress code, that tourists must adopt when they come to Male’ or go to an inhabited island,” she added.

The female only fashion show will take place at an Arabic medium, higher education institution, Kulliyah College in Male’ on July 28 at 9:30pm.

Tickets are available at Miskul Khair shops for MVR 25 (US$1.61), MVR 45 (US$2.91) and MVR 56 (US$3.62).

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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.

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World Bank approves US$10 million education grant to halt decline in higher secondary enrollment

The World Bank has approved a US$10 million grant to the Maldivian government to expand and strengthen the education system.

In a statement, the World Bank noted that the country’s education system faced key challenges including a “sharp drop” in enrollment at higher secondary level.

“The higher secondary education net enrollment rate is a mere 19 percent, with boys’ net enrollment at 20 percent and girls’ net enrollment at 19 percent,” the World Bank stated.

“It is important that the education development program also addresses the quality of education through several strategic initiatives. In this regard, the project will support the development of a system of regular National Assessments of Learning Outcomes, which can inform policy formulation and program development” said World Bank Country Director for Sri Lanka and the Maldives, Diarietou Gaye.

The US$10 million project will include professional development for teachers and a quality assurance program at school level.

“School-based management activities and the annual school feedback form (ASFF) program will be also implemented at the school level,” the statement read.

“The school heads and senior management teams will be responsible for the organisation and management of these activities. The principals and senior management teams will lead the internal self-evaluations of the quality assurance process. They will also lead the needs assessments of teacher skills and competencies in relation to the school development plans, and organise the professional development programs required. The school heads and senior management teams will also be responsible for implementing the ASFF program,” the World Bank stated.

The Maldives has 220 public schools spread across the country’s 200 inhabited islands, with 6000 teachers serving a 62,000 students. Approximately 1700 students attend private schools.

In a statement. President Mohamed Waheed meanwhile observed that many schools in the Maldives had very small student populations, “an issue of great concern for the nation.”

Speaking during a visit to Maduvvari on Meemu Atoll, Waheed said the average number of students per classroom was 3-4, and that in some schools the entire student body consisted of no more than eight.

Given the state of these schools, “a lot of very urgent reform measures are needed to improve teaching techniques and obtain better results,” the statement read.

System in crisis

The O’Level pass rate in the Maldives has steadily increased from 27 percent in 2008 to 37 percent in 2011. Beyond a general claim that the O’Level pass rate for 2012 was the “highest on record”, the Education Ministry has so far withheld the figures for 2012, citing “difficulties in analysis”.

Education leaders have repeatedly highlighted as one of the country’s greatest social challenges that fact that two-thirds of students leave the education system at age 16, with little possibility of employment until they reach 18,

Outside the rare apprenticeship program offered by the resort industry – such as one run for more than 10 years by the Four Seasons group – the Maldives has little in the way of vocational training programs.

With the large trade and construction sectors dominated by a massive and poorly-paid imported workforce, options for young Maldivians are extremely limited, especially if isolated on an island in a remote part of the country.

Young Maldivian women face further challenges, as they are largely excluded from the country’s largest employer – the fishing industry – and despite the opportunities, few work in the resort industry due to persistent social stigma.

In a 2011 report on the issue, one father told Minivan News: “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.”

More recently, Four Seasons Resorts Maldives Regional Vice President and General Manager, Armando Kraenzlin told Minivan News that the number of females in the company’s apprenticeship program had declined over the last 10 years, to just two in the 2014 intake.

“We never had many [female] participants – five to seven per batch – but it used to be easier [to recruit women] about 10 years ago. Unfortunately, numbers have dropped,” he said, at the program’s class of 2013 graduation.

Education Minister Dr Asim Ahmed said the prospect of their female children living and working on a resort was a difficult concept for parents.

“The culture here is for children to grow up and grow old in same house. In the Maldives, you go to work [at a resort] and live there. It’s a very difficult thing to get your head around,” he said.

Ahmed explained the need for women and parents to be more aware about the conditions of female employees working at resorts, particularly in terms of accommodation arrangements.

“It is important parents buy into this and believe resort work is beneficial and reliable [for their daughters]. The other challenge is we have to provide child care and other facilities that will release the women to go and work,” he added.

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Female participants in Maldives tourism training declining: Four Seasons Hotels

The Four Seasons Hotels group has encouraged the government to promote technical and vocational training “much more aggressively”, while also expressing concern at declining female participation over the last decade in its apprenticeship program.

Four Seasons has graduated 288 apprenticeship students in the Maldives over the last 12 years, with 47 youths completing the latest program in 2013. However, only one female graduated from the scheme today during a special ceremony held in the capital Male’, while two women are enrolled in the 2014 program.

Four Seasons Resorts Maldives Regional Vice President and General Manager Armando Kraenzlin explained to Minivan News today (April 13) that the number of female apprenticeship program participants has been declining over the last 10 years.

“We never had many participants – 5 to 7 per batch – but it used to be easier [to recruit women] about ten years ago. Unfortunately, numbers have dropped,” he said.

Kraenzlin said he believed the declining number of women in the training program could be the result of more jobs being available outside of the tourism sector, or parents hesitating to let their daughters work at resorts.

“We are talking to government ministries and the press to promote idea of ladies working,” he added.

Also present at today’s ceremony, Education Minister Dr Asim Ahmed told Minivan News that he believed female participation in the tourism sector and Four Seasons apprenticeship program was increasing.

“Last year’s program had one woman, whereas two are enrolled in the 2014 batch. This is gradual improvement, although much less than we would like,” he said.

The small, insular Maldivian island environment instills very close family ties, which makes it difficult for parents to allow their children to leave and “stay long periods in a hotel”, according to Ahmed.

“The culture here is for children to grow up and grow old in same house,” he claimed.

“In the Maldives, you go to work [at a resort] and live there. It’s a very difficult thing to get your head around.”

Ahmed explained the nationwide need for women and parents to be more aware about the conditions of female employees working at resorts, particularly in terms of accommodation arrangements.

“It is important parents buy into this and believe resort work is beneficial and reliable [for their daughters].  The other challenge is we have to provide child care and other facilities that will release the women to go and work,” he added.

Tourism Minister Ahmed Adheeb told Minivan News that he believed women were not participating in the industry because families were adhering to the “past culture” of keeping children at home, in addition to being concerned about where their children would be living.

“Females are leaders in the houses. The men go out to work,” said Adheeb.

“Kids grow up and take care of their parents. In many cases, when boys get married they go to the girl’s house to live, because parents like to keep their daughters with them.

“This is why especially parents don’t want their daughters to go and work,” Adheeb added.

“Radical change”

Earlier this year, Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) MP and Spokesperson Hamid Abdul Ghafoor told Minivan News that he believed a “radical change to the tourism approach” was needed in the country.

“Resorts must have close-by islands with flats so employees can go home to their families [after completing their shifts],” Hamid said.

Additionally, he believed the response rate for tourism training programs was decreasing in the country because Maldivian parents were discouraging children from participating due to “religious xenophobia”.

Hamid also accused the religious conservative Adhaalath Party (AP) of propagating the view that “anyone who is not a Muslim is an enemy”.

“I’ll probably be the next Dr Afrasheem Ali for saying this, but maintaining this hate of the ‘other’ is very dangerous and not discussed openly. This confusion has to be sorted. It’s a race against time and ideas,” he stated.

Adhaalath Party President Sheikh Imran Adbulla was not responding to calls at time of press.

Public vs private programs

During the graduation ceremony for this year’s apprentice trainees held at Mandhu College in Male’ today, Kraenzlin praised the skills of the latest batch of participants, emphasizing that “the Maldivian work ethic is among the highest I’ve observed in my career”.

“It is very exciting to see what a well spent year can do in the life of a young person,” he added.

“Training young people requires commitment and resources. Resorts taking in the minimum number of apprentices a year and certifying them successfully should be supported, recognized and incentivised,” Kraenzlin said.

“We encourage govt to promote Technical and Vocational Education Training (TVET) performance objectives much more aggressively. It’s a great system.  In this way hundreds of vocational training positions can be created. We think it’s not that difficult.”

Tourism Minister Adheeb and Education Minister Ahmed also both praised the apprenticeship program for its development of young people in the Maldives.

“This corporate social responsibility effort takes a big burden from the government to the private sector,” stated Adheeb, during his commencement speech.

“All other resorts and general managers should follow the example of Armando [Kraenzlin] and the Four Seasons,” he added.

Minister Ahmed echoed these sentiments stating, “this is an important program for the rest of the tourism industry to emulate”.

Additionally, both ministers mentioned the STEP program, a training and education initiative launched this January for ‘O’ level graduates as part of a collaborative endeavor between the Education Ministry, Tourism Ministry, and Ministry of Human Resources Youth and Sport.  Some 15 partner resorts are also included in the scheme, according to the Education Ministry.

The year long Four Seasons Apprenticeship program was recognized as the Maldives’ first government accredited TVET certified apprenticeship scheme in 2010. Graduates are able to earn TVET, PADI divemaster, or Ministry of Transportation boat driving license certifications, the hospitality company claimed.

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High blood pressure “silent killer” of one in 10 Maldivians

High blood pressure is the leading risk factor for Maldivian deaths, and is much more prevalent among women than men nationwide.

One in 10 deaths in the Maldives, equaling over 100 yearly, can be attributed to this “silent killer” which often presents no symptoms.

High blood pressure – also referred to as hypertension – is a condition where blood vessels have a persistently raised pressure which can lead to heart attacks, heart failure, stroke, kidney failure, loss of vision, and premature death.

In the Maldives 32.9 percent of women, compared to 29.7 percent of men, are affected by hypertension, although the prevalence of men with hypertension is higher regionally and globally.

Hypertension has been increasing over the past decade in the Maldives. Economic progress has caused lifestyles to change drastically, reads a World Health Organisation (WHO) World Health Day report.

“In the era of globalisation, all countries are interrelated, rapid urbanisation, transition from agrarian life to wage-earning, and modern city life are considered to be the major contributors in the elevated blood pressure in urban areas,” WHO Representative Dr Akjemal Magtymova told Minivan News.

Unhealthy lifestyle and behavior risk factors for hypertension have increased, including consumption of processed foods containing excessive salt, low levels of physical activity, tobacco use, and obesity.

“Increasing levels of mental stress contribute to the adoption of unhealthy behaviors thus putting people at a higher risk of acquiring hypertension and related noncommunicable diseases,” the WHO South-East Asia Regional Director Dr Samlee Plianbangchang stated in his World Health Day 2013 message.

Magtymova explained “Some of the factors that may contribute to the higher prevalence of hypertension among Maldivian women include: no enough physical activity (affecting 41 percent of women in the Maldives compared with 37 percent of men), unhealthy diet (higher intake of salt, sugar and fat, – total cholesterol level in women is higher than in men), higher stress level, malnutrition in childhood and during reproductive age.”

For both men and women the prevalence of being overweight or obese is the highest in the Maldives compared to other countries in the South-East Asia Region.

“The 2008 data from the Maldives shows that among the adult population, 53 percent of women are overweight and 30 percent of men are overweight,” said Magtymova.

Over the past 14 years there has been an increasing trend of hypertension at the Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital (IGMH), physician Dr Ali Abdul Latheef explained in the WHO World Health Day report.

“What is alarming is that we now see a lot of young hypertensive patients. Many patients are in their early thirties and sometimes as young as early twenties,” said Dr Latheef.

Prevention

High blood pressure is both preventable and treatable, but remains a growing global public health issue, which is why ‘control your blood pressure’ is the WHO’s World Health Day 2013 (April 7) theme.

The WHO recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate physical exercise weekly to prevent diseases like hypertension, according to the WHO World Health Day article.

Eating a healthy diet including fruits and vegetables, while reducing salt and processed foods is also important.

Stopping tobacco use and reducing harmful alcohol intake must also be addressed.

However, regular blood pressure checkups are essential, because there are rarely warning signs of hypertension and it can also develop as blood vessels harden with age.

Magtymova stated the WHO recommends implementing evidence based strategies to address all behavioral risk factors for preventing hypertension.

“High level commitment is needed to reverse the growing burden of noncommunicable diseases in the Maldives.

“The WHO is assisting the Government of Maldives and working closely with the Ministry of Health to improve available data on risk factors, prevalence and trends, as well as address risk factors by establishing preventative measures,” said Magtymova.

She further detailed that the WHO closely collaborates and supports non-governmental organisations (NGOs), such as the Diabetes Society of Maldives, SHE (Society of Health Education), Aged Care, the Autism Association, and Care Society.

Magtymova emphasised “A multi-sectoral approach is a key in addressing prevention and control of noncommunicable diseases as many determinants of non-communicable disease lie outside of the health sector.”

Thus, other UN agencies are also promoting healthy lifestyles, eating habits, school health education, as well as monitoring trends in malnutrition among children and mothers.

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Comment: Maldivian leaders must act now to protect women, girls and the country’s reputation

In the last two weeks, nearly two million people across the world – including many people in the Maldives – have reacted in horror to the tragic story of a 15-year-old rape victim sentenced to be publicly flogged.

Sadly, this terrible case highlights a wider injustice: the yawning gap between the punishments applied to men and women in the Maldives.

A 2007 study by the Maldivian government’s own Ministry of Gender and Family showed that as many as one in three women between the ages of 15 and 49 have suffered either physical or sexual abuse. And fornication requires both a man and a woman, but 90% of those sentenced to flogging in the Maldives in 2011 were women.

How is this situation a reflection of justice, Islamic or any other kind?

It’s a good sign that the president has called on the attorney general to review the case of the 15-year-old girl, and that current laws and child protection mechanisms are being reviewed. But the citizens who signed this petition want to see further action: they want to know that other vulnerable women and girls in this country never have to go through such an ordeal. As we know, this is not the first time an incident like this has occurred: a similar sentence was handed out to a 14-year old during the last government.

This is why the petition calls for a moratorium on flogging and better laws to protect women and girls. It does so not to challenge the principles of Islamic law – in fact many people from across the Muslim world, including Indonesia, Pakistan, Turkey and Egypt have signed it, many of whom are practicing Muslims themselves and do not see flogging as ingrained in sharia law. This petition is not anti-Islamic justice: it’s pro-justice, particularly justice for women.

Contrary to some reports, the petition is also not an attack on the Maldivian people. Far from it. We stand in solidarity with the many Maldivians who are very concerned about this case, and the campaign urges the country’s leaders to act quickly to rescue the Maldives’ image, before this tragic case does any more damage to the vital tourist trade.

Around the world people are interested (and have a right to know) what kind of systems they’re supporting with their tourism dollars, and to make their holiday decisions accordingly. Richard Branson, head of Virgin Holidays groups and Virgin Airways, has warned of “enormous damage” to the country’s reputation unless serious action is taken.

Much of the media coverage has focused on a threatened “tourism boycott” – but we have never called for a full boycott of the important tourist trade and we’re engaging with the government right now to get action. What we do stand ready to do, however, is to inform tourists about what action is and isn’t being taken by the Maldives government to resolve this issue and change the law, and to identify those MPs and resort owners who are using their influence to push for positive change – and those who are not.

Furthermore, this petition is not aligned with any particular political party or faction in the Maldives. Avaaz is a 20 million strong global organisation that has campaigned for justice across the world on issues of the environment, human rights and conflict. One our most successful campaigns last year was to get countries to back Palestine’s bid for UN statehood – in the face of powerful, well-financed opposition from Israel and the United States.

There are countries that have poorer records when it comes to defending women’s rights, but when extreme cases spark the global public conscience it is crucial to call for respect for basic human rights whether it is the US, India or the Maldives. And this is just one of many battles for women’s rights Avaaz members have fought globally. In Afghanistan and Somalia, we’ve helped protect young women who bravely spoke out about horrific rapes by security forces; across the world, from India to the United States, we’ve lobbied for real action to counter the growing ‘rape trade’ in trafficked women and girls. This petition is part of that wider cause; to address flagrant injustices against women worldwide, and to build a better world for our mothers, sisters, daughters and wives.

Nearly a million tourists visit the Maldives every year because this country is known as a peaceful, romantic paradise. Now, double that number have signed this petition and that reputation is in jeopardy. But it’s not too late to rescue it. The Maldives is on a journey of democratic improvement. We want to support that journey.

Right now, it’s in the hands of the President and the People’s Majlis to protect Maldivian women – not only by ensuring this sentence is quickly overturned and this girl freed, but by speaking out against flogging now, and ensuring a bill that ends flogging and upholds girls and women’s right is tabled in parliament.

The fate of Maldivian women and girls, and the country’s progress and reputation, lies in their hands.

Ricken Patel is the executive director of Avaaz.org

This letter was first offered to Haveeru, SunOnline and Channel News Maldives, all of which declined the invitation to publish it.

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]

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Parliament passes amendments to increase child support payments

Parliament has passed amendments to increase the amount of money for child support to MVR 2,000 (US$130) as part of the Family Regulation.

Amendments proposed to article 65 state that that a father who has more than one child must pay MVR 1,000 (US$65) per child per month as child support until the children reaches the age of 18.

According to the amendments, a father who has one child is required to pay MVR 2,000 per month until the child turns 18.

Amendments proposed to article 63 (a) also state that MVR 2,000 per month must be provided during iddah – a period of waiting undertaken by a woman after a divorce.

Previously, the Family Regulation stated that MVR 500 (US$32) should be provided to women during iddah, and MVR 250 (US$16) should be provided as child support, local media reported.

In accordance to article 55 of the Family Act, if a father does not have the financial means to support his children, the court will discuss the issue with the relatives of children in order to make them responsible for the child’s upbringing should they agree.

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