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Image credit: Safaath Ahmed

Safaath Ahmed: The value of coming together

Safaath Ahmed: The value of coming together

“I think it’s kind of lovely to have this!”

During her year as a Queen’s Young Leader, Safaath Ahmed’s country – the Maldives – decided to leave the Commonwealth. But that hasn't stopped her campaigning for women in politics at both national and international level.

After being abroad for nine years, Safaath Ahmed returned home and saw her country with fresh eyes. “I had been more exposed to free societies, so it came as a shock,” she says. “I was not really aware of my own country.”

Finding herself in a “society where men are in charge”, she decided to create change. She joined a group of women who founded Women On Boards (WOB) to address the lack of gender balance in both commerce and government.

Empowering women

“Women’s lower representation in leadership roles and the lack of resources to uplift women is a major issue in the Maldives,” says Safaath, citing the absence of state-provided childcare and legislation to protect women among the many obstacles to equality.

“We only have five women MPs out of 85 in our parliament. And we have zero women as managing directors of our state-owned enterprises – an important segment of our economy.”

To raise awareness, WOB runs workshops, scholarships and campaigns to promote women’s economic empowerment in the Maldives.

Event for International Day for Women and Girls in Science

Safaath takes part in an event celebrating International Day for Women and Girls in Science

But, Safaath began to feel that more needed to be done.

“The events and workshops weren’t enough because, after all, everything needs to fixed from the top,” she says. “I realised that the ultimate root of this issue is the government itself.”

Setting up Women and Democracy

Then one day, Safaath got home from playing badminton and found she’d won the Queen’s Young Leaders Award.

“It came as a shock,” she says. But winning shone a spotlight on Safaath and the work Women On Boards was doing.

“People started following me on Facebook and Twitter. And then people also sort of started inviting me to things and gave me more attention.”

At the same time, it seemed that everything in her life was happening at once.

Safaath shakes hands with women in the Maldives

“I really needed guidance. Everything was happening too fast.” However, the Leading Change course  gave her confidence and helped her to get a “clear picture” of how to move forward.

She decided it was time to leave her job. “I wanted to do something fresh, to do something that I really wanted to do in my life. To take risks!”

Safaath found that the credibility and higher profile the award had given her, helped her gain support for her new initiative – an organisation which highlights the under-representation of women in politics. Towards the end of her Queen’s Young Leaders year, in November 2016, she launched Women and Democracy (WD) – “to empower women in leadership and actively contribute to the debate of gender diversity”.

The Maldives and Commonwealth

Meanwhile, in October 2016 the Maldives had officially withdrawn from the Commonwealth after 34 years of membership. Safaath feels strongly that this was a mistake.

“As an advocate for youth, for women, I am devastated obviously and frustrated with this country,” she says. “I have been very open about it. Leaving the Commonwealth is of great detriment to our economy. Our young people are denied opportunities.”

Becoming the youngest-ever Maldivian to receive an honour from Her Majesty the Queen had made Safaath more aware of her connection to the Commonwealth.

Safaath shakes hands with people

Safaath visiting her home island of Hulhudhoo

“I have started to respect the Commonwealth more, the importance of it – all the nations coming together providing opportunities for all of us! I think it’s kind of lovely to have this!”

Safaath believes that the majority of young people in the Maldives recognise the benefits of being part of the Commonwealth and part of the United Nations.

“I think given that we are a small island state we rely on the Commonwealth and the United Nations,” she explains, because of the support given through social community projects and scholarships.

“Within our hearts we feel that the presence of the Commonwealth and the United Nations is important for our country. That’s a respect we have.”

International presence

Although her country has left the Commonwealth, Safaath is still very active at a global level.

In September 2016, she was one of 17 young people to be chosen as a UN Young Leader for the Sustainable Development Goals. As such, she is working with Office of the UN Secretary General’s Envoy on Youth to help get young people working towards the sustainable development goals.

Among many high-profile international appearances, Safaath has spoken at the Studio Media Zone at the United Nations Headquarters.

In October 2016, she joined Queen’s Young Leaders, PJ Cole and Gunjan Mhapankar with Dr Astrid Bonfield – Chief Executive of the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust – at the One Young World Summit in Canada.

Staying on course

She continues to advocate for democracy and women’s empowerment, at both a national and international level. Safaath believes that, no matter what, it’s important not to get diverted from your goals.

“I think that’s one thing I really learnt from the Leading Change course. Do not deviate from what you really want to do – that’s something very important.”

She brings this attitude to all her work, including her determination to stay positive about events at home where she refuses “to give up hope”.

For Safaath, democracy is the most important Commonwealth value.

“This pillar will make me a true leader, make me want to stand up for what’s right and make my country a developed democratically free nation!”