This is the 2016 theme for the International Women’s Day celebrated throughout the world on 8th of March. On this day I ask the Government, non-governmental organizations, private sector, and men and women of the Maldives to take bigger strides towards closing the gender equality gap.
This message is more pressing than ever for the Maldives. While the country has achieved gender parity in primary and secondary education, women are still underrepresented in senior management posts in the government and private sector. When I sit in formal meetings, often my counterparts at the senior level are mostly men. Women’s unemployment rate of 39 per cent is twice that of the rate of men (19 per cent), with more than one-fifth citing household chores as the main reason. Currently, only 64 out of 1095 local councilors are female. This reflects only 6 per cent of the whole population, half of which are women.
While the national averages present a worrying picture, through my interaction with communities, I have witnessed the critical role women play in the political and social activities at the grassroots level. Many of them have been influential mediators in resolving community-level conflicts, which range from family matters to community level decision making. However, innovative initiatives and contribution of women go often unacknowledged due to cultural and structural inequalities that they face.
In politics, women are acknowledged as strong campaign managers but rarely championed as strong candidates. The gender-segregated data for candidates show female-to-male ratio of 222:2754, again only a mere 8 per cent.
With the next local council elections scheduled for early 2017, we must ask ourselves: how can we ‘Step it up for Gender Equality’ in Maldives? What policy actions, legislations and initiatives should we undertake to encourage more females to come out to contest and get their voices heard?
During my recent field visit to Alif Dhaalu Atoll, I had the privilege of meeting Suhana Adam, the only female Atoll Council President. A young dynamic woman, she was truly committed towards inclusive development and governance. She told me, “I had to run for the elections, as there was no other way I could demonstrate to the next generation the value of our voice and true meaning of representation. I wanted to show them it was possible. They too can overcome any challenge”.
Recent studies have recommended the use and engagement of women role models to encourage more female participation and representation in the public sphere. One of the key initiatives undertaken by Suhana was to encourage women to be a part of the Women’s Development Committees (WDCs) in islands, where no women contested. Through her efforts, six WDCs have been established in her Atoll. These committees provide a solid platform for women to support community needs in partnership with local councils. Women systematically and traditionally underestimate their abilities, as well as the power of their voice. Suhana’s example shows how far the Maldives can progress as a nation if we start to pave the way for more women leaders. This is no easy task. Men and women must work together to achieve progress for all. In order to do this, I believe we must take action in three critical areas:
First, public perceptions and attitudes towards women’s roles in the political sphere must be changed. We need to foster more dialogue on gender equality and women’s empowerment. Men need to understand the advantage of empowering women. We need to change the messages we give to our girls and boys at home and in schools. The engagement of young women is crucial for the development of a thriving and innovative Maldivian society. Changes in public perception will encourage more women to enter the political process as candidates and as elected representatives.
Second, establishing a quota system to close the gender equality gap in the political sphere is critical. It is not only the number of women candidates, but also their qualification, experience and confidence of the public, which are critical for female political leaders to realize their potential. For this, we need to strengthen the women’s wings of political parties. With technical and strategic support, such wings can become more instrumental in increasing meaningful participation and representation of women at the local and national levels.
Third, ending violence against women must be a top priority. National studies have indicated that this is the main area of concern for women, both personally and at the community level. This is one of the most widespread human rights violations and one that carries tremendous costs for individuals, families and the society as a whole. We need to create a positive environment for women at home, if we want to increase their participation in the social, economic and political sphere.
The small steps we take today will create multiple ripples, which will lead to meaningful change in the long term. The Maldives, along with all the UN Member States, signed on to the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) in September 2015. Even during discussions at the highest level to define the SDGs, the importance of gender equality and women’s empowerment was clearly underlined for achieving the 17 Goals by 2030. The new Gender Policy launched today, as well as the Gender Equality Law, when approved in the Parliament, will be an excellent foundation to enhance, strengthen and champion gender equality in the country.
This year, the Government of the Maldives and the UN started the new cycle of the United Nations Development Assistance Framework (UNDAF) for 2016-2020. Through UNDAF, the UN pledges partnership with the Government and other counterparts in working towards the national development goals of the country. Through the four UNDAF outcome areas, we made specific commitments to ensure these results contributed to national gender equality goals. This includes supporting the implementation of the Government’s new Gender Policy, adoption of a number of progressive legislation, including Gender Equality Law, fostering opportunities for women as candidates during elections, strengthening institutions and existing legal frameworks to effectively prevent and respond to gender-based violence, and enhancing economic opportunities for women.
On this day, let us take active steps to change the messages we give out to our children, family, friends, colleagues and the society. Let us not be defined by the gender stereotypes but by our capabilities.
Ms. Shoko Noda is the Resident Coordinator of United Nations Maldives.
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