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Q&A: Rights advocate calls for affirmative action for Maldives women

Shadiya Ibrahim, the UNFPA’s assistant representative hails the Maldives’ ground-breaking Gender Equality Act, but says affirmative action is necessary to bridge the gender gap in political life and the work-place



In August, the Maldives parliament approved the Gender Equality Act, a law hailed as ground-breaking for setting out the role of government, political parties and businesses in bridging gender gaps in political, economic and family life.

The law adds to a host of legislation aimed at eliminating gender-based violence and discrimination, and sexual harassment in the work place.

The Gender Equality Act requires employers to provide equal opportunities and equal pay for men and women, set up committees to investigate complaints of discrimination, and take measures to eliminate obstacles to women’s participation in the labour force. Job advertisements targeting a specific gender are also discouraged.

The media must eliminate gender stereotypes, the law states in broad terms. It also entitles victims of gender-based violence to launch civil lawsuits for compensation.

The Maldives Independent sat down with Shadiya Ibrahim, the United Nations Population Fund’s assistant representative in the Maldives to discuss the law’s provisions.

The following is an abridged version of an hour-long conversation.

Shafaa Hameed: What is gender equality? And why does the Maldives need a law on gender equality?

Shadiya Ibrahim: Gender equality is being able to receive equal treatment and development benefits regardless of whether you are a man or woman. A law is necessary here in the Maldives in order to end gender stereotyping and enforce affirmative action, as well as eliminate obstacles that women face because of culture and tradition through legal action.

SH: How will the new Gender Equality Law help with bridging the gender gap?

SI: Article 17 of the Maldivian constitution encourages equality, and, having a gender equality law is very good. The most important character of such a law is to specify legal actions to end inequality. The biggest challenge in the Maldives is the lack of female involvement in decision-making and policy making. To resolve this issue, countries worldwide take affirmative action.

But in its current state, our law is flawed because it does not allow for affirmative action. But there is still an opportunity to include such measures as the ministry of law and gender has to create a policy on gender equality. So the real benefits of this law will be attained when measures for affirmative action are specified in the policy.

Affirmative actions are special measures, for example, taken in sectors where women perform less than average, to bring them on par with men. In politics, this could mean reserving seats for women for elected positions.

SH: The law defines gender-based violence in very broad terms, for example prohibiting employment for women is an offence. Is it possible to implement such provisions, given the prevalence of conservative ideas here?

SI: Broad definitions are at times good because it means nothing is excluded. Actions like stalking are included within the definition of domestic violence in the Domestic Violence Act as well. With the Domestic Violence Act and the Sexual Harassment Act, the issue lies with implementation. I don’t think much has been achieved at the implementation and enforcement stage. I think this is because these issues are connected with social norms and habits. If no effort is made into changing such habits, we are only finding solutions to specific cases, and not the general issue as a whole. And this is what we are advocating for.

When we try to find solutions for the controversial cases alone, the people with such habits will continue their behaviour; there will be no change, which does not benefit the people. Changing social norms cannot happen overnight; it requires long-term planning. Without such strategies, we will continue to face huge challenges in implementing these laws.

SH: What are some of the actions we can do to change norms?

SI: A lot can be done. I think that affirmative action is an important step to achieve this goal. For instance, in the past, the number of educated women were much less when compared to educated men. But, now, because of the priority given to women’s education, and through changes in policies, we are seeing significant improvements. There are more girls in schools and at the national university. This came through specific policy actions, like scholarships for women. So when an effort is made, we can see results. In the same manner, if priority is given to encourage women in politics and business, we will see results.

SH: The law states that employers must advertise jobs in a manner that attracts women in the sectors with low rates for employing women. How can employers appeal to or encourage women to apply?

SI: Women can do any type of work, if they want to. But, what happens here is that there are stereotypes. For instance, job announcements say, “female cashiers needed” or male this or that needed. This must not be the case.

When we ask a five-year-old or a ten-year-old who they want to be when they grow up, they will most probably base their answer on the behaviour and lifestyle of a mentor or someone they know from school. A young person will find it hard to aspire to become someone other than the stereotypes if they do not know that it is possible to go against stereotypes. So what we can do is show them that they can do anything, show them positive role models, and have discussions on the obstacles that stereotypes can cause.

Because of severe stereotyping, we have some fields where there are no men, for example, nursing or kindergarten teachers. We have to encourage men to enter these fields and encourage more women to be involved at the decision making levels.

The biggest obstacle is the belief that only women are responsible for taking care of children. Looking after the children is a responsibility of both parents. In the Maldives in recent years, families have not been able to survive on the income of one partner. To survive, both the man and the woman have to work. But the responsibilities of taking care of the family and home is believed to lie solely on the shoulders of women, which increases the burden on women, especially as they don’t have the same support networks they used to have. In the past, extended families lived together under one roof, where work was shared and women helped each other. But now, nuclear families live separately. Men must help with domestic work.

SH: The law states that employers must set up complaint mechanisms. What kind of complaint mechanism would be most effective?

SI: I don’t know much about this, one such complaint mechanism is the employment tribunal. But I don’t think it [the tribunal] is that effective. We haven’t looked at it in depth, but based on the news, we don’t see the institution running that effectively. I don’t know what kind of mechanism would work best, but what I know is that we need accountability. If someone does something wrong, they have to be held accountable. We have the parliament, the courts and the executive for that. These three branches should be able to bring accountability. But so far, for example, the Domestic Violence Act, a lot of incidents have happened in the past, but we do not see the perpetrators being held accountable. So I don’t think this law will bring about a change like that. An effective complaint mechanism rests on the loyalty and sincerity of the people who are responsible for it.

SH: The fine prescribed for gender discrimination is an amount between MVR12,000 (US$778) and MVR50,000 (US$3243). Is this sufficient?

SI: Instead of punishing someone for doing something wrong, I believe the government must take actions to prevent such offences in the first place. I don’t think that punishment alone will change practices, lifestyle and decision-making. Changing habits by penalties can be very difficult and ineffective. But, there should be some kind of accountability and there should be penalties, but it should be reserved as the last stage. If government institutions are run in a fair manner, and if affirmative action is encouraged, we would not have to resort to punishments as much. Fines are not enough to prevent gender discrimination; we also have to change cultural beliefs, traditions and social norms.

SH: The law mandates the government to allocate a budget to combat gender discrimination. How can this be done?

SI: We call it gender-responsive budgeting. Rather than allocating a national budget for gender equality, different offices should designate a budget to tackle challenges women face. For instance, on the streets of Malé, most pedestrians are women and children and most vehicles are driven by men, this is not to say that women don’t drive. What the government spends more on is creating parking spaces for the convenience of vehicle drivers. This is not gender responsive budgeting, because it benefits men more than women. I believe that that before big projects are carried out, like road construction, or tourism, the [government] must determine the benefits such projects can bring to women, and identify and tackle obstacles such projects can present to women.

SH: The law delays its enactment by six-months. Is this enough to prepare? What measures can we take to prepare?

SI: Awareness. Even if a law has been passed, the public is unaware. There are many provisions relating to people who own private businesses and employers on eliminating discrimination. But when they discriminate without knowing they are discriminating, how can we punish them? Someone needs to explain these provisions to the stakeholders. I don’t think enough is being done on this front. I have not seen TV programmes or social media campaigns to create awareness on gender equality. Six months is not short, but if the law is not prioritised, even two years would not be enough.

SH: The law states that schools have to promote gender equality. What is UNFPA’s role?

SI: We are working with the education ministry to end stereotyping and promote gender equality in the national curriculum. We will provide technical assistance and advice. One of the most important issues is to integrate sexual reproductive health and rights for girls. Gender-based violence, prevention, harassment, these topics will be included as well. We can only advise the government, as we do not have a role in implementing the law. We are advising on the curriculums of grades one and twelve, in an age-appropriate manner so that students of all ages benefit.