International Women’S Day

Women are at the forefront of solutions

International Women’S Day

Women are at the forefront of solutions

Interview with Fathimath Sujatha Haleem, Chief Executive Officer, Maldives Pension Administration Office, in connection with International Women's Day on 8 March 2024.

Fathimath Sujatha Haleem

What are in your view the most important barriers to gender equality today?

The WHAT and WHY of gender equality needs attention!

Societal norms, cultural attitudes and economic inequality continue to be barriers for gender equality even today. Long held misconceptions continue to be a barrier, including among leaders and policymakers, who should be a driving force of change. Policymakers must understand that gender equality is not about giving undue advantages to women. It is about providing equal rights, opportunities, and treatment to all individuals.

A recent conversation with my senior executives made me reflect on how insistent and affirmative action can, over time, transpire in an organization. A new member of the team expressed her pleasure in observing our achievements in terms of gender equality. In her view, having equal representation of men and women in the senior management team, five of eight Board Members being women, flexible work arrangements for mothers, maternity and paternity leave, equal representation in all internal committees and gender responsive internal policies are exceptional achievements in the context of Maldives and are worth celebrating.

However, others may see such results as mere coincidences, that gender was never an issue to be addressed in the first place because such barriers cannot be seen, and that policies were not necessarily designed as affirmative action for men and women to thrive equally. Such views, or misconceptions, arise mainly from a lack of deeper understanding of why gender equality is an issue. This underscores the importance of ongoing dialogue regarding the fundamentals of gender equality – what it entails and why it matters.

It is imperative that discussions on the WHAT and WHY of gender equality occur as frequently and prominently as on the HOW. We need become louder and focused on the issue, and take action in a result oriented approach.

When you hear the theme of this year “Investing in women”, what possible measures come to your mind to accelerate progress?

“Women’s time poverty” could also mean low or no pension.

Like any other pension service provider, ensuring old age income security for all senior citizens is a growing concern for us. The Maldives’ transition to an aging population, generous pension coverage for all its senior citizens, and the resulting increase in pension burden on the State is making the matter even more concerning.

In the Maldives, the labour force participation rate for men and women stands at 78 per cent and 42 per cent respectively. According to the United Nations Population Fund, one of the greatest barriers to women’s equal representation and participation in the economic sector is “women’s time poverty”.

While the sustainability of our pension system is dependent on the success of the Maldives Retirement Pension Scheme (MRPS) in helping individuals build sufficient savings for their retirement, the economically inactive population is not saving through MRPS. Measures to improve the situation at a national level by removing barriers to labour force participation, do not seem to improve the situation of women, due to issues such as women’s time poverty. This would leave more women with none or insufficient savings for their retirement.

Along with other measures, policy interventions such as investments in the expansion of the care economy, easier access to financial products and services for women entrepreneurs, gender-responsive budgeting, use of gender data in decision-making can definitely improve the situation.

How can the social security system of your country strengthen its enabling role for gender equality?

Our future generations deserve a better system.

Enshrined in the Constitution, all Maldivians have the right to equal protection and benefits. Encapsulated within this tenet, the social security system is designed to provide equal protection to men, women, boys and girls throughout their course of life, aiming to protect them from life cycle shocks.

Though we have achieved gender parity in primary and secondary education in the Maldives, the results of the Census 2022 and the estimates of National Transfer Accounts highlight the need for shaping the future of work, by empowering the underutilized workforce – especially for women to participate in economic activity. This can be achieved through the removal of existing barriers to women's employment, investing in family-friendly policies, and introducing pronatalist policies that address the impending demographic trend towards an aging population.

A key focus area is increasing coverage of the contributory pension scheme by attracting active participation of the informal sector and the self-employed, especially the large number of women outside the labor force who are not eligible for contributory pensions, paid sick leaves and maternity leave.

What is your message to all ISSA members on International Women’s Day?

More focused conversation.

My key message to fellow ISSA colleagues is to reaffirm our commitment to achieve gender equality by 2030. This year’s theme is a reminder and a strong call for us to invest in women in order to end systemic inequality that limits the realization of women's full potential and hinders their access to equal economic opportunities.

I believe that women are at the forefront of solutions, and we need to lift each other up in amplifying the voice of women to call for increased investments in order to accelerate women’s contribution to their families, communities and the economy.

I urge every ISSA member to take action to empower women to attain financial independence and to shield them from poverty and vulnerability. It is crystal clear that empowerment, engagement, and participation of women is crucial for achieving Sustainable Development Goals. Further, we need to implement modern solutions to increase women’s participation in the economy and ensure equal access to social security.

Together, let us pave the way to a future where gender equality is not just a pipe dream, and collectively believe and advocate that it is in fact the only way forward for a better future.