The Maldives are 99% water, so why can almost no teenagers swim?

Azha Abdul Azeez lives in Malé, the capital of the Maldives archipelago, surrounded by the idyllic Indian Ocean. But she “grew up in the house” and the water that makes up so much of Abdul Azeez’s home – a rich habitat including coral reefs, turtles, manta rays and exotic fish – terrifies her because she never learned to swim.

“[My parents] were worried that something might happen to me. I think that’s why they didn’t send me [swimming] when I was little,” she says.

It wasn’t until last month that Abdul Azeez, 22, started taking lessons. Her boyfriend inspired her to take the plunge after describing the Maldives’ rich underwater life. “There’s so much more to see in the sea … I want to experience that.”

Abdul Azeez is not alone in being unable to swim. The Maldives is 99% water and more than 80% of its 1,190 islands are just one metre above sea level. Yet many young Maldivians, particularly girls, do not know how to swim. The implications of this go far beyond basic life skills; it stops local people connecting with their local habitat, which needs their protection, and blocks women from accessing work in the two main industries: fishing and tourism.

Research from 2012 suggested that only 10% of 15- and 16-year-olds living in the Maldives could swim. Women and girls are most affected; girls are three times more likely to feel unconfident swimming in the sea than boys, and 50% more likely to have never snorkelled, according to research among school students by the Ocean Women project.

“We are surrounded by water and they [women] cannot enjoy the beauty,” says Aishath Rishma, the president of the Women Development Committee on Fonadho, the capital island of the Laamu atoll.

A loss of the traditional lifestyle that’s more connected to the sea is partly to blame, says Flossy Barraud, the principal collaborator at conservation charity Manta Trust and a leader of its Ocean Women project, which aims to empower more females to access the water.

“We heard that mothers used to go and wash the pots in the sea after they’d cooked on the fire. That would be when the kids would go down and all swim together, but now they don’t cook in that way so much,” she says.

Other social trends contribute to a general lack of swimming skills among Maldivians. Today both parents often work, leaving them with less time to spend in the water with their children, says Aminath Zoona, the founder of Salted Ventures Swimmers, a swimming school in Malé. “Because most parents are too busy to be actively involved in teaching them [children] to swim, they choose not to send them and keep them home.”

There are a number of social and cultural reasons why girls are deterred from swimming. “It’s mostly overprotection,” says Zoona, who is also the co-leader of the Ocean Women programme.

But social stereotypes are also a factor. On some islands, girls who swim are considered tomboys, “and that’s not seen as a positive thing”, says Barraud. “It’s tying back to that belief – that’s stronger in some places than others – that girls should be home more, not outside hanging around like boys do.”

If you don’t know the ocean … the foundation of your existence in the Maldives – why would you want to protect it?

Sabra Ibrahim Noordeen, President’s Office

Some families may also “tell their daughters not to go in the sea because they’ll be in the sun and their skin will get darker”, Barraud says.

On island nations, being able to swim is a life skill. In 2019, there were 3.2 drowning deaths per 100,000 people in the Maldives.

The lack of swimming skills also cuts off women from employment opportunities in a country where fishing and tourism are top employers. “People here think it [swimming] is more of a manly thing,” says Abdul Azeez. “If you look into swimming, things like snorkelling, diving … you see very few women in the industry.” Instead, women tend to work in the informal sector.

There are also consequences for conservation work. A lot of marine conservation organisations struggle to find Maldivian staff, Barraud says, yet local people should be at the forefront of protecting biodiversity.

“If you don’t know what’s in the ocean, if you don’t know what’s actually forming the foundation of your entire existence in the Maldives, why would you want to protect it?” says Sabra Ibrahim Noordeen, the special envoy for climate change at the President’s Office of the Maldives.

Attitudes are changing, says Noordeen, and people are starting to see that women don’t have to be limited to caregiving roles. Today’s parents are increasingly sending their children to swimming lessons, says Abdul Azeez, although Zoona notes that some parents still need to be taught the benefits of learning to swim.

More organisations are beginning to focus on swimming skills, too. The Women’s Development Committee on Fonadhoo sponsors local women to take swimming instructor courses, as part of a wider programme to boost female economic empowerment. The Moodhu Bulhaa Dive Centre on Villingili Island is run by the country’s first female Padi-certified course director and emphasises training and hiring women.

In October an Ocean Women pilot project will offer swimming instructor training for 10 people from five islands, half of whom must be female. The hope is that they will then teach others in their local community to swim.

Related: Lost for words: fears of ‘catastrophic’ language loss due to rising seas

“Some of those people, obviously not all of them, will want to pursue an environmental career, whether that’s marine conservation or another field, or they’ll go into diving or tour guiding,” says Barraud.

Abdul Azeez is also hopeful about women breaking into swimming: “I feel like people should be more open-minded and not be so judgmental about the women in this industry. It’s not something only for men; both genders could equally enjoy it.”