DANISHA SORNUM, LLM, MPP
Barrister-at-Law
Policy Consultant

We have a whole gamut of laws that have been enacted for the protection and empowerment of women. There used to be a time when women did not have the right to vote, nor the right to hold a bank account.  Laws have been amended. Still, the high achievements of girls at schools and young women at universities are not translating into equal employment opportunities. The labour force participation of women as compared to men is lower and the gender wage gap is very much present, particularly in the private sector. Still, the number of battered women, women who lose their lives to aggressive partners, women victims of sexual or other forms of harassment at work or on the streets, children victims of sexual abuse, does not seem to be on a downward trend. Where did we go wrong?  Which blinkers have we not removed?

A toothless law is as good as a non-existent law. An employer who knows he risks no sanction for not abiding by the law on equal remuneration for work of equal value is more likely to disregard the law. A woman who is sexually harassed at work who has to knock at multiple doors before her voice is heard is more likely to mute herself.  Under the new Workers’ Rights Act, women who have to take care of a child below school age or a child with impairment can request for flexitime.  However, the law provides no clear guidance as to how the flexitime would operate, leaving women in the private sector vulnerable to the whims and caprices of employers.  We can also reasonably ask the question as to why flexitime is not afforded to those who have to care for an elderly, given that more often than not, all these unpaid and unaccounted work and responsibilities fall on women’s shoulders.

It’s, however, not just about laws; it’s about implementation gaps. It’s about shattering the social and cultural norms that perpetuate violence and discrimination and that prevent women, albeit in a very unobserved manner, from harnessing their full potential.  It’s about empowering institutions, and above all, the people who work in these institutions, to identify and appropriately deal with cases of violence and discrimination.  When I started to practise as a lawyer five years ago, I felt the ground slipping beneath my feet upon hearing another colleague of mine advising a woman victim of domestic violence that it would be in her best economic interests to put up with her partner. Over the years, I’ve seen it all – the woman who is told by her parents that it is normal for the husband to be angry and abusive; the young girl who is told that the way she dressed up was provocative and she deserved the pinching and groping as she stood on a crowded bus; the woman candidate who is told “ale fer baba bwar ou fer bien” during the campaign.

Laws can force people to adapt, but laws cannot change mindsets and hearts. Changes that come through compulsion do not necessarily produce the desired results.  Real and effective change warrants a collective effort that starts from home, finds its way to the streets, the workplace, and politics. It is our responsibility as parents to ensure our children know what is normal and what is not.  It is not normal for a stranger or for that matter, a close friend of the family or relative to fondle the child’s vagina, breasts or penis. Be it parents or teachers at school, we need to lift the veil on what we shyly prefer to call “private parts.”  It is not normal for a male partner to verbally or physically abuse his female partner, and this applies both ways.  It is not normal for employers to discriminate against women based on their sex or pregnancy or any other attributes.

Studies show that 7 in 10 Mauritians consider that it is better for a family if the woman shoulders the main responsibilities of the home and child care (Afrobarometer 2017), as a result of which generally women spend much more time in household chores and child care as opposed to their male counterparts. That is part of the story as to why women tend to accept less remunerative career paths in favor of more flexible employment, despite being highly qualified.  Unless there is a drastic shift in these norms that narrow down the possibilities for girls and women, we are still looking to many more years before concrete results are achieved.

As a caring and responsible society, we have to allow change to happen.  What was good enough yesterday may not be good enough today; we have to question the practices that we have always considered to be normal.  A gender equal world is a happier, healthier and more prosperous world, be it economically or socially.

International Women’s Day 2020 is an opportunity to question our biases and to rethink our norms and practices. It is also an opportunity to celebrate women, not just those women who have achieved name and fame, but all those who are overcoming challenges on a daily basis to survive, to raise their families, to deliver at work, and to just be themselves.  Let’s celebrate the mother of four kids or the teenage pregnant girl who musters the courage to go back to school to finish a degree; the woman who braves all odds to set up an enterprise, and the woman who is working multiple shifts to make ends meet.  Let’s celebrate women athletes; women forging tech innovation.  Yes, there is much more to it than just laws.