Women in the Maldives have been increasingly assuming positions of leadership in politics and the private sector, enabled by the rise of moderate Islamic values in the nation. The societal and economic dividends of greater women participation are already evident, says Aishath Rafiyya, Deputy Leader and a founding member of the Maldives Development Alliance.
Can you reflect on the international perception Muslim women and Maldivian women in particular receive?
Muslim women are today perceived less fortunate on several grounds when it comes to roles they should perform. These perceptions come from various ethnic, cultural, religious and social beliefs. Yet, despite the widely held belief that Islam as a religion does not encourage the participation of women in the building a nation and that they should be strictly restricted to a role in the household, it is evident both in Islamic teachings and history that Muslim women did and continue to be equally engaged in every level of the developmental spectrum, irrespective of social and political structure.
As a Muslim nation, the Maldives too has our own cultural and traditional viewpoints as to what women’s responsibilities should be. Women in the Maldives account for about half the population today, and therefore we have evolved to holding perceptions of inclusion and empowerment for our women in every aspect of our lives.
Can you outline steps taken by President Yameen Abdul Gayoom to ensure equal opportunities for women?
President Abdul Yameen Gayoom’s government came into power with over 111,000 votes, out of the over 239,000 eligible voters. Notably, 49% of these voters were women. Thus, the government has received a voice from our women. The government has always acknowledged and reiterated the fact that women must be empowered to have a say in different developmental and political aspects of the nation. When we look at President Yameen’s cabinet, we see that there are three female cabinet ministers out of his 14-member cabinet, as well as several state ministers and deputies. We see our central bank, Prosecutor General and various independent institutions being headed by women leaders; this occurs not only in the government sector, but also in the private sector, such as corporate boards. In fact, the government has reserved a one-third quota for women serving on the boards of government companies. Apart from that, we see that President Yameen’s government encourages and facilitates inclusivity of women and participation in decision-making positions. On a community-based level, gynecologists are being sent to every atoll for the first time in Maldivian history. Laws that have enabled the extension of paid maternity leave to one year while allowing the ability to work at home for civil servants and reducing public service working hours have all dramatically assisted more women.
What are the main benefits of having more gender-balanced corporate boards?
Today, more and more research and data are showing that greater representation of women in corporate boards of directors has enormous positive impacts on different areas of business compared to those without women board directors. According to research conducted by numerous Fortune 500 companies, the benefits include significantly higher financial performance, which has positive effects on return on equity, return on sales, and return on investment. Moreover, the correlation between gender diversity on boards and corporate performance is not limited to a specific industry. It is also noteworthy that companies where gender diversity is lacking or none at all suffer more from governance-related issues than the average. Therefore, I believe board diversity brings both higher financial performance and simultaneously strengthens corporate governance.
What are your strategies to engage women in politics and how can this be achieved?
There are many strategies to encourage and empower greater participation from women in politics. The biggest setback that I see, despite what we have seen in the results of the last election turnouts, is that women are still engaged at the grassroots level of politics. This needs to change. We need to create a conducive environment where women get equal opportunity in the traditionally male-dominated political sector. For this to happen, I believe the perception of our counterparts, the men, need to transform their perceptions of women as less capable or more restricted to household roles, to believing that women too are equally capable and deserve equality in leadership and decision-making roles. Once our men believe and show by means of action that the representation of women in politics is encouraged, I believe we will see more women in politics.