“I want to be a defense minister!” said one young girl confidently as she raised her hand. I was meeting students from Aminiya School to talk about my journey as a female leader to mark International Women’s Day in 2016, and had asked them what they wanted to be when they grew up. At her age, I would have never thought about becoming a defense minister.
Three years later, I was reminded of the girl when Maldives appointed its first female defense minister, and its 32 percent female cabinet. This was a historic moment for the country, and an important lesson for the rest of the world. Data shows that only 10 countries have achieved between 30 to 35 percent female representation in ministerial positions, and currently only Bangladesh and India have a female defense minister in the region. I wonder if this appointment has further encouraged that young girl to pursue her career ambitions.
The Maldives’s 2016 Household and Income Survey shows that out of all employed at managerial and decision making level, only 19.5 percent are women. This gap widens further when we look at the political sphere with a mere six percent at the local council and five percent the parliamentary level. Even after two electoral cycles this percentage hasn’t changed significantly.
During my time here, I have met many young girls and women talking passionately about their community projects and visions for their islands. If you look at political party rallies, half of them are female and many of them are the hidden figures behind election victories. Given this, we must accept that there are barriers preventing women from being represented at the decision-making level.
Why does the world need more women involved? The evidence is strong: gender equality and women’s political participation brings a positive impact on a country’s development and its peoples. They support socio-economic stability by supporting women’s economic empowerment and promote sustainable development by creating non-discriminatory legislation and prioritizing social services and welfare.
So how can we level the playing field for women? Quotas can be one critical mechanism that can help women to overcome the hurdle of getting into elected office. There are those mandated by a country’s constitution and/or legislation, others are political party quotas. Rwanda is taking the world lead with 61 percent elected female MPs, exceeding its 30 percent quota. In Afghanistan, quotas at the local council level led to increased women’s participation in community engagement and economic activities. Closer to home, in India, quotas led to a better response to crimes against women, and improvement in children’s nutrition and education.
Maldives is at a critical juncture. At the official Women’s Day function yesterday, the president announced a quota for women as part of the Decentralisation Act amendments. After many attempts over the years to include a quota system, this is a rare opportunity for Members of Parliament to make history and bring women leaders to the same table.
In four weeks’ time, Maldivians will go to their polling stations to choose their Members of Parliament. Have you decided which candidate will best represent your everyday struggles? Which candidate is speaking out against domestic violence and sexual harassment? Use this opportunity to ask your candidates what actions they will take to mainstream gender into legislation, and what measures they will take to empower young girls and women. Remember only nine percent of the candidates are female. Be the vote that pushes us beyond the five percent mark this time.
This year, I am proud to say that globally UNDP has achieved gender parity at its top tiers, showcasing the firm commitment of the United Nations towards gender equality and the Sustainable Development Goals. In 2018, the most senior management group at the UN also achieved gender parity, a first in its 72 years of service.
Women must have full participation in the decision-making process if we want genuine and lasting development. Men and women must work together. Be bold and introduce initiatives that will help in building and sustaining a strong, vibrant country with the strength, talents and skills of women. Let’s be the generation that breaks the glass ceiling for young girls and women around the world.
Shoko Noda is the UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative in the Maldives.
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