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Unfinished business: the pursuit of rights and choices for all

What has changed in the Maldives? asks the UNFPA’s country director.



The United Nations had high hopes for girls born 25 years ago. The race to build a brighter future for women in all walks of life began in 1994 with the adoption of the Program of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD). The work of United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) became intertwined with the ICPD Program of Action. This year ICPD celebrates its 25th anniversary and UNFPA marks its 50th anniversary. It’s an important junction to assess what has changed in the Maldives.

The State of World Population (SWOP) report for the year 2019, launched on April 10, helps us refine our focus: our vision must be to build a future where all women and girls are empowered, free to make their own choices and have opportunities to contribute to the socio-economic development of the country. Where all children are wanted and families make informed choices on the number and spacing of children so that the rights and dignity of all are protected. Maldives along with 178 other countries promised to commit to this vision at ICPD. 

What has changed in the Maldives over the past twenty-five years? The answer lies in the life of Adeela, a young Maldivian woman whose story provides perspectives on the progress we’ve made and what further changes are required.

When Adeela was born twenty-five years ago it was commonplace for parents to worry about losing their infants at birth or to ill health. Fortunately, mother and child benefitted from the improving health services in the Maldives. Back then women on average gave birth to six children per woman. From every thousand births, three women died of complications and 31 infants died soon after birth. It was an improvement from when Adeela’s mother was a child – yet in 1994 panic and apprehension still hovered around pregnant women and infants. By the time Adeela’s younger siblings were born health institutions had been strengthened and care for pregnant women improved.

Adeela doesn’t recall much discrimination between boys and girls at school, except for gender stereotyping of career ambitions; she remembers being told that her ambition of becoming a pilot was more suited to boys. Girls were supposed to aim for nursing and teaching. It was such an accepted state of affairs that no one gave this attitude of stereotyping much attention.

At fifteen, Adeela listened with minimal interest to her mother’s tales of how she got married at fifteen, how she had her first child at sixteen. They were tales of the distant past. It had no effect on teenagers in the 2000’s. At fifteen Adeela’s mother had hoped for a safe birth; Adeela was hoping for dazzling GCE O’Level results.  Her three siblings, all girls, were also studying, as were an increasing number of girls passing on through secondary school. Almost all young people in the Maldives, male and female, are literate and well educated even into higher studies. The issue of underage marriage has been fixed with marriageable age being raised to 18 for both boys and girls through the enactment of the Family Act in 2000.

In the early 2000s, technological advancements were taking the world by storm and bringing progress to health, education and economy in leaps and bounds. More people were leading healthier and more fulfilling lives than ever before. Life expectancy in the Maldives has increased by 18% in twenty-five years from about 62 years to 73.

To all intents and purposes, Adeela’s future should have been bright with a promising career. At age twenty-one she had reasonable academic qualifications and a stable job as an administrative clerk. She made her own decision to gain work experience before she began pursuing higher studies.

It was finally in her early twenties that Adeela awoke to the fact that several stark differences existed between men and women in the working world. Her salary was markedly lower than her male counterparts with the same qualification. Statistics show that the wage gap between men and women in the Maldives stand at 20% and employment niches continue to be gender stereotyped.

The Maldives was not able to meet the gender equality goal of the MDGs. The adoption of the SDGs in 2015 marked a period of renewed efforts to meet the gender targets. Immediate progress was made when legislative groundwork essential to protecting women’s rights – such as the Gender Equality Act, Domestic Violence Act and Sexual Offenses Act – were enacted. Policy level efforts began to ensure that discrimination in employment, harassment and violence against women were addressed. But these policy changes had no great impact on the events that were swiftly unfolding in Adeela’s life.

On the eve of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the ICPD and 50th anniversary of its custodian UNFPA, Adeela is in an unhappy marriage taking full burden of rearing a child. She has hidden away her ambitions. Her hopes of higher education are stalled. Adeela insists that many young women of her age are trapped in the same situation.

In 2019, women are having an average of two to three children per woman, a much smaller number than in the past. However, figures show that a staggering number of women may indeed be cut off from the labour force and higher studies because their time is taken up by household chores and childcare, having to financially depend entirely on their husbands and – if divorced – their guardians until they remarry. Men dominate 60% of income from businesses, property, wages and salaries. Of the 36% of the population outside of the labour force, the majority are women. In contrast, women make up 99% of people who are engaged in household chores and caring for children. Where statistics for unemployment are concerned, the number of women keep on rising.

Contraceptive availability is at an all-time high throughout the world. But like Adeela and her husband, most young couples don’t bother taking preventive measures to avoid unwanted pregnancies, nor do they take informed decisions on the number and spacing of children they want. They were not prepared for a life dedicated to planning and raising a family; education does not comprehensively cover the topic nor sexual reproductive health. Young couples turn to more unreliable sources of information, such as the internet. In the end, it’s the young woman whose life is cut short as a life of domesticity claims her.

It’s a right of all youth, especially young girls, to have exposure to accurate information on sexual and reproductive health before they start making decisions that can change their entire lives. Another issue relates to the exceptionally high divorce rates in Maldives. By their late twenties Maldivians are likely to have married at least twice. Adeela herself is on the brink of a divorce. Her sole choice seems to be a decision between dependency on her husband or her parents. Once divorced, she could expect financial assistance through the social protection scheme for single mothers, but it would hardly amount to a life she wanted for herself and her child. 

Stories like Adeela’s clearly tell us that there are some loose ends within the positive strides in development. The Maldives have left unfinished business behind, and it has affected the lives of many young women like Adeela within the past twenty-five years. They remain cut off from socio-economic development and confined to their homes at a far earlier age to fulfill their potential. 

It comes as no surprise, then, that women in the Maldives are not climbing the career ladder as effectively as they could be. Women representation in governance is low; in fact, the Maldives is one of the countries with the lowest representation of women in leadership positions. The country needs more female Members of Parliament, Judges, Ministers and leaders in the tourism sector. 

In the recent parliamentary elections in the Maldives only four women from the 87 constituencies were elected, which is a reduction from the five female Members of Parliament in the previous Majlis. A growing number of countries are implementing gender quotas in public elections to address this issue, but the conversation has not been accepted in the Maldives.

This year’s SWOP report comes with a hint of impatience, with a resounding call to tackle this unfinished business, to pursue the rights and choices for all, because even one woman barred from her rights is far too many.

We need more conducive laws and policy changes to bridge the gap; only by doing this can we make the positive and sustainable changes for future generations. In order to fully reap the benefits of ICPD programme of action, the Maldives needs to refine policies to address the last mile challenges in reaching the needs of people like Adeela and her daughters.

Adeela is still young and hopeful that she will become financially independent. To ensure that her dreams come to fruition – along with the budding ambitions of her young daughters – the Maldives needs to speed up the change and ensure that no one is left behind. On the 25th anniversary of the ICPD, UNFPA Maldives is determined to work closely with the Government and other partners to pick up the unfinished business and steer this beautiful country towards a bright future for women and girls. 

By Ms Ritsu Nacken, the UNFPA’s Representative in Sri Lanka and Country Director in the Maldives.

Top photo by Giacomo Pirozzi for UNFPA.

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