Safaath Ahmed Zahir on advancing women’s empowerment and democracy in the Maldives

Safaath Ahmed Zahir is a leading women's rights activist in the Maldives. She founded the non-profit organization Women and Democracy to help promote gender diversity in workplaces across the country. She received the Queen's Young Leaders Award at Buckingham Palace for taking the lead in transforming the lives of others and making a lasting difference in her community.

My name is Safaath Ahmed, and I come from the Small Island Developing Nation, the Maldives. During 2016, I founded a non-profit named, Women & Democracy (W&D), primarily working towards promoting women’s leadership and women’s rights in the country.

Coming from a majority women family, and after witnessing the personal upheavals that my mother endured in her life, I knew exactly how much my family crusaded for my education. Returning back home, after graduating, it was such a big eye opener for me. After going through a long process of job interviews to land my dream job, I had a first-hand experience of that deep rooted patriarchal culture, resistance, and double standards that women faced on a daily basis. It was then on that I decided that, I’ll put my education and knowledge to good use and make my family proud. From that point on, there had been no turning back!

Presently, Women & Democracy is regarded as one of the most prominent NGOs in the Maldives with over 200 members, out of which more than 300 members are aged in between 18-29 years. Women & Democracy, is a name of trust, and a devoted community partner dedicated to improving the lives of women.

Women’s empowerment in the Maldives has been a heated topic for a long time. Maldives ranks at 106 out of 144 nations in a 2017 global gender gap report. In the Maldives, women’s leadership and political participation are largely restricted. Women continue to be marginalized from the political sphere due to institutional barriers, discriminatory cultural practices, and social norms. In 2009, only 6.5% of the Maldivian Parliament consisted of women, and this figure fell to 5.9% in 2013. It then fell further to 4.6% in 2019; in contrast to women’s high participation in political parties, grassroots activities and the fact that women make up to 49% of the population and hold a 98% literacy rate.

Maldives ranks at 106 out of 144 nations in a 2017 global gender gap report. In the Maldives, women’s leadership and political participation are largely restricted.

Women continue to take the burden of child care and domestic chores making it difficult for women to engage in economic activities in par with men. Female labor force participation is higher in Maldives than in other South Asian countries, but women tend to be clustered in low-growth sectors and lower-paying positions than men, and women earn less than men. Tourism is literally the lifeblood of our economy, but women only constitute only 7% of the tourism labour force.

Women’s entrepreneurship is generally underdeveloped in the Maldives and there is a huge invisibility of women’s economic contribution, particularly speaking of about main sectors such as tourism, fisheries, construction and wholesale and retail trading. Given the pandemic, economic inequalities are going to very disappointingly exacerbate for women, reversing the little progress that we have made over the years for women economic empowerment.

Gender-based violence against women also remains an entrenched problem. One in three women aged between 15 and 49 experienced physical and/or sexual violence at some point in their lives. From intimate partner violence, to girl child sexual abuse, these are some of the most prevailing problems existing in the social dynamics of Maldives.

There is a great need to invest in improved and increased infrastructure on survivor support for cases of gender-based violence and domestic violence. Given the dramatic increase in domestic abuse reports, our organization has established a domestic violence and mental wellness helpline, to assist women in seeking the assistance of the relevant authorities, assist them in undertaking safety planning and connect them with resources for their wellbeing.

I would also like to take this opportunity to highlight the important and hard work of the Women Development Committees (WDCS) of the Maldives. They are an important platform for women to enter into politics and to participate in the decision-making process at atoll and national level. But, there are many barriers which limit WDCs from fulfilling their mandate. Indeed, we can only achieve true decentralisation by empowering our WDCs.

 “Women and Democracy” was primarily found to increase female representation in policy and decision-making and to equip women passionate about being in leadership with the necessary tools to succeed. Comprising over 50 percent of the world’s population, women still continue to be under-represented as voters, political leaders and elected officials. Democracy cannot truly deliver for all of its citizens if half of the world’s precious resource, “our talented women” remain underrepresented in the political arena.

I am proud to be serving my small Maldivian Community, and that drives me every day. I wish to see a Maldives, where women play a full part in decision-making not just for ourselves and our families but also in business, government and all aspects of life!

 I also strongly believe in the power and resilience of the young people. Our youth are the leaders of today and they have the power and influence to change the world. I want to empower them to make a positive difference in Maldives and in the world.