Sheila Bunwaree

That women’s emancipation has taken place is undeniable. But does contemporary Mauritius have sufficient ‘enablers’ to ensure the full participation of women in the socio-economic and political life of the country. Is there enough of ‘gender consciousness’ at the level of policy making and budgeting to provide equal opportunities for all? If the response to these questions were positive, we would perhaps not have been at an embarrassing 112th ranking on the Global Gender Gap Index. 

I am not a fan of indices such as the ‘Ease of doing business in Africa’, the Mo Ibrahim Index of Governance, the Freedom House Index, etc. I am well aware of the methodological flaws that can arise in the construction of such indices and usually refrain from using them. However, given that our authorities do not miss a single opportunity to use such benchmarking to boast of Mauritius’s performance, it is perhaps appropriate that we lean on the Davos Global Gender Gap Index to remind those holding the reins of power that there is still a lot more work to be done if we are sincere about women’s empowerment and attaining SDG 5.

Contrary to many other indices on which Mauritius outshines its African counterparts, the Global gender gap Index shows that we are way behind a number of sub-Saharan African states. Despite their lower human development index and lower GNP per head, these African countries perform much better than Mauritius on gender equitable development.
As Mauritius gears towards the 2019 Women’s Day Celebrations, a glance at some statistics and reflection on certain key issues may be useful.

Gender based violence remains a huge problem in Mauritius. Violence can be explained by many factors but nothing whatsoever justifies that we sit back or act irresponsibly.
The Ambassador of the EU to the Republic of Mauritius aptly notes:
‘ … The perception that harassment or being violent towards women is normal and acceptable is wrong and must change, we all have the responsibility to say NO, openly reject acts of violence or harassment and stand by the victim…’
The ’Commission de pourvoi en grâce’ recent granting of remission to perpetrators of violence, without providing adequate reasoning for its decision is worrying. We are not against ‘remission per se’ and/or rehabilitation but we must, as a society, first and foremost understand that we need to find every means possible to stop violence against women and deter people from engaging in such abhorrent acts.

Sexual harassment cases are far too many. The recent headlines of a local newspaper: ‘A La Municipalité de Beau-Basin/Rose-Hill – une éboueuse victime de harcèlement sexuel’ and the narrative which goes with it is very troubling indeed. The case of one of our women athletes is also fresh on our minds but have we heard the voice of the authorities or the Gender Caucus on these issues?

Decent work and decent pay are key to human dignity but Mauritian women’s participation in the labour market revolves only around some 46% compared to 74% of men in 2017. The right to work is a fundamental human right but is the state doing enough ensure the creation of decent jobs for women and to prevent job loss?

Sudden closures of manufacturing plants is an occurrence that is likely to grow in this age of economic uncertainty. Women are most vulnerable since they are disproportionately present in the manufacturing sector. ‘Workfare programmes’ are often projected as solutions. Has any evaluation of these ‘workfare programmes’ ever been carried out?
Other forms of injustice is to do with ‘unequal wages’. A World Bank study: “Addressing inequality through more equitable labour markets’ notes that ’Mauritian women in the private sector are paid on average 30 per cent less than men…’, let alone the many who are stuck with no pay at all in the reproductive/care economy within the private sphere. The twin forces of capitalism and patriarchy have conveniently made women believe that turning the wheels of the reproductive economy for no remuneration is normal. Is this just?

The gender dimension of the persistent mismatch on the labour market is rarely commented upon. While tomorrow’s world of work will be dominated by science and technology, women continue to be underrepresented in these fields. The problem was evoked in 2016 by the then Minster of Gender Equality, on the occasion of Women’s day: ‘…There is a need to accelerate our actions to encourage girls to opt for domains considered male dominated.’ There seems to be a deceleration instead!

Sports and Decision making positions are also spheres which remain heavily dominated by men, as shown in the table but the one sector where female representation remains dismal is the political arena. Politics is key to improving the woman/human condition. More women are therefore needed in politics- not to be mere tokens or supporters of a rotten patriarchal system but rather to be the drivers of change.

As can be seen, patriarchal structures remain deeply embedded; the silence of authorities around key concerns is disturbing and implementation of the few existing gender sensitive legislations remains ineffective. Is it exaggerated to say that Mauritian democracy is failing its women and girls?

Mauritians desperately want a ‘New Mauritius’ – one which is drug-free, corruption-free, poverty-free, free from savage ecological destruction, arrogance-free, one which is based on merit, ethics and morality, one where peace and human dignity prevail, hence the theme: ‘Les Femmes – pour une Nouvelle Ile maurice’, chosen by the MMM for Women’s Day 2019. This theme articulates well with that of the UN: ‘Think Equal, Build Smart, Innovate for Change’. The world is going through a multiplicity of crises and without changing our mindset to one which thinks equal, which is focussed on Building smart, gains made so far can be easily eroded. More importantly, we should say NO to ‘Business as Usual’ and bring in disruptors for change. Only then will we be able to innovate. The MMM is conscious of the seminal role that the Party together with the many well-intentioned, competent and honest women, can play to transform society. Building on its rich feminist action of the past and its innovative feminist agenda, the Party stands ready to build a new Mauritius – one which many us are desperately crying for.

Any vision of “Une Nouvelle Ile Maurice’ must be one that protects women and girls from violence, nurtures their rights and empowers them to lead. It may well take a long time before we get our “Malala Yousafzai, Greta Thunberg and Ahed Tamimi’ but meanwhile we should protect our girls and give them every possible chance to be the leaders of tomorrow. One pregnant girl, dying at the age of 13, is far too many. The rise in teenage pregnancy blighting the lives of so many young women is unacceptable. If Mauritius is sincere in its fight towards protecting its girls, it should with immediate effect withdraw its reservations as regards the article on child marriage within the protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa and ratify the SADC Gender protocol, which criminalises child marriage. We can no longer wait for the Children’s Bill and the Gender Equality Bill. They are long overdue. Mauritius must urgently repeal laws that allow for child marriage and refrain from playing any kind of ‘ethnic politics’ whatsoever on this question.

Let me conclude by saluting all the NGOS, women and men who work relentlessly for gender equality and the new Mauritius that many of us are aspiring to. The words of former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon become relevant here: “Let us devote solid funding, courageous advocacy and unbending political will to achieving gender equality around the world.’

Happy Women’s Day to All!