Closing gender gaps in Maldives

Time to do more than pay lip service towards the empowerment of women

On 10 April 2021, Waheeda, a proud mother of eight in her early 60s, risked her wellbeing and travelled to Kaafu Atoll Villingili to join more than 88,000 women voters to cast her vote in a historic election.  She was thrilled to be part of this event as she had previously avoided large gatherings due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Waheeda wanted her vote to be counted when for the first time in the history of the nation, a 33 percent quota on councils had been reserved for women. Especially, when only six percent of seats, a mere 37 out of 617, had been held by women earlier.

During this historic milestone, 2,264 candidates contested for 982 local council seats, of which 370 island council seats and 14 seats from city councils were reserved for women. Waheeda was deeply pleased to be able to cast her vote for the Women's Development Committee (WDC) as well, in which 1,670 candidates contested this year.

Such radical affirmative action has been advocated by early feminists such as Mary Wollstonecraft (1759 –1797) and now, in the Maldives, NGOs like Hope for Women are leading suite. This election which will see an increase in the representation of women at political and policy level, will undoubtedly improve the Maldives' position in the Global Gender Gap Index. The index examines the gap between men and women across four fundamental categories; Economic Participation & Opportunity, Educational Attainment, Health & Survival; and Political Empowerment.

As per the Global Gender Gaps Report of 2021, with an overall score of 0.642, among 156 countries surveyed, Maldives was ranked significantly lower than fellow SAARC nations such as Bangladesh (65), Nepal (106) and Sri Lanka (116). This is due to the low score on the Gender Gaps Index when it comes to the Political Empowerment sub index where the nation scored 0.121. According to data by National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), as of March 2021, women in political positions represented just 5% in Parliament, 35% in the Cabinet, 23.5% as State Ministers, 16% in Board positions at State Owned Enterprises and a mere 5% as Judges or Magistrates.

Women like Waheeda, have long been disillusioned with pledges made by politicians during campaign rallies — pledges which are mostly abandoned once they are elected to office. The lip-service attitude of the leadership have had many women taking a stand for better representation; to have women representing the country across all levels within the State. Waheeda firmly believes that with more representation, with women being party to making key decisions at all levels, compromises that have an impact on the lives of women will be lessened.

The gender equality pledge, underlined within the good governance aspects of the Solih administration's manifesto, is a key undertaking made in line with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.  Among them a key area of importance for Waheeda was economic empowerment as she had been an active self-employed home-based worker for the better part of her life.

As Waheeda rushed back home after casting her vote, she wondered how far the government’s pledge of affordable childcare facilities had progressed. With her two daughters working full time to make ends meet, Waheeda had been forced to compromise her small business to take care of her grandchildren as her daughters could not afford to send their kids to a childcare centre.  COVID-19 saw the closure of all childcare facilities while offices remain fully or partially open, adding to the burden of Waheeda and those in similar situations. However, voting day was a holiday, and that meant she had more time to finish packaging her last order of ‘Huni’ — grated coconut — which she had been producing to sell to a nearby shop.

Waheeda had been preparing and selling home-made products like ‘Havaadhu’ — ground spices — and short eats for the last 15 years. She also taught Quran to young children to earn more income to save up for Hajj; a dream she hopes to fulfil in her lifetime. She also plans to use part of her savings to build her house on the plot of land in her island from where they migrated 40 years ago to Malé in the hopes of providing her then only child with a better education.

Yet, in spite of her struggles, she is far from reaching her savings target of MVR100,000 because she is forced to utilise a large part of her income every month to cover home expenses. The cost of living in Malé had continued to rise, while her husband, a government employee, has not gotten a raise in the last five years.

Even though many small-scale businesses had been given financial support by the government due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Waheeda was not able to get any such support as she did not meet the requirements, nor did she have proper records of her business documents or maintained an account at a bank for a ‘reasonable period’. In fact, she had not opened a bank account up until two years ago, when she opened an account at Maldives Islamic Bank (MIB) as she was not financially literate, and because she was worried about “Riba” — interest. Hence, during the pandemic her business had taken a nosedive when all the shops she used to supply her products to were shuttered.

As per an April 2020 survey by UN Women,  given that most women in the Maldives like Waheeda worked in the informal sector, the pandemic has had more of an impact on women's economic empowerment than men's. As per the 2019 Household Income and Expenditure Survey (HIES), 44 percent of women are employed ‘informally’ — comparatively only 36 percent of men are similarly employed. During the pandemic, more than 54% of women in informal employment saw their working hours reduced. In addition, 68% and 64% of Maldivian women surveyed saw they were now spending a lot more time on “unpaid domestic work and unpaid care work”, respectively. Additionally, since more time is spent by women on unpaid domestic and care work, it disproportionately affected women and limited them from participating in income generating activities.

Pre-pandemic data from HIES 2019 also indicates that the female labour participation rate was much lower, at 45%, compared to  77% for men. Similarly,  labour under-utilisation was much higher for women at 20%   compared to 10% for men. A UNDP report on the “Impact of the COVID-19 crisis in the Maldives” also showed that women were disproportionately affected by the pandemic — about 55% of women reported being made redundant compared to 47% of men.

The gender disparity is even higher in the tourism sector — only 10% of sector employees were women in 2019, of which, only three percent were local. According to the UN study, 65 percent of women faced redundancy in the sector during the pandemic, while the same was true for only 54 percent of men. This reveals the higher vulnerability of young women to employment risks, including the risk of losing the required work experience and professional development time. Similarly, gender comparisons across impacted occupational groups showed that more than eight out of every 10 people impacted in the education sector were women since more than 72 percent of all teachers are women. Likewise, the ratio of women impacted in the health sector, household activities and professional services was also high, given 87 percent of all nurses are women.

Waheeda is very proud that, unlike her, all her children including her two daughters have a good education and have professional jobs in the government. The Maldives has a particularly strong performance on female education in the Global Gender Gap index and is among the top countries. This is because governments have persistently put a huge emphasis on education and has long achieved gender parity in education. However, significant gender disparity exists in tertiary education especially where urban-rural dynamics exist.

For the health and survival sub-index of Global Gender Gap index however, the Maldives was ranked 148, much below Sri Lanka’s 30 and Fiji’s 72 ranking. Waheeda can still remember the tragic loss of one of her babies at birth, as there were no basic health care facilities in the atolls. Although there are some subgroups of women who continue to face constraints in accessing health services, overall, the Maldives has made major advances by reducing maternal mortality and other improvement in mother’s health. One area of major concern in the Maldives is the high incidence of domestic violence against women. A study by the Ministry of Gender in 2004 showed that one in three women aged 15–49 has experienced domestic violence at some point of time. Statistics of reported cases of gender domestic violence showed an increase in 2019, where two in five women aged 15–49 had experienced such violence, and the country lacks proper support systems for those victims.

The last component in the Gender Gap index, which has more significance for women such as Waheeda, is Economic Participation and Opportunity. In this sub-index, Maldives was ranked at 138 — significantly lower when compared to neighbouring, Nepal (107) and Sri Lanka (132) and, other small island economies, Mauritius, (118) and Fiji (127). This indicates that a huge effort is required to increase women’s participation rates and wage equality in Maldives. HIES (2019) shows that out of the 17 percent of the population who are living below medium income, 19 percent represents women — whereas the number of similarly affected men is at 16 percent.

Well, Waheeda is not giving up her dream as she is determined to re-capture the lost revenue. What she requires is targeted assistance to promote her business and access to the technology and automation required for expansion while reducing her costs.  She also looks forward to her products being protected from cheap imports, financial assistance for expansion, and technical assistance to help improve the quality of her products.

At the end of the day, she wants to be an independent, self-employed entrepreneur who can manage her own expenses and stand tall, without depending on her husband and children. She does not believe in quitting, even during such trying times, and hopes that the targeted government interventions promised by politicians will reach her one day. Until then, Waheeda will remain hopeful, but skeptical of the lip-service paid to women’s empowerment by the administrations of the recent past.

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