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Maldivian women are more vulnerable now than ever before

Opinion Editorial by Mariyam Mohamed and Khady Hamid of Uthema Maldives, a local NGO that advocates for gender equality and women's empowerment in the Maldives.

07 June 2020, MVT 11:50
A woman pushes a wheelbarrow along a narrow path on an island of Maldives; the existing economic and social vulnerability of women in the island nation is expected to exacerbate due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. PHOTO/MARIYAM MOHAMED
07 June 2020, MVT 11:50

Disruptions are never pleasant. They are painful, confusing and full of anxiety. But amidst the confusion and discomfort lies great clarity.

This is because disruptions allow us to see very clearly the things that were “invisible” to us before. It provides us with an opportunity to name things for what they are, and then hopefully to address them.

In this regard, the on-going global COVID-19 pandemic has been a disruption of unprecedented proportions. As the country closed borders, businesses shut down, school sessions suspended; the entire formal economy came to a halt and every one retreated inside the four walls of their homes. Through this great pause, we gained and continue to gain clarity on a lot of things.

Unfortunately, one of the most critical “clarities” shone on the status of women in Maldivian society. The picture of Maldivian women that is painted through this new found lucidity is an image of existing economic and social vulnerability that will exacerbate with the COVID-19 crisis.

Even pre-COVID, the Gross National Income (GNI) per capita for women in Maldives was 48 percent lower than that of men (UNDP, 2020). This implies that, country-wide, economic inequality is one of the biggest forms of gender inequality.

This is not because Maldivian women are uneducated, lazy or unworthy. Infact, compared to their male counterparts, statistics indicate a larger portion of local women go on to pursue higher education. It is because of structural inequalities that women are and continue to exist at a position of disadvantage.

As we grapple with the economic shock wrought by the pandemic, there is no doubt that these structural inequalities will further exacerbate women’s economic vulnerabilities.

But all is not lost. It is time that we step forward and call out persisting inequalities for what they are and push the powers that be to address those factors as the country builds back for a better post-COVID-19 future.

A woman cracks open the husk of Midhili tree (Indian almond) fruits to extract the almond seeds inside. PHOTO/MARIYAM MOHAMED

Unpaid domestic and care work

The reality is, Maldives does not have extensive time-use survey data to scientifically confirm the gender inequities surrounding unpaid domestic and care work.

However, there is plenty that we can infer from looking at labour force participation figures or by simply examining the lives of, well, pretty much every single Maldivian woman we know.

Limited time-use data collected as part of the Household Income and Expenditure Survey of 2016 indicates that on average, Maldivian women spend six hours daily on unpaid domestic and care work, compared to only three hours for men. This disproportionate care burden on women limits them from participating in income generating activities.

One in two women reveal they were unable to undertake income generating activities due to domestic duties such as childcare, cooking, cleaning and other household chores. Only 3 percent of men outside the labour force cited the same reasons for not participating. Even more vexing, when employed, women still end up taking up a bigger share of the domestic duties and care work within the household.

According to UN Women, the on-going lockdown has multiplied women’s disproportionate share of unpaid care and domestic work across the globe.

In Maldives, after a full month of a complete lock down, anecdotal evidence indicates that women are spending a lot more time tending to children, making meals, cooking and cleaning. As many as 68 percent and 64 percent of Maldivian women surveyed, as part of a COVID-19 initial assessment conducted by the UN Women, reported they were now spending a lot more time on unpaid domestic work and unpaid care work, respectively.

Some women accomplish all this while still working from home. This means that, on average, these women are working a lot more, perhaps doubly so, during this pandemic.

The unequal distribution of unpaid domestic and care work leaves a mark on women’s physical, mental and emotional wellbeing. It increases economic vulnerabilities as women end up with less income, savings and pensions to rely on at time of divorce, old age or during times of economic shocks.

‘Unpaid care work’ is what keeps the economy going, as it is what ensures the reproduction and wellbeing of one of the most important factors of production: labor. According to UN Women the value of women’s contribution to all types of care work is US$ 11 trillion. However, this work is often ‘invisible’ and not factored into national accounts, leaving those who take up this work exposed to multiple vulnerabilities.

A woman tends to a taro plantation. PHOTO/MARIYAM MOHAMED

Contribution to critical industries

Maldivian women’s contribution to critical industries such as tourism, construction, fisheries and agriculture are negligible. While unpaid care work and other domestic duties remain a major hurdle to women’s participation in employment in general, there are other structural and design limitations that prevent women from participating in these industries.

Tourism in the Maldives accounts for a direct 24.5 percent and indirect 60 percent of the country’s GDP(National Bureau of Statistics, 2017). However, as per Tourist employment Survey 2019 Maldivian women’s participation in the industry is at a meagre 3 percent compared to 47 percent for local men.

The limited frequent transport options between local islands and resorts built on the ‘one island, one resort’ concept requires people who want to work for resorts to relocate themselves to the resort island. This is especially hard for women whose familial obligations make it difficult for them to relocate to these properties, which for the most part, do not provide childcare facilities for employees.

Additionally, concerns about sexual harassment, personal safety and societal stigma and taboos associated with working in a male-dominated industry makes it harder for women to enter it.

The introduction of tourism to inhabited islands under the banner of guesthouse tourism has not necessarily changed this status quo. While employment in guesthouses may not require relocation, it is likely that the lack of flexible working arrangements, competitive remuneration, professional development opportunities and societal gender roles, all serve to discourage women from seeking employment in guest houses.

Additionally, policy makers have failed to incorporate local community voices into tourism policy making processes. This has resulted in a situation where the introduction of tourism has harmed traditional livelihoods, as the introduction of tourism crowded out investments into these livelihoods’ opportunities, made them less appealing and also restricted access to critical common property natural resources that these livelihoods depended on.

While the loss of traditional livelihoods impact men and women, they impact women disproportionately.

A 2019, study conducted by the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) shows that “although fisheries and agriculture contribute 1.3 percent and 4.6 percent of GDP respectively, direct female employment accounts for only 1.22 percent of employment within the sector”. Majority of women’s involvement in fisheries and agriculture takes an informal nature and tends to be gendered, with women taking on the less rewarding and profitable aspects of the work and these realities are not reflected in national policy formulation and implementation.

More than half of the country’s population being women, the lack of their meaningful participation in these critical industries is not only a disservice to themselves, but also to the nation.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the economic and social risks of over-reliance on imported cheap labour in these critical industries. There is no reason why Maldivian women cannot replace at least a good percentage of the migrant workers in these industries. It just requires some creative policy solutions to address the structural limitations on women’s participation in these critical industries.

A woman pictured cooking on a traditional 'dharu undhun', using firewood. PHOTO/UTHEMA

Informal sector and home-based workers

Maldives women make up 40 percent of the informal sector, compared to just 31 percent for men. The informal sector is especially prevalent for women who are engaged in home-based income generating activities and rural women who engage in traditional livelihood activities such as rope making, thatch weaving, coconut oil making, making rihaakuru (fish paste) etc.

Earnings from such work is extremely volatile as it is entirely dependent on market forces. Additionally, the lack of recognition given to this work means that women who engage in such work are also left out of social benefit schemes such as pensions and other social safety nets.

Furthermore, the development trajectory of the country in recent years have caused significant destruction to the natural resources or restricted access to natural resources that these women depend on for their livelihood. The case of mass tourism development on local islands mentioned in the previous section and also mega infrastructure development is an example of this. Additionally they are also susceptible to climate change vulnerabilities, that is already happening at an unprecedented level.

According to the 2019 FAO study, women account for 84 percent of home-based workers in the Maldives. A majority of these home-based workers are self employed business owners who run a small business out of their homes. Despite this, there has not been a concerted effort made to facilitate things for small-scale female entrepreneurs. Access to credit (this is compounded by societal limitations that prevent women from registering assets to their name) and building business skills remains as challenges.

Informal workers as well as home-based business owners play an important role in providing for their families. However, oftentimes they do not have access to pension programmes and are also ineligible from applying for a number of benefits focusing on asset and home ownership. This means that over time, they struggle to expand and even one small shock could result in them having to close their business.

The cumbersome and tedious application process for income support through the COVID-19 relief package are far removed from the realities of informal sector and home-based workers. Without a concerted effort to address the unique situation of and challenges that they face; it is likely that they will fall through the cracks.

Mariyam Mohamed (L) and Khady Hamid of Uthema Maldives; Mariyam Mohamed is a gender and development professional who has been working in the social development sector primarily working on gender equality and social justice for the last 15 years. Khady Hamid is a development practitioner interested in exploring the intersections of gender, sustainability and human rights. She is currently doing a Masters in Development Practice at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota. PHOTO/UTHEMA

Addressing structural issues to build back better

This year marks 25 years since the Beijing Platform for Action - an important milestone in promoting gender equality. However, the current COVID-19 pandemic threatens to reverse the limited gains made during the past years, as it will exacerbate the existing gender inequalities, This assessment is backed by UN Women and numerous other organizations.

Across the globe, women earn less, save less, hold less secure jobs and are more likely to be employed in the informal sector. They have less access to social protections and are the majority of single-parent households. All of this means that their capacity to absorb economic shocks is, therefore, less than that of men.

As we talk about building back better, there is no doubt that economic recovery packages and plans must take into account the above mentioned realities of most Maldivian women.

Otherwise, if our perspective were to remain opaque on these issues in the aftermath of COVID-19, the terrifying truth is that we might find ourselves staring at a population of Maldivian women that is more vulnerable than ever before.