With the establishment of Kurumba Village, the year 1972 marked the phenomenal birth of the Maldives' tourism industry. In 2022, the Maldives will celebrate the golden jubilee of the industry. Many milestones have been achieved over the years and multiple records have been broken. With such a major milestone coming up, it is important to reflect on, and learn, from the past and what needs to be changed. This also includes exploring the unpalatable aspects of the industry and having unflinching conversations about them.
One such pivotal statistic is the low female participation rate in the Maldives' tourism and hospitality industry. Statistics published by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) in 2019 showed that only 10 percent of industry employees were female, of which, regrettably only three percent are local employees.
There are many reasons why local female participation has remained this poor in the industry. Many of these reasons are seen to be meshed together, creating a barrier woven so tightly that infiltrating it seems almost impossible at the moment.
Culture and religion
According to the findings of the 'Women in Tourism: Challenges of Including Women in the Maldivian Resort Sector' report, the tourism and hospitality sector continues to be perceived as western. Resorts are considered to be encouraging and creating an atmosphere that supports the practices of consuming pork and alcohol, supporting nudity, and allowing extramarital sexual encounters. The belief continues to be that if an individuals works in such an environment, these culture is likely to rub off on the individual. Hence, many parents forbid their children, especially daughters, from joining the ‘sinful’ industry.
Expectations on women’s role in society
Societal norms and stereotypical gender roles still inhibit women joining, and advancing in, the industry. Women are still thought to be the primary caretaker of household responsibilities and are hence, expected to stay at home to take care of the family and domestic chores. This makes women less mobile in terms of working outside their islands.
Furthermore, due to the shortage of decent paying jobs in islands, a high percentage of men work in resorts, which are often-times far away from their home island and atoll, for extended periods of time. Therefore, women in the family are often expected to stay back to care for the family, and live on the remittances sent by resort workers who have migrated for work.
Even before the proliferation of the #MeToo movement, the prevalent existence of sexual harassment at work places, including in resorts and hotels, have been shared by women who have worked in the industry. The stories of the horrific experiences women had to face while located away from their homes, and from the shelter of family and friends, are far more visible and loud now, especially thanks to social media. While this does help bring perpetrators to justice and gives a much-needed voice for survivors, this creates the notion that the industry is not safe for women.
The concept of resort development in the Maldives is that of one island, one resort. While in a handful of atolls, resorts are located close to local islands, this is not the norm. Coupled with the underdeveloped, or lack of a, proper transportation network, the majority of resorts house their employees on the island itself.
This hampers the choice for women to return home for the night after their shifts, which is a concern raised by many parents for their daughters. This is also a major reason why women voluntarily leave resort employment once married or have children. Being located on an island away from family and children, it is hard to have a proper work life balance. According to data published by the NBS in 2019, only 2,615 employees reported that they travelled daily for work. Among female employees, 11 percent reported that they commuted daily. The report further observed that in all the categories, more female employees commuted daily than men. This illustrates the need for a mechanism to allow for daily commutes, to encourage female participation.
Education and awareness
Lack of education and awareness is a key contributing factor in the reluctance of parents to allow their children to work in resorts, or women self-opting out. If more parents, members of community, and students are able to hear about the experiences of female employees, or have the chance to visit and see the life of resort workers, this may lead to minimizing reluctance and fear of security. Changing mindsets take time, and generations, therefore this should be focused from the young to the old.
Though there is no statistic to show the percentage of women who wear the hijab in Maldives, a safe estimation would be to say that the majority of adult women do. As resorts operating in a Muslim country, it is preposterous to see that there are still resorts who discriminate against hijab-clad women. Such women are only seen for how they dress, instead of their qualifications, experience or skills. Some resorts do not employee women who wear the hijab at all, while others may recruit them only for back office work. There are also cases where certain resorts have given the option to remove the hijab when on duty!
This is in not an occurance in Maldives alone. The International Women’s Alliance for Family Institution and Quality Education (Wafiq) and The Union Network International-Malaysia Labour Centre (UNI-MLC) in Malaysia often reports on this particular type of discrimination, stating that such practices ‘reflects poorly on diversity and equality policies’.
Moreover, the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) reports that compared to 10 years earlier, tourists are now more learnt, aware, well-read and research the destinations they travel to. Their decisions are often influenced by factors other than simply the room rates, such as equal opportunities, environment and records of human rights violations. In addition to this, it is also reported that tourists are now eager for authentic local experiences, which mainly comes from interacting with locals. Therefore, one can only wonder why a resort would discriminate against the many-talented women, just because of how they dress - adorning a hijab does not reduce the capacity of women to perform their roles in the hospitality industry.
Interestingly, the second edition of the UNWTO’s global Report on Women in Tourism portrays a different global situation compared to that in the Maldives. According to the report;
- Women make up a large proportion of the formal tourism workforce.
- Women are well represented in service and clerical level jobs but poorly represented at professional levels.
- Women in tourism typically earn 10 to 15 percent less than their male counterparts.
- The tourism sector has almost twice as many women employees as other sectors.
Therefore, the industry, and public sector institutions such as the Ministry of Tourism, Ministry of Economic Development and the Labour Relations Authority have a few hard tasks ahead of them. After almost 50 years, a local female participation rate of only 3 percent presents a colossal problem that needs urgent attention.
Finding a solution to this problem, and elevating the statistic from three percent, requires a magnitude of effort, willingness and work from many stakeholders. Afterall, tourism has a pivotal role to play in achieving the objectives of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. In particular, the commitments to 'achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls' should not only be a goal written on paper, but one towards which meaningful efforts should be made.