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Alumni in the Maldives use small grants to contribute to sustainable development

Posted: 6 September 2022

Maldives, COVID-19, Disability, Experience, Grants, Impact, Recipient,

Australia Awards alumni in the Maldives have been instrumental in contributing to the country’s recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. To support alumni to have greater impact, Australia Awards – Maldives launched a Small Grants Scheme in 2020 that aligned with priorities identified in the Australian Government’s Partnerships for Recovery: Australia’s COVID-19 Development Response. The grants scheme, funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, is one way that Australia Awards – Maldives is creating opportunities that enable alumni to contribute towards sustainable development in the country.

Following the success of the 2020 small grants cycle, another competitive grants round was implemented in 2021 as the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic continued globally. The grants supported nine projects (implemented by a total of 10 alumni) that contributed to the priority areas of economic recovery, health security and stability. These projects, each of which received a small grant worth AUD5000, included initiatives targeting gender equality, the empowerment of women and girls, and mental health. The 2021 grant projects are profiled below.

Mohamed Anas Riza, Senior Relationship Manager at the Mauritius Commercial Bank (Maldives) Pvt Ltd, used the grant to translate a free financial literacy platform, Laari Koba. The Laari Koba website, which outlines key concepts around management of personal finances and how to build back better from the pandemic, was translated into the local language, Dhivehi, to make the content more accessible to Maldivians. “The small grants scheme was the perfect opportunity to take my financial literacy project to the next level and allow me to reach a much wider target audience across the country,” Anas says.

Australia Awards alumnus Mohamed Anas Riza

Anas completed a Bachelor of Commerce / Bachelor of Education at Monash University in 2016 with the support of an Australia Awards Scholarship. Following the translation of the website, he is now in the final stages of publishing an e-book on the same topic. Anas’s goal is to collaboratively unveil the final version to the general public with the aid of key financial institutions such as the Maldives Stock Exchange and the Capital Market Development Authority. Eventually, the translation is aimed towards helping locals based in remote atolls manage their personal finances more effectively.

Fathmath Nishan, Assistant Professor at the Maldives National University, used her grant to support families parenting a child with special needs, focusing on three main special needs topics: autism, learning disabilities and ADHD. Because the COVID-19 pandemic necessitated school closures and lockdowns, children with special needs were deprived of services such as learning with the support of a special education needs teacher, different therapies and other learning support (such as sessions at the Autism Centre and academic support for learning disabilities). Special needs students were, like much of the rest of the population, confined to their family homes during lockdowns. Their parents lacked the knowledge and skills to help their children with home learning and there were no materials available for them to access.

Australia Awards alumna Fathmath Nishan

Nishan completed a Master of Education at RMIT University in 2009 with the support of an Australia Awards Scholarship. Speaking about her grant-funded project, Nishan said, “I applied for the small grant to create resources for parents of children with autism, ADHD and learning disabilities. For the very first time, three e-books on these specific areas of special needs were prepared in Dhivehi for parents. This content will guide parents to help their children with learning during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.” Once completed, the three e-books were delivered to the Ministry of Education’s Department of Inclusive Education and made available on the department’s website.

Hawwa Leesha (featured in top image), Founder / Advocacy Director at the Institute for Wellness Education, authored and published a book, Owning My Thoughts: A Therapeutic Journal, with the support of the small grant she received. The journal highlights the importance of writing for therapeutic purposes, and acts as a step towards self-healing, a method of recognising emotions, and a way of coping with the drastic changes to mental health and wellbeing that have been triggered by the pandemic. According to Leesha, the concept of therapeutic journals and owning one’s thoughts is new to the Maldives and will help in monitoring feelings and promoting healthy ways of dealing with emotions.

Leesha completed a Master of Counselling from Monash University in 2010 with the support of an Australia Awards Scholarship. Her journal offers around 250 pages of motivational quotes, self-reflective writing, note-taking pages, positive affirmations and colourful motivational illustrations. A total of 1000 journals were printed, and the book was launched by Fazna Ahmed, the First Lady of the Maldives, in Malé in November 2021.

The fourth grant was implemented by a group consisting of two Australia Awards alumnae: Aminath Nahida, Managing Director, Institute for Mental Wellbeing, and Aishath Shanoora, Lecturer / Licensed Counsellor, Maldives National University / Institute for Mental Wellbeing. The duo used their small grant to pilot a project to develop awareness posters and a handbook in Dhivehi about mental wellbeing during the pandemic. “We have been working in the field of mental health for many years and one of the challenges we have always had to face is the lack of awareness and resources, especially in our local language,” Nahida says. “Over the years, we have conducted different programs to make people more aware of mental health issues. Making resources in our local language has also been part of our work; however, it has always been limited. We had not been quite able to produce quality products due to a lack of finances. The small grants scheme was an opportunity for us to fill this gap.”

Nahida and Shanoora at the book launch event

Nahida completed a Master of Counselling and Psychotherapy at the University of Adelaide in 2013 and Shanoora completed a Master of Counselling at the University of Queensland in 2012, both with the support of Australia Awards Scholarships. After the pair distributed their posters and the handbook to different islands of the Maldives, many mental health professionals encouraged the team to keep developing more such resources. Members of the public also expressed gratitude and a desire for additional mental health healing tools, which led the group to apply for the small grants scheme for a second time in 2022, this time to create activity books targeting depression and anxiety.

Umar Fikry, Deputy Chief Executive at the National Disaster Management Authority, created a platform for small businesses to scale up and manage their home-based businesses online. The objectives of this small grant activity were to establish a platform for small businesses to have an easy-to-use online presence, enhance product order placement, and efficiently manage orders and payments, supporting the businesses with order management and e-commerce solutions.

“The project benefited small businesses by creating a trusted platform where customers and small businesses can easily operate in a safe and secure online shopping environment. It also gave the small businesses a mechanism to keep track of orders and acknowledge the receipt of payments, as [a receipt] is attached with every confirmed order,” Fikry says.

Fikry completed a Master of Human Rights Law and Policy at the University of New South Wales in 2014 with the support of an Australia Awards Scholarship. This human rights background, and the accompanying awareness of gender equality, factored into his project. In the Maldives, especially given the effect of COVID-19 on employment, many women have developed online income streams by using Instagram to sell homemade products. Of the six businesses currently using his new system, Fikry notes that four are owned and managed by women.

Gasith Mohamed, an agronomy and horticulture specialist, entrepreneur, and founder of agriculture consulting firm Agriconsulting Maldives, used the grant to conduct short agricultural advisory programs for home gardeners/farmers through an online platform. “There was a vacuum in terms of providers of technical knowledge on gardening and agriculture. This gap was more prominent during the COVID-19 restrictions. Hence, the grant was to assist an important group in the community that primarily included women as new entrants to gardening and farming,” Gasith says. Under the small grants scheme, six programs were conducted to train 168 participants, 62 per cent of whom were women. Through the grant, Gasith provided agriculture information to farmers and home gardeners in an easily accessible manner in Dhivehi.

Australia Awards alumnus Gasith Mohamed

Gasith completed a Bachelor of Agriculture at the University of New England in 2012 with the support of an Australia Awards Scholarship. His small grant project has additionally created a stable working relationship with the most prominent agriculture consultants in the Maldives. This relationship will assist in arranging future activities while maintaining the quality of the programs. The demand for the type of initiative spearheaded by Gasith has increased and he is now seeking new funding sources to continue such programs to deliver similar outcomes.

Aminath Inan Abdul Muhsin is a Sustainability Consultant who developed a central National Volunteer Platform for those who were willing to contribute their time and expertise to the COVID-19 response and recovery efforts in their local communities. The goal was to create a simple, accessible platform that could be utilised both by people looking to volunteer and by organisations/institutions looking for volunteers. Local volunteers have been instrumental in the COVID-19 response in the Maldives.

Inan completed a Bachelor of Science (Environmental Science) at the University of Western Sydney in 2014 with the support of an Australia Awards Scholarship. Her active participation as an alumni led to her receiving the small grant. “After attending the previous year’s small grant project presentations, I was inspired to bring a positive change to my community through resources available as an Australia Awards alumni,” she says.

“The small grant project is just a kick-start for the volunteer platform. This project is very close to my heart, and I am going to carry forward the project for the next five years. With new developers on our team, we are currently upgrading and working to improve the website with new features such as email alerts and volunteer profiles that celebrate and recognise volunteers’ work,’ she says.

Ashfa Hamdi used her small grant to develop a series of accessible digital books and social stories in Dhivehi that focus on emotional regulation during the pandemic. These resources were aimed at children between the ages of 2 and 8. Emotion regulation is often defined as the ability to monitor, evaluate and modify emotions that arise following a stimulus, and to respond to them appropriately. The concept of emotion regulation has been widely adopted in studies looking at conditions such as depression and anxiety, suggesting that an inability to regulate negative emotions is a central feature of these conditions.

Australia Awards alumna Ashfa Hamdi

Ashfa completed a Bachelor of Inclusive Education and Disability Studies at the Australian Catholic University in 2017 with the support of an Australia Awards Scholarship. This background had a large influence on her grant-funded project, which aimed to create at least three high-quality accessible digital children’s storybooks that address social-emotional learning and coping with the pandemic, with printable book extension activities. Additionally, the project developed five related printable social stories (also available to view in digital format). All these resources were made available for free from a single platform.

The final grant recipient, Khadheeja Majidha Hassan, Secretary General of Care Society, used her small grant to develop and disseminate awareness materials on mental health to vulnerable groups. Khadheeja completed a Master of Economics and Public Policy at the University of Queensland in 2014 with the support of an Australia Awards Scholarship. Her grant-supported project focused on empowering people with disability. The project involved developing a social story that aims to raise awareness of the concept of consent among children and people with disability in particular. This was done through an interactive story session to engage the target audiences when explaining the topic to them. During these sessions, age-appropriate and relevant information was disseminated about the importance of reaching out to get help and about how to reach out when necessary.

Australia Awards alumna Khadheeja Majidha Hassan

“This project has contributed to the empowerment and enhancement of mental health issues related to people with disability and children in the community,” says Khadheeja. The knowledge was shared in both English and Dhivehi, and feedback mechanisms used at the sessions reported that the project was effective. “This in turn reflects the increased awareness among the people with disability, their caretakers and the wider community on issues related to people with disability and children in particular,” concludes Khadheeja.

Image at top: Australia Awards alumna Hawwa Leesha