Saajidha Majdhee, APMA 2020, Maldives

Women have been elected to the People’s Majlis, the Parliament of the Maldives, since the 70’s. Ideally there should be more women in the parliament by now, even if we haven’t reached a point of equality. There were 5 women among the 85 Members of the 18th Parliament. The current parliament has even less, with only 4 women among the 87 parliamentarians. Women running for parliament is also relatively less when compared to the number of women involved in politics; according to the election observation report by Transparency Maldives, there were only 35 women among the 386 candidates who competed in the election.

It’s not that women’s participation in politics is low; it’s significantly high when you consider the number of women involved in political parties and grassroot activities such as campaigns and protests. Female turnout out on election day is also high, and equal to the turnout of men. There are no legislations barring women’s involvement in politics. Article 17 of the Constitution states that everyone is entitled to the rights granted in Chapter 2 (Fundamental Rights and Freedoms) of the Constitution without discrimination and Article 26 of the same Chapter grants rights to vote and run for public office. Furthermore, Article 24 of the Gender Equality Law entrusts the State and political parties with establishing gender equality in the political arena. Maldives has also been party to the Convention Against Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women since 1993, the essence of which is non-discrimination. At present, Maldives is committed to attaining the Sustainable Development Goals, goal 5 of which is Gender Equality.

So, why are there such few women in the parliament?

Like many countries in the South Asia region, women’s representation in the decision-making levels in Maldives is significantly low. There are a number of reasons for this. Women are hindered by socio-cultural and religious beliefs and stereotypes that segregates gender roles in ways that are disadvantageous to women. Women are expected to be homemakers. There is a lack of confidence in the capabilities of women. While there have been men with no educational or professional pedigree relevant to law making elected to the parliament, when a woman declares her intention to run for parliament, every aspect of their life is scrutinized to ensure their capabilities. Media portrayal of women in politics is negative and damaging. It doesn’t help that most local media outlets are owned by men who are either in parliament or investing in potential candidates. There is a lack of financing for women in politics. Parties are hesitant and unwilling to back new female candidates.

So, what has been done to facilitate women’s participation in politics?

Over the years, a lot of work has gone towards introducing temporary special measures to foster gender equality and increase women’s participation in politics. While these efforts have been unsuccessful for the most part, a 33 percent quota has been set for women in the councils when the Decentralization Act was amended last year. This goes to show that if there is political will, gender equality can be achieved in the parliament as well. The debate against a quota for women is that it is either discrimination or demeaning to women. Article 17 (b) of the national Constitution clearly states that special assistance to disadvantaged groups as stated under the law is not discrimination. Furthermore, a quota does not mean that unqualified women are to be given parliament seats on a silver platter. It should also be noted that there have been many unqualified men who are in parliament solely because they had money to spend on elections.

The State party’s report for the 6th cycle of CEDAW cited similar challenges as was addressed earlier, as reasons women face when competing in politics. They also elaborate by saying that “there is no specific study or finding” for these.  It further states that unsuccessful attempts were made to increase women’s leadership; what isn’t clear is what these efforts are. State and political parties have the obligation to raise awareness among both genders on why equality is needed and necessary. There is no sufficient evidence of this. The shadow report submitted under CEDAW by local NGO Land Sea Maldives implied a lack of budget allocation for the cause as well as how the economy is design to sustain more men than women might be the reason.

There is a resolution by the Majlis calling for a parliamentary inquiry to identify the issues and challenges relating to gender equality in Maldives. Maldives has been trying to achieve gender equality since the 90’s, at least on paper, but this is the first time an effort has gone in to finding out the reasons behind the lack of women in leadership. In Maldives, laws have been passed to ensure gender equality and we are party to international agreements to this end, but there is a distinct lack of work at ground level to ensure representation of women in the parliament shows a failure by State to work towards achieving gender equality.

Photo from IFES

*The contents of this opinion piece are solely those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the view of the either Global Campus of Human Rights Asia Pacific, the universities under it, or the APMA program.

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