In the crystal-clear waters of Indian Ocean, the 1,200 islands of the Maldives sit like pristine stars in a constellation. Their white sands and coral reefs show off a natural ecological glow that attracts tourists from around the world. Although most citizens on these islands barely make a living, many consider their country as paradise on earth.
However, they also know they are in a fight of their lives to keep the islands pristine. A fragile ecological balance exists between the sea, plant life, and thin freshwater lenses just below the islands’ surfaces. The capital Malé is an example of a future city Maldivians need. Nearly one-fourth of the country’s population has settled on barely 450 acres of land over a thin water table. The freshwater supply is disappearing as fast as cool coconut juice on a hot day.
In the late 1980s, the women’s unit of the Maldives government applied for a women and water project to the World Health Organization (WHO) Regional Office in New Delhi. The proposal involved a national meeting of women’s groups to review progress since the last UN international conference on women and to discuss emerging issues like freshwater supply and health. The proposal was unusual because its list of essential supplies didn’t include educational materials, water pumps, or medical supplies. Instead, its budget was a simple one-line item to pay for boats and fuel.
“I don’t understand this proposal,” my skeptical WHO colleague asked. “What do boats and fuel have to do with women’s health?” Nevertheless, some of us thought that it had merit, partly because women in the Maldives were known to be well-organized and effective.
“How much do they want?” I asked.
“About $10,000” a WHO advisor answered. She continued to object to the project, noting that it was a small amount compared to huge medical projects but still seemed like a lot of money to burn up on gas. Since I was soon to visit the Maldives, the Women and Health Advisory group decided that I should investigate.
When I arrived in the Maldives, I was surprised to see that many stereotypes about women in Muslim cultures didn’t apply. The local women took their religious values seriously, seizing on every possible occasion to evoke Allah’s good name and benevolence. None of the women I met believed that Mohammed taught discrimination against women. The divorce rate was high, and men could easily separate from their wives. However, women were also inclined to leave husbands whom they no longer found suitable and take up with another. Women were everywhere in public—selling in markets, teaching in schools, and running small cafes. They were the main workforce in small industries, like mat and rope making and handicrafts. They also held top ranking government posts in the Ministry of Health and Planning.
The women’s groups explained that their biggest problem with their water project was coordinating logistics. The Maldives’ farthest islands were days away by local Dhoani boat. Members could reduce costs for their national meeting by staying with relatives, but the expensive speedboats and seaplanes used mostly for foreign tourists were out of the question. The women were willing to settle for slower, cheaper transport if only the WHO would agree to pay.
When I returned to New Delhi, I briefed the Women and Development advisory group about the women’s dilemma and the importance of transportation between the islands. The regional director quickly approved funding the project from his special account. The grant launched a great success. The women leaders had their meeting, strengthened their networks, planned new projects, and carried out public health education activities immediately.
The lesson learned is simple. It is not enough to just give civil society and women’s groups a role in water development. The money sometimes has to go where the local leaders need it most, even if the requests seem highly unconventional. For the women of the Maldives, a small amount to run their boats was just what they need to fuel a national mobilization for environmental health.