Expecting justice from an alleged offender: the plight of Maldivian women!
You are paid a salary that is barely enough to survive; you know competition is high for the limited jobs. So, wouldn't you try your best to hold onto the job you have?
Amongst the 17,000 civil servants in the Maldives’ workforce, a little over 50% are women, which is a positive figure. As per statistical data from United Nations publication, in comparable countries like Sri Lanka, India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, the proportions are the other way round with more male workers. Contrarily, women do not share a favorable proportion of top level, decision-making positions; in the Maldives, the male to female ratio in top management posts is 4:1. According to data from UN’s social indicators this pattern is quite widespread in the developing world. While the reason for this is not clear, this indicates women still being in subservient roles and being more at risk of sexual abuse/harassment.
Sexual overtures are thrown at us from all directions; some know how to dodge these, the majority takes it silently and dismisses this as ‘the way men are wired’, only few people are able to stand up against it in the face of all that is at stake in terms of one’s job, reputation, status, etc. A UNDP-backed report by the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives in December 2012, reports that attitudes towards women’s empowerment show a regression in comparison with a similar report in 2005. The 2012 report summarizes that, “men have become more conservative on sensitive issues related to women’s rights, or at least less certain, whereas women’s views, for the most part, have altered much less and in some areas have become more strongly supportive of women’s rights.” One implication of this observation is the need for more work on women's empowerment.
The 2005 report highlights that almost 30% of women had been subjected to some form of sexual harassment at the workplace, including obscene language and sexual comments. 7.3% reported they had been touched inappropriately. I doubt there to be a single female worker who had not been subjected to either one of these. That includes myself!
In the job, when the time came for a promotion, my boss began acting strangely. I will never forget him visiting my residence in the pretext of seeking a document required to process my promotion. I, then in my early 20s and he in late 40s – greeted him with the utmost respect, even at an unwelcome hour, and unannounced. His brief touch on my hand did not sit well with me. I did not say much about it, but I did not let it be anything more than that touch. I managed to show contempt, subtly. The message was passed quite effectively. The promotion proceeded, with some hassle, and not without him trying to make it look as if he was doing me a favor.
Some people play along with their bosses, maybe because promotions are largely dependent upon whims of bosses despite what policies say about unbiased treatment. Many a times, those who do not play along get played with.
In the Maldives, one case of sexual harassment in the workplace has become very public – highlighting the struggle faced by women, and the resistance to deal with this issue. The victim, Ms. Shahuma, an employee at the Civil Services Commission (CSC) alleged in June 2012 that she was inappropriately touched by Mr. Fahumy, the President of the CSC. Shauma has shown great courage in standing up for her rights, by lodging complaints at the Parliament as the President of CSC is appointed by them. After due investigation, the Parliament first gave Fahumy the option to resign. He refused, and the Parliament then voted in November 2012 to dismiss him from his CSC post.
Nine months later, he is still at the same job, with all his privileges. He has blatantly refused to accept the Parliament’s decision after the Supreme Court’s ruling in his favor that it was an unfair dismissal. He has also reportedly intimidated the victim. What is startling is that there has been little response to this case, apart from a demonstration at the time of the hearing and a press release by an NGO working for women’s rights. A coworker of Shauma, penning as Hudhuhandhu, has written an extensive public testimony against Fahumy stating that he has gotten away with similar incidences, including one where he placed his hand on her thigh during a meeting. Yet Fahumy continues to lead the CSC.
The authority to formalize a Parliament approved job lies in the hands of the President of the country; Hence, Fahumy’s claim that he remains in his post legally is not unfounded. President Mohamed Waheed Hassan is reported to have said in a public speech that “it would be wise for Fahumy to take a decision of his own on whether to remain in his post or not”. The President saying this after the Attorney General’s advice against Fahumy’s reinstatement comes as a shock. It is noteworthy that the Attorney General is a woman.
The Supreme Court (comprised of all men) and Mr. President appear to not recognize that their actions further ostracize and victimize the victim. This blind eye to the victim in cases of sexual harassment is not new or unheard of. This is where the dilemma lies – empowering women to speak up and ensuring they get justice through a system led by men requires brave women and gender sensitized men.
A very similar incident has taken place at another government institution (let me call it XYZ), with about 30 staff members (comprising of 80% female workers and a male boss). A typical workplace environment here in the Maldives would be made up of a large number of female workers with the most senior posts dominated by men. The glass ceiling effect is to a large extent a phenomena in the past for some countries, but for the Maldives this is current. Women’s emancipation and education are recent advances, and currently there is almost no difference in accessibility of education. However, when it comes to selection for jobs and job promotions, there is a silent, subtle, force that has roots in nepotism.
A sexual harassment case against the boss of XYZ was filed at the CSC in late 2011 by three young women, with no favorable result to date. The case is still ongoing, or in other words is conveniently ‘parked’. There could be many more cases like these. This lack of action is not surprising given the head of the Commission is an accused offender.
One of the three victims later moved out of the organization, and another withdrew the case after several months. I talked to Zumra, one of the victims still at the job and willing to talk, to try and understand what transpired after the reporting.
According to Zumra, she was threatened to be fired from the job following the lodgment. Here we are talking about staff who joined recently straight after secondary/high school, barely 20 years of age. According to Zumra, even her selection to the post went in an underhand way, with the boss personally calling her informally after the job interview. At that time she did not realize what was going on, but she claims that throughout the time at work, her boss indicated she got the job only because of him. The “Old Boy’s Club” phenomena is clearly at play here.
Following the lodgement of the harassment and corruption case, Zumra and the other two girls were summoned to a Committee at the CSC, setup specifically to address this case. The committee comprised one CSC staff, two lawyers, and a scribe; all men except the scribe. In Zumra’s hearing, the case was opened by one of the lawyers, who reportedly said “I know your boss very well and I am sure he cannot have done any such thing, but let’s hear what you have to say”. There was nothing positive about what Zumra had to say about the way the hearing went.
They were later called in to sign the statement prepared by the Committee based on the hearing, which Zumra describes as a ‘joke’. “The statement made him look like a saint and me a lunatic. I refused to sign it. I was called back several times and at one stage I was even threatened that it is a breach of law to not abide their summons. Later they did change the statement, most of what I said had been mentioned; but very subtly and it did not convey the same meaning as I meant. I was fed up and I just gave in.”
Of what she shared with me, one point resonated loudly. The person handling the signing of the statements was the CSC member from the Committee and he praised Zumra for her bravery in reporting the case and standing her ground not signing the false statement. Zumra was livid and rebuked at him for not having said a word at the Committee meeting when the two lawyers were blatantly being verbally abusive towards her. He apologized and recommended her to lodge another complaint - about the Committee!
The women who withdrew her case, Shifa was often asked to sit with the boss doing his work, and he regularly made sexual innuendos and comments in the guise of discussing current news on rape cases or about his memories about younger days dating and how daring he was. He called her affectionate names and asked her to maintain her pretty curves. Shifa felt squeamish about it all but had no idea how to handle it, how to avoid it, or how to get help. It was mostly subtle and she had nothing concrete to report. Coming to work became stressful, but a training at the organization provided a platform for all the employees to discuss topics like workplace ethics; slowly people started to speak, and eventually it became evident that a few of the staff had been subjected to this selective harassment by their boss.
Similar to Zumra’s case, Shifa also refused to sign the CSC version of the statement, asserting that it did not address her allegations. She later withdrew the case altogether, refusing to share her reason for the withdrawal, and totally cut ties with the other two women. What was not surprising was her quick promotion to a shift that she preferred. Inside information from the organization revealed that there are other female workers who favor the boss. They apparently approached the three young women to advise them that reporting was not the smartest thing to do. As reported by Zumra, one of them even went as far as to say “he didn’t even touch you, and you have defamed his status!” Zumra is livid realizing a woman can be insensitive to the fact that a fellow coworker had been subjected to intrusive, sexually explicit and suggestive comments by their male boss.
Zumra does not regret her actions, and believes she did the right thing by lodging the case. She never expected her male colleagues to understand the magnitude of it. However, she is appalled with the lack of empathy from female colleagues. She believes the systems in place do not encourage victims to seek justice. The reporting process is made so daunting that it discourages one from speaking out.
The Ministry of Gender, Family & Human Rights is the state organization mandated to be the gatekeeper about sexual harassment and yet it appears not many cases have been lodged with them; with 2 cases in 2012 and one case, by an expatriate female worker, in 2013. When asked about intervention regarding Fahumy’s case, their response was to say that the case was not lodged at that Ministry.
Given all of the above, it is not surprising that the 2012 HRCM report found that “in response to sexual harassment at work, a woman’s most common response was to do nothing.”
The names of victims mentioned in this article (except in the case of the CSC President & employee) have been changed to protect their identities.
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous digital media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.