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Political Representation of Women in Maldives: Challenges and Opportunities

Following violent protests in 2004, President Gayoom, who has been the President since 1978, pledged a shift towards a more representative political system. Political parties were legalised in 2005, and the first multi-party elections were held in 2008 upon adopting a democratic constitution. The Constitution of Maldives adopted in 1968 barred women from running for the office of the President. In January 2008, the People's Special Majilis (Constituent Assembly) removed the gender ban on women running for President.

Currently, there are 4.6% women in the national parliament. Maldives ranks 177th out of 183 countries for the number of women representatives in the Parliament. (Inter-Parliamentary Union, May 2022). Thanks to amendments in the Decentalisation Act which mandates a minimum of 33% women at the local level, currently there are 39.5% women in local governance. In the national cabinet appointed by the President, there are 30% women.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Reasons for low representation of women in Maldivian politics:

According to a study conducted by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the major reasons are:

1. Lack of Information: There is often less information for women on the political system, democratic processes and how they can be involved. Several women believe that political representation is reserved for the elite families who have been traditionally involved in politics.

Over the last 25 years, the government structures responsible for driving gender equality have shifted multiple times. A Gender Committee was formed in 1979, then a Gender Department in 1989, and setting up of Gender Ministry in 1993. Since then, portfolios and ministry names have continued to shift. Currently, the responsibility of gender centric policy is led by the Ministry of Gender, Family and Social Services. The uncertainty around the power structures reduced commitment and accountability for enhancing the representation of women in politics.

2. Patriarchal Culture: Men are highly unlikely to support women in their families entering politics. In addition, women do not publicly support other women in politics. Several young women report that their political ambitions were strongly discouraged by both men and women in their families. In a 2015 Democracy Survey, over 37% of the population responded positively to 'men make better leaders than women’.

Sexual misconduct is prevalent in the highest political circles. Several high profile ministers have been involved in sexual harassment of women, further making it unsafe for women to choose this as a career.

3. Conservative Interpretation of Religious Texts: A highly conservative interpretation of religious texts has led to religious groups opposing women's leadership in the public sphere.

4. Financial Constraints: Many women are either financially dependent on men or engaged in the informal sector with little to no job security. NGOs struggle to raise funds for the cause of women's political representation. Government budgets have a tiny percentage of funds to support aspiring women policymakers. In addition, government bodies and NGOs face a shortage of trained personnel who can work on bringing women into the political sphere.

Recommendations to Enhance Women's Political Participation in the Maldives:

1. Invest in Training More Women Leaders

Although political parties in the Maldives are forming women's wings, little to no investment goes into training women candidates in contesting elections.

Several NGOs conduct training for women in politics, which is particularly important to bring women from across party lines and create opportunities for cross-learning. Instead of running training before the election dates, which they are currently, these programmes need to be spread out across an election cycle. The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) launched Kiyeveni learning portal in March 2021 to train women in the skills required to contest elections and run the government. As these programs are online, women from across the country can access them at their convenience. This portal can help address the lack of awareness and accessibility of resources, which is a major hindrance to the greater political representation of women. Organisations including Women & Democracy and Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WfD) have been working on capacity building initiatives to promote gender equality in politics.

Political parties need to allot funds to organise training programs, bring in expert trainers, and create opportunities for emerging women leaders to shadow and learn from experienced politicians.

In addition to training women leaders, men in politics need to be trained in allyship. They need to be sensitised towards gender-neutral approaches and how they can make politics a more inclusive space.

2. Push for Greater Female Representation at the Local Level

To bring more women into the political sphere, a push is needed to make other leadership opportunities accessible, such as decision-making roles in local school boards and healthcare clinics.

Women's Development Committees (WDC) are legally backed community organisations that empower women to address local challenges. It began as a social movement in some islands in 1982. By 1990, WDCs were set up in all of the islands. In 2010, the government passed the Decentralisation Act establishing WDCs today as legal entities to promote women's participation at the local level. According to the Act, members of a WDC are to be elected by all women above 18 in a particular locality. A WDC can generate income, set up businesses and conduct legal transactions. A promising example is the IWDC in Thaa Atoll Hirilandhoo, which built a women's cafe or 'sai hota' and raised funds to build its office building.

In April 2021, Women's Development Committee representatives were elected through local council elections for the first time.

The network of WDCs needs to be strengthened through increased funding, cross-team learning programs and incentives for participation. Representation in the WDCs needs to be a natural pathway to entering national-level elections. Island councils need to be encouraged to take up recommendations offered by WDCs, specifically in matters affecting women's lives.

3. Mindset Shift

The Ministry of Education needs to focus on creating and delivering a gender-neutral curriculum to reduce the conscious and unconscious gender bias that children pick up at a young age. This can radically impact how individuals view women's political participation and, consequently, how strongly they support women from their families who wish to enter politics.

The media needs to be incentivised to address the gender gap in politics and promote greater female participation. Awareness programs, gender-conscious TV shows and leveraging social media influencers can be critical steps to moulding media as a tool to encourage greater political representation of women.

Structural reforms that nudge prominent politicians and political parties to field more women candidates must be pursued. For instance, providing additional funding to the political parties that field more than a baseline number of women candidates can be a decisive move.

The political landscape in Maldives is slowly and surely moving towards greater political representation for women. As outlined in this article, there are several challenges to achieving this, including but not limited to religious perceptions, patriarchal norms, and lack of incentives and opportunities. However, the emerging community-based initiatives led by NGOs and government institutions offer a glimmer of hope.

Anagha Rajesh

Anagha is a student at Birla Institute of Technology and Science - Pilani majoring in Chemistry and minoring in Philosophy, Economics and Political Science. She is passionate about women's representation in politics and aspires to pursue a career at the intersection of STEM and Public Policy.

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