Contributing only around four per cent of the total workforce in the Maldives’ tourism industry, local women are the least employed demographic in an industry that covers over 40 per cent of the country’s economy. Despite the fact, Soneva has been instrumental in the efforts to promote women employment in the industry, seeking to achieve a more balanced representation of gender in its workforce, especially those working at the frontline.

Along with a number of initiatives including ‘Women in Soneva’ and the ‘Soneva Junior Host’ programme, Soneva is driving the charge – alongside its partner Youth Career Initiative (YCI) – to empower women to take up leading roles in the traditionally male-dominated hospitality industry here in the Maldives.

Junior Hosts

The Soneva Junior Host Programme gives an opportunity to vulnerable young adults to experience what it is like to work in the hospitality industry; the main stakeholders of the programme are Joanne Bowen, the Guardian of Host Engagement and Raj Sisodia, the Area Host Engagement Directors for Soneva. With the objective of empowering young women to take charge of their careers, the first six months of the programme follows the curriculum of the Youth Career Initiative – a globally recognised industry programme overseen by the International Tourism Partnership.

During the time, the hosts get to experience the four major departments of the resort – food and beverage, culinary, housekeeping and front office. For the remaining six months, the hosts get extensive experience in working at a department of their choosing. Recognised globally, the programme encompasses lectures, online learning and on-the-job training, allowing the trainees to acclimatise to the demands of the industry.

There are many factors restricting the employment of women in the industry, with the mentality of parents towards their girls working away from home is a pressing factor. While the participants for the programme are selected through face-to-face interviews, their parents and guardians are allowed to visit the facility for a day and inspect the work environment, accommodation and other facilities provided to them.

The initial Junior Host Programme at Soneva Maldives–both at Soneva Fushi and Soneva Jani–the five-star, a rustic-chic luxury resort in Baa Atoll and Noonu Atoll, saw the participation of six prospective women, with two potential women securing career opportunities and starting to build their career blocks in the industry. Plans are already in place to expand the programme, with cross-training in other Soneva properties allowing them to experience working in a different perspective.

The hosts will soon have access to webinars and online learning modules, powered by the Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC), opening the doors for the hosts to some of the most prestigious universities in the world. Aishath Afaaf and Aminath Sajidha successfully completed the programme, and are today enjoying the beginnings of fruitful careers at Soneva Fushi and Soneva Jani respectively; Afaaf is a management trainee with the housekeeping team, with Sajidha currently working as a telephone operator with the First Impressions Team.

Aishath Afaaf

Born and raised in Malé City, Aishath Afaaf completed her bachelor’s degree in marketing and management from the Maldives National University (MNU). When she got the opportunity to take part in the Junior Host Programme, she was yet another graduate, looking for work and a way to utilise the skills she knew she had in her.

Learning about the surprising fact that women made up only four per cent of the tourism industry workforce here, Afaaf was resolute in her decision to contribute to change. She believes that it is up for women to drive this change and that the high number of well-educated women graduating into the tertiary sector can make a huge contribution.

‘Actions speak louder than words’, is the slogan Afaaf stands behind. “I want to create awareness that working in the tourism industry is safe and that there is nothing wrong with it. In fact, it provides great opportunities for the young generation out there to enhance their talent. I want to be a role model for girls who wish to work in hospitality,” says Afaaf.

Change comes through awareness, and Afaaf is adamant that it should start with educational institutions, teaching the young, especially women, about the opportunities for career growth available in the tourism industry.

Soneva’s efforts have been instrumental in women empowerment, and for Afaaf, Soneva is a safe environment and the perfect foundation for women to work as well as develop. She hopes to encourage more women to join the tourism industry, with her hopes that one day around 50 per cent of the tourism workforce will be occupied by women.

She has high hopes, as she is determined to climb her way up the corporate ladder. “You will never know what you are capable of unless you try it,” says Afaaf, urging more women to join the industry.

Aminath Sajidha

Working as a telephone operator at Soneva Jani, Aminath Sajidha initially wanted to pursue a career in nursing, but it was her father who changed her mind and piqued an interest in the tourism industry. Aged 20, she is from Hirimaradhoo Island in Haa Dhaalu Atoll.

The Junior Host Programme was what shaped Sajidha to take on the challenges of working at a tourism establishment, providing her with the knowledge and experience to start and build a career in the hospitality industry. For women to succeed, Sajidha believes that they to look at building careers, rather than an eight-hour day job.  

“As women, we have been facing a lot of difficulties for a long time. Staying away from our families is one, and as we all know, in the Maldives, there are still some people who discourage women to work in the industry,” says Sajidha. She believes this is just the tip of the iceberg, and that women can learn to avoid negativity and overcome any challenge to reaching their full potential.

Amazed by the great potential and interest shown by women in the industry, she is also glad to see them getting more opportunities. However, there is still a lot more to learn and improve. Though her responsibilities are high, she loves her work at Soneva Jani and believes that she’s among the “first impressionists” – a vital part of the Soneva brand and the Soneva experience.

“I learnt a lot by being a junior host. I love where I am right now, working in one of the top resorts in the Maldives. I never thought I would call this place my home. But I have just realised that I have been here for a while now and that I can finally call it my second home,” she adds. For the future, Sajidha wants nothing more than to succeed and hone herself after her role model, Fathimath Shaazleen, who is the Resort Manager, an inspiration to young women working everywhere.

The Soneva-YCI partnership

The partnership between Soneva and Youth Career Initiative started in 2015, reaching out to young people full of potential, who otherwise had no such training opportunities at their disposal. With a strong focus on reaching out to female candidates this year, the Junior Host Programme had an all-female group of participants for the first time and are delighted with the partnership and the positive impact it has on young people.

YCI is proud to have Soneva as its partner, with the programme combining hands-on experience in a variety of hotel departments with classroom training, enabling young people to develop and hone the skills and experience to start a career in the hotel industry. The training delivered by Soneva is truly transforming the lives of the young people it supports. Application for the Junior Host Programme 2019 is now open, and interested candidates can connect with the Host Engagement team at Soneva Fushi at trm-fushi@soneva.com.