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Zeenath Shakir: Making a difference in Maldives through social work and education

Posted: 6 March 2023

Maldives, Alumni, Experience, Gender Equality, Impact,

Since childhood, Zeenath (Nathu) Shakir dreamt of studying in Australia. Three of her older sisters had studied in Australia, two of them with the support of an Australia Awards Scholarship. Her sisters always spoke highly about their wonderful experiences in Australia, the friendliness of the locals, the picturesque landscapes and, most importantly, the quality of Australia’s education system. These tales inspired Nathu’s ambitions for her tertiary education.

Nathu had her first taste of Australia in 2010: one of her best friends received an Australia Awards Scholarship to study a Master of Social Policy in Melbourne, and Nathu had the opportunity to visit her there. This ultimately led her to apply for her own Australia Awards Scholarship, and in 2015 her childhood dream came true when she received a Scholarship to pursue a Master of Development Studies at the University of Melbourne.

Nathu receives a certificate at the 2023 Academic Holhuashi

Reminiscing about her time in Australia, Nathu recalls countless memorable experiences. She was able to make new friends, go on adventures and road trips, and travel to other states. She also met great lecturers who were remarkable in their respective fields and offered many important life experiences, which she would be unlikely to have received in Maldives.

“I have developed personally and professionally in terms of establishing good rapport and building networks that continue to assist and guide me in the work that I do,” Nathu says about her Australia Awards experience. “I believe that I am also better equipped to meet the multiple demands of the different roles I play to contribute to the community.”

After returning from Australia in 2016, Nathu continued to work at the Maldives Government’s Family Protection Authority for the benefit of marginalised groups. Her work focused on domestic violence prevention, gender sensitisation and women’s empowerment.

Continuing her contribution in the social and development sector in Maldives, from January 2019 to February 2020 Nathu was the Vice Chairperson for Hope for Women, a local non-government organisation working to eliminate violence against women and advocate for gender equality and women’s participation in public life. During her term, she participated in the month-long ‘XXIII South Asian Feminist Capacity Building Course on Gender, Sustainable Livelihoods, Human Rights and Peace’ in Kathmandu, Nepal. This led to her conducting gender sensitisation sessions in more than 10 regions of Maldives, promoting women’s rights in public participation and gender equality.

Nathu with a fellow alumna at the 2023 Academic Holhuashi

Currently, Nathu is a lecturer at the Faculty of Health Sciences at Maldives National University. She is passionate about building the next generation of social workers through her role teaching the Bachelor of Social Work course. She also teaches other health-related courses at the university. This work is underpinned by her Australian education; as it happens, Nathu’s supervisor is also an Australia Awards alumna, and several of her co-workers at the faculty are alumni too!

Beyond rubbing shoulders with fellow alumni at work, Nathu is also an active participant in alumni engagement initiatives and is a Committee Member of Maldives Australia Alumni, having served as the association’s Vice Chairperson from 2018 to 2020. One of the significant events she coordinated during her tenure was ‘Academic Holhuashi’, a research forum conducted in collaboration with Maldives National University. The forum was a productive information sharing and exchange session between and among Australia Awards alumni and other representatives in the field; the format was a success and was later repeated with the second Academic Holhuashi held in February 2023 under the theme of Community Development.

Nathu also continues to benefit from Australia Awards’ support. Having received an Australia Awards small grant in 2020 for a group project helping respond to the impacts of COVID-19, in 2022 Nathu partnered with her colleague and fellow Australia Awards alumna Mariyam Neerish to apply for that year’s small grant round. With the funding they received, they conducted an awareness program across Laamu atoll on ‘Building Resilient Communities to Address Child Abuse and Gender-Based Violence’, in collaboration with Laamu Family and Children Service Centre. The key objectives of this project were to empower communities by informing them about the impact of child abuse and gender-based violence, and to enhance the capacity of social workers in the region. The project reached 276 individuals in the 10 islands of Laamu, through both formal and informal sessions in each community. The team is now finalising a handbook for social workers and social sector advocates to use in their advocacy work in the future.

Nathu speaks at the 2018 National Conference on Research on Domestic Violence in Maldives

“The Scholarship has connected me to a diverse network of alumni who represent various sectors in the country,” Nathu says. “I have had the privilege to work alongside those alumni making our contribution even more meaningful. Additionally, my areas of expertise have been further strengthened because of my time spent in pursuing my degree in Australia. The course has developed a diverse skill set [in me], including leadership, project management, research and volunteerism, which is a testament to how far I have come in my professional career, and I intend to continue working towards making a difference in Maldives.”

Reflecting on the 2023 UN Women theme for International Women’s Day (‘DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality’), Nathu says, “Throughout [my] years of working with local communities, it is clear that both young women and men need interventions and support to pursue their dreams in life.” She notes that “we continue to see a growing cohort of young women in the higher education sector in Maldives today”, but that their knowledge and skills are not fully accepted or supported by the labour market. “In the present era of digital advancements tied in with higher education, access to virtual spaces is fundamental for girls and women to reduce the gender gap globally and in Maldives,” she adds. “I believe the digital age is the solution to ensure that women’s contribution to the economy remains consistent and sustainable.”