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The e-Newsletter of the Gender Network

December 2012 | Vol. 6, No. 3

Laying the Groundwork for Gender Equality in the Maldives

By Imrana Jalal1 The Maldives is synonymous with paradise: a double chain of 26 atolls in the Indian Ocean, its white beaches and clear waters are known as a playground of the worlds wealthy. But for many women living in the Maldives, theres still a long way to go to reach Utopia. While Maldives ranks relatively high in education and health, and has reduced maternal mortality and infant mortality rates, it scores poorly in political empowerment and economic opportunity for women. Challenges remain in the areas of maternal and child nutrition, educational attainment, vocational education, higher education and gender-based violence. In recent years gender inequality appears to have diminished in the Maldives. Maldives Gender Inequality Index (GII) value is low at 0.320, ranking it 52 out of 146 countries in the 2011 index. Only 6.5% of parliamentary seats are held by women, and female participation in the labor market is 57.1 per cent compared to 77% for men. Worse, civil society groups have reported significantly increasing restrictions on womens dress, mobility, autonomy, forms of employment, voice and ability to make independent decisions. In addition, preliminary results of a 2006 Minister of Gender and Family survey on violence against women showed that one in three women in the Maldives between the ages of 16 and 45 had experienced physical or sexual violence at some point in their lives. Challenges also exist in womens participation in decision-making, with women under-represented in local councils and the national legislature (Majlis), and policy making positions in government.

Senior Gender Specialist, ADB

Gender segregation in the labor market The economy of the Maldives relies mainly on tourism, and presents significant economic opportunities for women, yet only 4% of tourism employees are women. Hospitality schools are overwhelmingly dominated by male students. Women lack basic freedoms, including mobility, and autonomy to make personal decisions regarding employment. Womens participation in the labor force remains one of the main challenges for gender equality in the Maldives. While the government is encouraging womens greater economic participation in the formal labor market, it appears that society continues to prescribe a predominantly domestic role for women. This lack of opportunity is particularly concerning considering Maldives has one of the highest rates of female-headed households in the world, at 35% in 2010, due to high divorce rates and because many men leave their homes and family to work as fisherfolk or in the tourism sector. Although womens participation in the agriculture sector is high -- mainly as a result of the greater numbers of men working away from their home islands, and the significantly high rates of divorce -almost a quarter of female-headed households have no income-earner, with only 21% of female household heads economically active in the week preceding the 2006 census. Womens domestic work burden is also high, especially since the average household size is large (6.6 nationally, but 8 in Mal) with on average three children to care for. Commitment to Change The Government of the Maldives has shown positive commitments to advancing gender equality, ratifying the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, but in the 13 years since the Maldives acceded to CEDAW, legislation, policies and practices fall far short of granting women full gender equality. Section 17 of the Maldives Constitution, together with the governments commitments under CEDAW require state parties to adopt proactive laws, measures, policies and strategies to promote equality and empower women to allow for Temporary Special Measures (TSM). A Gender Equity Law (GEL) will provide the legal framework for such TSM. Although temporary special measures could be used by the State party as a policy to accelerate the achievement of de facto equality between women and men, none has been introduced to date to address gender gaps or enhance gender equality, even though the Constitution allows for it.

There is ample opportunity in the Maldives for gender equality to be advanced and translated into economic and social empowerment for women. However, it is necessary to remove legal obstacles to advancing gender equality by laying the legislative groundwork and foundations. The current period of major political reform and democratic transition presents a major opportunity to catalyze economic, political and social reforms for women through groundbreaking legislation that will lay the legal foundations for gender equality. The Maldives has recently asked the Asian Development Bank (ADB) to help prepare and implement a GEL. Legislating for Gender Equality and Temporary Special Measures (TSM) A GEL can help in numerous ways. Despite the existence of some gender sensitive laws and policies, barriers remain to the full realization of gender equality in the Maldives, including weak institutional capacity, and rising conservative, genderdiscriminatory interpretations of religion are also reinforcing traditional and stereotypical views of womens roles in society. Although progressive legislation cannot by itself bring about gender equality, it can help to provide legitimacy for special programs and support to women without being regarded as discrimination against men. Further, gender equality laws can require TSM and the allocation of resources to close gender gaps and advance gender equality. Without such a law it is difficult to justify the special allocation of resources and other advantages to women. The Support for Gender Equality Law Project is financed under ADBs Gender and Development Co-operation Fund and aims to promote gender equality in access to resources and opportunities, and womens full enjoyment of rights, including in decision-making. A Law to Address all Facets of Womens Lives An all encompassing Gender Equality Law will define and prohibit all forms of gender discrimination and pro-actively promote gender equality through TSM. It would state the basic principles of gender equality, define whose responsibility it is to promote gender equality and provide accountability mechanisms including spelling out the responsibility of specific public agencies. The scope of the GEL should apply not only to government but also to the private sector, family and community. A good GEL can address gender equality in all sectors, as well as economic, social, cultural and political inequalities, and provide for proactive gender design in health, education, agriculture, tourism, infrastructure, water, energy and transport sectors, as has been done in other Asian countries.

A sound GEL can also create an enabling environment by adopting a National Action Plan setting out in detail how the GEL will be implemented, along with commitment to timeframes and regular progress reports. This should help women the break free of stereotypical roles and take up their place in society and the workplace.

Maldives Constitution s17(b) duty to take positive steps b) Special assistance or protection to disadvantaged individuals or groups, or to groups requiring social assistance, as provided in law shall not be deemed to be discrimination, as provided for in article (a).

Envisaged Outcomes of the Project by July 2013 A Gender Equality Bill ready for tabling and debate in the Peoples Majlis (the legislature). Support for the Ministry of Gender, Family and Human Rights in advocating the passage of the bill and steering it through the legislative process. Ensuring stakeholders inputs are reflected in the draft bill through wide consultations. Supporting the increased public awareness of and strengthened civil society support for the GEL. Identifying GEL champions in the Peoples Majlis to sponsor the passage of the bill through the legislature.

ADB, 2006, Maldives Gender Thematic Assessment : ADB, 2002, Poverty Reduction in the Maldives Ministry of Atolls Development, UNDP & UNESCAP, 2004, Old, Existing and Potential Income Generating Activities in the Maldives NGO Shadow Report on CEDAW, Maldives A Commentary on the Combined Second and Third Periodic Report of the Government of Maldives to the CEDAW Committee, Co-ordinated by Hama Jamiyya, in consultation with other

NGOs, CBOs and individuals promoting womens rights and the technical assistance of IWRAW AP, November 2006 Sydney Morning Herald, July 7, 2012 - :; UN Data Country Profile -, accessed 7 July 2012 United Nations, 2006, Common Country Assessment, Republic of Maldives, [draft], September 2006.

The views expressed in this paper are the views of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Asian Development Bank (ADB), or its Board of Governors, or the governments they represent. ADB does not guarantee the accuracy of the data included in this paper and accepts no responsibility for any consequence of their use. The countries listed in this paper do not imply any view on ADB's part as to sovereignty or independent status or necessarily conform to ADB's terminology.