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Removing the barriers: The Maldivian society as a whole will benefit by removing the barriers for women to contribute

As my first field trip, I visited Hulhumeedhoo, the South of the Maldives, where I met Shafaaf Rizwan, the President of Meedhoo Ekuveringe Cheynu (MEC) and MEC members.  The MEC is a women’s community based organisation in Hulhumeedhoo and works for women’s economic empowerment. Starting from their initial engagement in auto pot farming to their management of the only public library on the Island, Shafaaf and her MEC team have become a driving force for their community development. They have set an example of how women can contribute to development.

Contrary to my interaction with energetic and committed MEC members, I did not meet any women during my meetings with island and atoll councils. Only one or two female assistants were present for note taking, but did not say a word.  The above anecdote exemplifies the absence of a conducive environment for women to participate in decision-making level, resulting in women’s untapped potential.

To be fair, the Maldives fares significantly better than many countries when it comes to gender equality, ranking 49th on the Gender Inequality Index in the 2014 Global Human Development Report of UNDP, in comparison with its Human Development Index ranking of 103th. The island nation has the least disparities between men and women, when compared with other medium human development countries as well as its South Asian neighbours. The country has attained gender parity in primary and secondary enrolment, and the number of Maldivian women attaining university degrees is at par with that of men.

This is no small feat. However, women’s participation in public life and decision-making level is not proportional to strides the Maldives has made in reducing gender inequality. While equal rights of women and men are enshrined in the constitution, barriers for women’s participation in public life need to be overcome.

Women’s political representation is very low. They hold a mere 6 percent of seats in both the national parliament and local councils, and women hold 2 of 15 positions in the Cabinet. Women’s unemployment rate was 31% in 2010. Across all sectors and industries, women’s mean monthly income is lower than that of men.

According to the Household Income and Expenditure Survey (2009 – 2010), while the major reason given by both women and men for being unemployed was because they were unable to find suitable employment, 22 percent of women cited household chores as a reason, and another 3 percent were deterred by objection from family members. Thus lack of supporting environment in the family was a major factor discouraging a significant number of women from seeking employment. None of the men surveyed faced similar family environment. UNDP’s baseline survey on women in public life further underlined that marriage and pregnancy at a young age, geographical isolation, and social norms restricting women’s mobility are factors that hamper women’s participation in paid work.

Sexual and gender based violence is widespread in the Maldives. According to the Maldives Study on Women’s Health and Life Experiences in 2007, one out of three women aged 15-49 reported to have experienced at least one form of physical and/or sexual violence during their lifetime.

At the global level, this year marks the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, which remains the world’s best blueprint for achieving gender equality and empowering women. A set of challenges faced by women globally appears to be similar to that in the Maldives.

Gender parity in primary education has been achieved, while completion rates and the quality of education are not high across all countries. More women have been elected to public office – about 21 percent of the world’s parliamentarians are women, up from about 11 percent in 1995 – but we are still far from parity. More women than ever before are participating in the work force, but women generally earn less than men and, in rich and poor countries alike. The latest IMF study shows that almost 90 percent of countries around the world still have at least one legal restriction based on gender, and 28 countries have 10 or more such laws.

These numbers speak for themselves. They indicate that a lot more needs to be done to ensure that women, who constitute 49 percent of the Maldivian population, should be able to participate in national development processes. In other words, increasing women’s contribution and participation in national development is crucial for the future of the country, and requires interventions at all levels, across all sectors. Research shows that countries with higher levels of gender equality have higher economic growth, companies with more women on their boards have higher returns to shareholders and parliaments with more women consider a broader range of social issues.

Legislation and policies to uphold gender equality commitments need to be introduced. It should be noted that key legislations such as Domestic Violence Prevention Act (2012), Sexual Harassment Prevention Act, and Sexual Offences Act (2014) have been adopted. On going work to pass a Gender Equality Law is an important step towards achieving this. Institutions need to embrace gender sensitive practices, such as flexible working arrangements and effective mechanisms to address work place harassment, as the norm. Furthermore, empowered women such as Shafaaf need to be better highlighted to make women’s contribution to development more visible. Efforts are also needed to challenge unequal gender relations and address violence against women.

The United Nations renews its commitment to promoting gender equality and empowering women as agents of change and leaders in the development processes in the Maldives. Women’s empowerment is one of the UN’s priority areas for the next five years in our programme.

As we celebrate the International Women’s Day, let’s join hands to remove barriers that stop women from realising their full potential. And this should start from our own homes.

Ms. Shoko Noda is the UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative in Maldives.

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