Contrasting visions for young Maldivians

Yameen Rasheed

Poor educational and employment opportunities have left young people caught between the lure of Western culture and the growing influence of conservative religious elements.

A little over 50 percent of the Maldivian population is under the age of 25. While a young population is usually a reservoir of potential, this scattered country faces some unique challenges when it comes to harnessing the potential.

The Maldives consists of 1,192 tiny islands, spread over an area of 90,000 sq. km. Of these, around 200 are populated, but the population of many islands is less than 500 apiece. As a result of this fragmented geography, the Asian Development Bank estimates that the unit cost of operating schools and other services is four to five times higher than that of continental developing countries.

The development of the education sector has been inadequate. About 70 percent of all the students who attempt O Levels do not pass the examinations and only around 3,000 students go on to study A Levels every year. Until 2011, the Maldives had no local university that issued degrees, forcing students to seek their higher education abroad.

Young and hopeful Maldivian students who complete their A Levels quickly find themselves saddled with “big dreams and bigger frustrations, due to the lack of finances and scholarship opportunities,” says Aminath Shareehan, former president of an NGO for youth development.

The tiny island of Malé, with a population of over 130,000, is one of the most densely populated capital cities of the world. The high cost of living means that families can rarely afford to pay for their children’s education.

Aishath Shaheen, a young professional, says that social problems resulting from overcrowding and urban congestion have a drastic effect on the youth. The eldest in a family of ten children, Shaheen was forced to put her aspirations to pursue higher education on hold, as she had to start earning immediately after school to pay rent and fend for her younger siblings.

Ali Naafiz, a student, also spoke of his frustrations after leaving school as banks didn’t provide education loans. “Bank of Maldives recently introduced an education loan scheme, but it is really difficult to secure a loan. You have to mortgage your house or other valuable asset, but most of us don’t have houses in that value,” he said.

The government civil service was once seen as a stable source of income for youth but, with a burgeoning youth population and a severely weakened economy, the bureaucracy can no longer absorb them.

Unemployment in the Maldives nearly doubled from 14.4 percent in 2006 to 28 percent in 2012.

A report compiled by the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives in 2009 highlighted the reluctance of young people to take up menial jobs that they consider beneath them. Thus, despite high local unemployment, there is still a large migrant workforce whose number exceeds a quarter of the population. The report notes that employers are known to prefer foreign workers, because of the lower wages and the perceived discipline issues with Maldivian youth, including unreliability and drug abuse. A large discontented youth population creates conditions conducive for radical ideologies to take hold.

Overcrowding in Malé, combined with high unemployment, has contributed to the endemic drug abuse and violent crimes among the youth. Up to three quarters of all prison inmates are held on drug offences.

The proportion of injected drug users skyrocketed from 3 percent to 29 percent between 2006 and 2009 – a thousand percent increase in just three years. Young, unemployed Maldivians have been lured into gangs, widely thought to be backed by powerful businessmen and political figures that control the drug cartels. Violent gangrelated crimes erupt sporadically.

In recent years, the government has attempted to embark on a policy of rehabilitating users while taking punitive action against drug dealers as a way of curbing the menace. Drugs first appeared in the Maldives with the arrival of tourists in the country in the mid-1970s. As the tourism industry grew, an increasing number of Maldivian youth were attracted to what was perceived as the tourists’ glamorous lifestyle choices.

Today, the culture of drugs, casual sex and Western music among the youth is increasingly seen by some as a loss of cultural identity to outside influences, and these sentiments are often exploited by conservative religious elements to their advantage. For example, the newly created Ministry of Islamic Affairs, which is controlled by the Islamist Adhaalath Party, has recently sought to outlaw Western-style dancing.

The lack of education opportunities has also resulted in a growing number of Maldivian youth opting to join unregulated madrassas, or religious seminaries, in regions of Pakistan where they are imbued with radical and extremist ideologies. Some have been involved in jihadist operations, with links to prominent militant groups in Pakistan and other countries.

Young people who attended foreign universities were among the first to be exposed to ideas of democracy and human rights, which laid the groundwork for the democratic revolution that culminated in the historic multi-party elections of 2008, the first in the nation’s history. This shows that young people still represent the best hope for the country’s modern aspirations, and strong youth-centric policies could be the solution to unlocking a more prosperous future for the Maldives.

About the author:

Yameen Rasheed is a blogger and freelance writer based in Malé


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