Women & Democracy: Striving for gender equality in leadership

With a vision to challenge the unequal representation seen in socio-economic and political spaces in Maldives, Safaath Ahmed Zahir founded Women & Democracy in 2016.

By Aisiri Amin

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© Women & Democracy

As a women’s rights advocate, the stark difference in representation of the genders in democracies including her own country, Maldives, was something Safaath Ahmed Zahir refused to accept as the norm. It was a reality that she knew she wanted to change. To emphasise and fight for equal representation of the genders in government, business and other leadership positions, Safaath founded Women & Democracy in 2016.

Limiting a women to the background and suppressing her voice is not how democracies can progress. Women & Democracy is an NGO that has been working towards making sure that the voices of the women in Maldives doesn’t get silenced amidst stereotypical gendered leadership positions and that instead it echoes to empower the younger generations.

Safaath Ahmed Zahir talks to INKLINE about the importance of equal representation of women, feminism, and the change she is trying to bring through Women & Democracy.

INKLINE:  What made you start Women and Democracy? How did it come about?

Safaath Ahmed Zahir: After being a social activist and having served for other NGOs, I wanted to create a platform that solely highlights the issue of under representation of women in leadership. Women & Democracy came into existence with that vision, to advocate for women’s leadership. As a democrat, I truly believe that women’s full participation in the political sphere of our young democratic nation is a prerequisite to make our country a first world nation.

But let’s think more logically, women’s different perspectives and approach to politics leads to great innovations and reforms. Don’t we want this for our country? Don’t we want this for our world? We, women are the largest population group in the world, and technically the largest population in almost any country. How can we remain so marginalised when it comes to decision making? Women & Democracy was formed to let the world know just that, and the fact that it’s time we get serious about women’s representation in decision making.

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The W&D team with Indian High Commissioner to Maldives, Akhilesh Mishra © Women & Democracy

I:  Women & Democracy focuses on empowering women through equal participation and leadership in a democracy. How do you do that?

S: We are actively promoting women’s role in businesses, government, policy-making and at all decision making positions. Although, being relatively new, we’ve maintained strong advocacy efforts in both ways. Firstly, we continue to support international observances such as International Women’s Day, Women’s day on STEM, Youth day and Democracy day. For IWD we created an artwork to depict a woman born into different identities, followed by hosting the first Science & Gender Forum and even recently hosting a series of conversations highlighting the important aspects of a democracy.

Secondly, we’ve continuously highlighted the national issues amidst the political turmoil in Maldives and strived to strengthen the functioning of democratic institutions. Our advocacy is also entrenched on our active participation in workshops, international forums, to even organising our own forums in association with NGOs of similar interest.

I:  Women have been pushed to the background by many countries. How will women’s active participation in decision making bring about a change?

S: Even research backs the fact that it’s smart economics. We’re very dynamic, we have great instincts and we always aspire change for good. This is not just me saying, this is backed by scientific findings and as a woman I totally second it. Also, I’m not saying this to demean the position of a man. But what I’m trying to say is that such a huge and dynamic population group, needs to fight for their basic rights in this so called progressive 21st century, when in reality women deserves to lead in order to protect our community.

In leadership positions, women can make differences that benefits our society as a whole. Not to be sexist, but surveys have also indicated that women commit more to public accountability. We’ve seen a number of women leaders reaffirming these notions. Having more women in stable jobs has also added to the financial and economic stability of several countries. The Nordic countries are perfect examples. In short, everyone benefits by embracing diversity and of course by having equal women in power.

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I:  You have been quoted by press stating that the real issue of inequality is the “matter of unequal power distribution” in Maldives. Can you elaborate on that?

S: The persisting imbalance of women in positions of power within the Maldives is a true problem. Recent statistics show that during 2014 parliamentary election, there were only 23 women against a total 302 candidates, five of whom secured seats. This was in turn an actual decrease in the proportion of women in parliament, with a fall from 6.4 to 5.8 percent. These statistics are quite depressing, when compared to countries like Nepal and Afghanistan, where approximately 33 percent and 28 percent of parliamentarians are women, respectively.

Furthermore, only three women ministers have been appointed out of the 17 for cabinet positions and we are yet to see a woman being appointed as the Managing Director of a State Owned Enterprise, which is huge economic segment of the Maldives. This is the real issue of inequality, i.e. unequal power distribution.

I:  Is the situation changing with NGOs such as Women & Democracy coming into the picture and bringing up the issue?

S: Yes most definitely! Though, it wouldn’t be correct of me to say that it’s just because of our NGO, as over the course of the past five years we have seen a number of NGOs established and advocating for better life for women. The unified efforts of the active NGOs have had a huge impact on the feminist movement. Today, we see young generation in Maldives breaking boundaries and being truly empowered.

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Women & Democracy hold interactive sessions and encourage active participation in workshops to engage more people. © Women & Democracy

I: Tell us about some of the issues your organisation have tackled or some of the projects you have been working on.

S: In addition to our continuous advocacy efforts, Women & Democracy is also about to launch its first major project, in association with the British High Commission: a one year long project that will engage all stakeholders including all political parties of the Maldives, to compile an action agenda for progress on gender equality. At the moment we are also working on the launch of our website along with our blog.

I:  What has been the most uplifting part of the journey?

S: To have such an amazing team! Ever since I wanted to bring our NGO into existence the biggest worry for me was, how I can do this alone. The first time I met our now executive board members, it gave me a lot of courage. I knew that we were going to fight for something big together, not just for the sake of it, but for real and because we all really believed in this cause! It’s the most blessed feeling in the world, to get to work with such a passionate team.

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© Women & Democracy

I: What has been the most challenging part?

S: I always believe that to do anything you need to have a good IQ as well as a good emotional quotient at the same time! As an NGO, we’ve never faced a challenge that we couldn’t have overcome together as a team. That’s my way of seeing it! Challenges and difficulties, they are inevitable! What matters most is that you have the strength to overcome any challenge that you may face.

“Do what you love, follow your heart and most importantly always believe in yourself and have great faith in what you do.”

I:  If you could give one piece of advice to millennials across the world, what would it be?

S: Do what you love, follow your heart and most importantly always believe in yourself and have great faith in what you do. Never let failure ever get you down. Mistakes are a part of life, but don’t make mistakes a habit. Learn from your mistakes and let your failures strengthen you. Stay focused, stay strong and strive to achieve what you believe in.

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