Since joining the Auditor General’s Office (AGO) in the Maldives 22 years ago, Shirumeena Hussain has gone on to become the first woman to hold the assistant auditor general post in the country, overseeing the finances across different public institutions while also helping create a performance audit department. The Maldivian national says commitment and passion for learning have been the keys to her success.
‘When I was a small girl, I wanted to become a nurse,’ Shirumeena says. It was a dream cut short when she found out that she couldn’t be a nurse because of a medical problem. ‘I realised I needed a job anyway,’ she says. Soon after finishing her O Levels as a science student, she joined the AGO as a trainee audit accountant. She was just 17 and considers herself lucky to get selected.
‘I don’t think a science student would get a job here now; there’s more competition. Although I got in, it was never in my mind to stay over 20 years here. I thought it was something temporary until I went for higher studies.’
At the AGO, Shirumeena developed a passion for auditing. She worked hard, passing her ACCA examinations and pursuing a master’s in professional accounting from La Trobe University, Australia. Shirumeena describes her journey at the beginning as ‘very challenging’. While her colleagues dropped out of their studies, she stayed committed. ‘I understood that if I wanted to excel in this field, I needed to get the knowledge, which was why I grabbed the opportunity to study ACCA.’
‘I understood that if I wanted to excel in this field, I needed to get the knowledge’
Assistant auditor general of financial audit division
Director of compliance and special audit
Established performance audit department in 2013 and was its first manager
Manager of financial audit division
Assistant director general of audit at the financial audit division, AGO, Maldives
Trainee audit accountant at Auditor General’s Office, Maldives; promoted to audit accountant, assistant accounts officer and then in 2004 accounts officer
Her hard work paid off. She may have been someone who ‘didn’t even know the basics of auditing’ when she joined the AGO, but she moved on from trainee audit accountant to director of compliance and special audit department, and then last year became assistant auditor general.
She now oversees about 60% of the AGO’s workload – ‘a huge responsibility,’ she says, smiling.
The AGO functions as an independent organ of the state, conducting audits and reporting on the efficiency, effectiveness and economy of public funds. Shirumeena’s financial audit division delivers annual financial audit reports of government ministries, statutory bodies, local councils and donor-funded projects as well as conducting compliance and IT audits.
An oversight body minimises fraud, wastage, corruption and the mismanagement of public funds, she says. However, things haven’t always been easy. ‘We aren’t always welcome at organisations because they don’t see auditors as their friends. Earlier, they thought that we were the people who find their mistakes and report only the negative things.’
That, though, is no longer the case, she says, and auditees and the public have come to understand the role of the AGO. ‘We’ve been auditing for several decades and the AGO now holds a lot of power, so it’s not that difficult to access the documents and perform our duties.’
Shirumeena also played a big role in the early development of the AGO’s performance audit department. With the aid of the World Bank and a consultant from the UK, she helped create the performance audit manual while training the auditors and conducting pilot audits. ‘We had to do a lot of research about how performance audits are conducted in other countries: how they selected audit topics, conducted their pre-studies, executed the audits and reported them.’
During the pilot audit, Shirumeena says they identified a sizeable population of expatriates illegally working in the Maldives, which was also highlighted in the media. The local government later imposed tighter regulations to monitor foreign workers.
Unlike financial audits, performance audits are not conducted every year. Shirumeena says it also takes longer for organisations to implement changes recommended by performance audits, ‘so it takes you a few years to see the improvement’.
Despite the challenges and workload, Shirumeena enjoys her work. ‘People often think that I’ve been doing the same thing every day for more than 22 years. That’s far from the truth. Every assignment is different. We learn something new every day. When we complete an assignment, we get to know how an organisation works, and sometimes we become more knowledgeable about the organisation than those who work there.’
‘Some of my colleagues have told me that I’m an inspiration to them. It makes me incredibly happy’
She also points out that auditing has changed tremendously over the years. She remembers having to write down everything manually on paper. ‘There were so many files – files and files on top of each other. But everything is automated now, and it will continue to change.’
By the time the pandemic came, AGO had already moved to a paperless environment, and employees could work from home. ‘We were ready for the pandemic, but some of our clients weren’t. They had their records stored on paper, so we had to wait to get access.’ The pandemic, she says, helped public offices to redefine their work models, pushing them to automate. ‘Now we can access their systems from anywhere without going to the office.’
Finance of the future
In the Maldives, finance professionals have high earning potential coupled with many career and education opportunities. Shirumeena has noticed that more students are pursuing ACCA now. ‘Things were different back then,’ she says. ‘Everyone wanted to become a doctor or lawyer.’
The ACCA community in the Maldives, Shirumeena explains, is small but tight-knit. ‘We have a diverse group of men and women here. We all know each other. The executive committee conducts awareness programmes, discussion panels and events.’
When Shirumeena joined the AGO, there were very few women. ‘But we have almost an equal number of men and women now. There are equal opportunities for everyone. The key for young auditors is to take every day as a day of learning, improve their skills, and follow their ethics and values.’
Shirumeena is humble, but as the first woman to be assistant auditor general of the Maldives, she admits that she’s a role model for many women. ‘Some of my colleagues have told me that I’m an inspiration to them. They’ve mentioned me on different platforms. It makes me incredibly happy.’ She says her goal is to become the first woman auditor general of her country.
As a mother of two young boys and a member of the technical standards committee at the Institute of Chartered Accountants of the Maldives, Shirumeena wears many hats. ‘It keeps me busy, but I take it positively. Having multiple roles helps you learn many things. I give my 100% at work, and when I’m back home I’m with my sons,’ the 42-year-old says.
So has she ever regretted not becoming a nurse? ‘After I joined the AGO, I became so interested in auditing that I forgot I once wanted to be a nurse. It was only in the pandemic that I felt like I should have become a nurse to help my people,’ she says. ‘But I think, pandemic or not, I may have already helped my country and my community by being an auditor.’