Despite having achieved gender parity in many educational outcomes, women in the Maldives have fewer economic opportunities than men, and a lack of data has rendered women in the informal economy invisible. However, in designing the country’s 10-year National Strategy for the Development of Statistics (NSDS), the Maldives National Bureau of Statistics (MNBS) brought together partners such as the Ministry of Gender, Family and Social Services (MoGFSS), UN Women, PARIS21 and civil society to ensure that gender statistics will be mainstreamed into national statistics to shape national debate and efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
The Maldives has already made significant progress towards SDG 4 on quality education, with 100% enrolment rate in primary education, gender parity between boys and girls in years of education received, and a 99% literacy rate among 15–24 year olds. But once girls leave school, the picture changes. The female employment rate is just 43%, compared to 73% for men, far from the SDG 8 goal of equal opportunities to decent work.
Where women do prevail is in a sector largely absent from official statistics: informal work. This kind of work is undocumented and unregulated, hindering workers’ access to social protection. During the COVID-19 crisis, many women in the Maldives lost earnings and many home-based workers were unaware if support was available, or if they were eligible. A rapid gender assessment by MNBS, MOGFSS and UN Women revealed that 54% of women compared to 40% of men saw their incomes drop. Having such data allowed the government to take action to ensure that income support was available to female informal workers and to simplify application requirements, which significantly increased female applications.
But, without more granular and regularly produced data on gender, the real extent of lost earnings and the wider, persisting socioeconomic consequences are unknown.
“It is challenging to understand what impact the COVID-19 crisis had on home-based workers in the Maldives because there is no … registry of home-based workers,” says Mariyam Mohamed, from the local civil society organization Uthema, which advocates for gender equality in the Maldives.
Although she says some NGOs documented the realities of home-based workers qualitatively, she highlights the importance of disaggregated statistics to understand precisely who is affected and how. “Even among home-based workers, some groups were more vulnerable to the impacts. Many women work in food processing jobs, and anecdotal evidence suggests that younger women were able to make use of social media to adapt and promote their businesses to mitigate the effects of the crisis, whereas older women had a harder time.”
The MNBS, which collects data on household income every three years, has recognized that the lack of data on the informal economy disproportionately affects the visibility of women’s work.
Shadiya Ibrahim, Head of Office for the UNFPA in Maldives, points out the perils of data gaps: “Lack of data can lead to misguided policy measures, unintended impacts or reinforcing stereotypes. Sometimes lack of data can be a useful way of keeping a debate closed and preventing new perspectives. Understanding that data and statistics are not gender-neutral and measuring the extent of gaps in information about women and girls is the key to initiate any changes.”
Collecting the right data to be able to understand how and which women are disadvantaged or excluded from opportunities is the first step to creating policies that can remove these barriers.
In 2019, when the MNBS began designing its second National Strategy for the Development of Statistics, a comprehensive assessment of gender statistics under Women Count found that 43% of priority SDG gender-related indicators were not being collected. With support from UN Women and PARIS21, a gender-sensitive perspective was integrated in the planning process for the first time.
According to MNBS Chief Statistician Aishath Hassan, gender data gaps were identified across a range of different sectors: “With these gaps across the board, we thought it important to explicitly refer to gender-sensitive data collection in the 10-year NSDS.”
The NSDS was launched in November of 2021, with gender-responsiveness as one of its guiding principles – alongside inclusiveness, trust and sustainability.
According to Fathimath Riyaza, MNBS Gender Focal Point: “It was very important for us to ensure that the NSDS design process had a multi-stakeholder and participatory character. Inviting civil society and women’s rights advocates has advantages. They brought a lot of knowledge about gender issues and were able to shed light on where key data were missing.”
Integrating gender into the data value chain implicates a wider range of actors and takes a systemic look at gender data collection – identifying where there are gaps and how these can be addressed. Thanks to a systemic view of gender data enshrined in the NSDS, including needs, uses and gaps which were highlighted in the planning stages, the Maldives is now better placed to address the gender inequalities that are hampering the achievement of the same level of success across all the SDGs.