Women of the Bench: Maldivian women judges forge a path forward

By Aparna Basnyat, Programme Specialist, Rule of Law and Human Rights - Regional Bureau for Asia and the Pacific, and Yasmeen Rasheed, Assistant Resident Representative, Governance - UNDP Maldives

June 23, 2024

From left: Aparna Basnyat and Yasmeen Rasheed


Waiting for the heavy rains to end before taking their boats home, a group of remarkable women judges from the Maldives reflected on key insights after two days of intense deliberations.

Once a year, they have been coming together as a group to celebrate their achievements, learn from each other, and share experiences on the continuing challenges faced by women judges. 

This group of approximately 40 judges have been pushing the boundaries on women’s leadership in decision-making, demanding a higher standard of inclusion, and advocating for a more fair and equitable justice system.

The first Women Judges Conference was held last year in March to coincide with International Women’s Day (8th March) and International Women Judges Day (10th March). Funded by UK Government and supported by UNDP, the Conference marked a significant milestone in the history of the Maldives Judiciary in its effort and commitment to increasing the participation and representation of women in the judiciary. Such forums provide an opportunity for Maldives women judges to meet one another, share experiences and challenges, discuss issues that impact women judges and women’s access to justice. They also have a chance to hear from international experts on other experiences, discuss how they can adapt and apply lessons to the Maldivian contexts and strengthen their network of support.

Increasing women’s representation in the judiciary is a key part of the national Gender Equality Action Plan, supported by UNDP, and is critical for the future vision of Maldives Judiciary. Although policies and legal frameworks exist, accessing justice remains a challenge, particularly for women and girls due to many socio-cultural barriers in the Maldives.  These same factors also impede women from taking on leadership positions, including in the judiciary. It was only in 2007 that women were first appointed as judges in the Maldives. It wasn't until more than a decade later, in 2019, that women would be appointed to the Supreme Court bench of the Maldives. Today, women judges account for more than 15% of the judiciary. Through persistent efforts by women judges themselves, as well as through shifts in attitude and political will, there is now over 100% increase in representation since 2018.

While this points to significant progress, it also highlights the fragility in sustaining gains that have been made. Without legislative actions, quotas, or policies in place, the progress that has been achieved can easily be eroded. Much more needs to be done to achieve gender parity.

To move the agenda forward, at this year’s conference, the women judges broke new ground and rallied to launch the Women’s Wing of the Maldives Judges Association. 

Today women judges account for more than 15% of the judiciary. Through persistent efforts by women judges themselves, as well as through shifts in attitude and political will, there is now over 100% increase in representation since 2018.

So, what has worked and how do we sustain this progress? 

  • First, investing in young judges: Mentoring programmes for young women are critical for success. These programs are needed not only for recruiting female judges but also for ensuring retention. Female judges often face harassment from their male counterparts as well as the public. Providing tools, strategies and support can play a significant role in inspiring young people to become judges and overcoming societal barriers to continuing in the profession. Additionally, engaging the public in dialogue can foster a better understanding of the role of judiciary. In the Maldives, judges from Superior and Appellate Courts closely mentor and guide women judges who newly step in to judgeship, especially magistrates at island-level courts. UNDP has also facilitated engagement between judges and young people to better foster understanding of how the justice system works and the role of the judiciary. 
  • Second, providing safe spaces to learn and grow: Conferences like the Maldives Women Judges Conference allow judges to learn about and ask questions related to substantive issues such as domestic violence and promoting victim-centric approaches to address violence against women and children. In the Maldives, where 1 in 3 women and girls have faced some form of gender-based violence (UNFPA Maldives), increasing understanding of gender sensitive handling of GBV cases by police, court staff and judges themselves is necessary to ensure that women and girls are not re-victimized in the process of seeking justice. In addition to discussing substantive issues, these safe spaces also allow judges to openly share their challenges and discuss judicial wellbeing, including how to manage personal attacks faced both in person and online. Regional initiatives such as UNDP’s Judicial Integrity Network has also been critical in strengthening networks and learning for judges and facilitating regional exchange, including on judicial wellbeing, leadership, integrity, as well as exploring frontier issues facing the judiciary from technology to environmental justice and sharing tools such as the gender audit of the judiciary.
  • Third, building solidarity and champions of gender equality in the judiciary: A key priority for judges at the conference was to go beyond discussing the challenges. They outlined concrete actions for judges and the justice sector to take to promote a more gender sensitive and gender responsive justice sector.  Judges identified clear areas to connect with other parts of the justice system to address systemic challenges in ensuring gender equality. They recognized that building solidarity and champions across the justice sector is necessary to sustain progress, from the Attorney General to the Department of Judicial Administration, Judicial Academy, Judicial Services Commission, Law Enforcement, and the Maldives Bar Association. Collaboration is vital to bring about a comprehensive review of the legal framework and update policies and practices for a more inclusive and gender-responsive justice system. 

The journey of Maldives judicial reform is one that UNDP Maldives is particularly committed to, with a strong and growing partnership with many different actors across the justice sector. The Conference only demonstrated the tip of the iceberg in terms of representation of women in the judiciary and impediments for women to access justice. Although policies and legal frameworks exist, justice remains a challenge, particularly for women and girls. The small size of the community and sociocultural factors are key challenges for the social system to work effectively. Police and judiciary have key responsibilities in ensuring access to justice through effective remedies, and service delivery needs to be strengthened to address gender-based violence.

What more is being done?

UNDP is collaborating with justice sector institutions to address these challenges by investing in systems designed to protect witnesses and victims. Additionally, UNDP is strengthening the legal aid regime and services for victims of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) and domestic violence. UNDP is also supporting the advancement and digital transformation of case management in courts and in the criminal justice system, while promoting gender sensitization among judges and justice sector personnel. Efforts are also underway to expedite legislative changes from a human-rights and gender lens, with deliberate considerations to ensure safety and justice for women and other groups who need it the most. 

UNDP, along with its partners, including the European Union, is investing in rule of law and justice reform, with the aim of placing gender equality at the center. In a context where global and regional trends indicate backsliding on gender equality and the rule of law, the progress made in the Maldives can help push back against the tide. This progress is evident in the strides made towards gender parity in the judiciary, the commitment to upholding judicial independence and integrity, and the promotion of access to justice for all.