Loga Virahsawmy

Mauritius: Party ignores gender commitment ahead of May elections

 

— Loga Virahsawmy 

 

I have never been very good at mathematics, but when I look at the number of women fielded by the Mouvement Militant Mauricien (MMM) for the May 6 2010 general elections, I think I am right. Eight out of 60 does make only slightly more than 13%.

 

This is a big blow not only for gender activists but also for gender democracy. Section 15 (v) of the Constitution of the MMM dated October 1998 reads “En établissant les listes de candidats aux élections générales et municipales, le Parti s’efforcera de présenter au moins 20% de femmes. Translated, this means, “in preparing the list for the general and municipal elections the Party will ensure that there are at least 20% women.” At the very least, the party should be fielding 12 women, not just 8! 

 

After long years of lobbying, training and campaigning this, coming on the eve of the 2010 general elections, is a great disappointment. The MMM has climbed every roof clamouring to be champions of democracy, social justice and gender justice. Only eight women is a real shame, especially since this contravenes the party’s own Constitution.

 

Maybe I should rewind a bit to refresh our memories. Mauritius is a signatory to most conventions, declarations and protocols regarding equality of men and women, except for the latest SADC Protocol on Gender and Development, which the Government says contradicts the Constitution.

 

One of these is the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which “aims to bring to an end women’s exclusion from politics…” and “provides a basis for realising equality between men and women through ensuring women’s equal access to, and equal opportunities in, political and public life including the right to vote and to stand for election…”

 

In 1997 SADC Heads of State, including Mauritius, signed the SADC Declaration on Gender and Development, which highlighted gender equality as a fundamental human right. Although not binding, this declaration committed states to having 30% female representation in parliament by 2005, and included emphasis on “ensuring the equal representation of women and men in decision-making.”

 

What do we see in Mauritius 13 years after signing that Declaration? Women comprise 17% in Parliament and 6.4% at local government. When Heads of States cannot walk the talk, they should then not talk.

 

People are so used to the male dominated Parliament that they often ask the question, “Why do we need more women in politics?” My answer: “La question ne se pose meme pas” (The question does not arise). No democratic country, even less one that stands as a model in the region, can marginalise 51% of its population.

 

Some falsely believe that women cannot lead. Yet, countries daring to break stereotypes and put more women in Parliament are doing really well. Rwanda, a country emerging successfully from tragic genocide has over 50% women in Parliament. South Africa, a nation that broke away from apartheid and remains the region’s economic powerhouse, has 42.1% women in Parliament. This is followed by Angola at 37.3%, Mozambique at 34.8% and Tanzania at 30.4%, all of whom are dealing with huge challenges, but remain nations largely at peace and moving towards development.

 

The battle for greater gender equality in Mauritius politics is not new. In the Commission on Constitutional and Electoral Reform 2001/ 2002 report, Albie Sachs wrote, “Mauritius can justly be proud of the admiration which its democratic life enjoys internationally. It cannot, however, hold up its head in terms of participation of women in political life.” The report added that “half the population ends up with only a one-twentieth share of representation manifests a grave democratic deficit.”

 

Prior to the 2005 general elections, women comprised 5.6% of Parliament. Gender activists, Gender Links and Media Watch Organisation conducted a series of activities, including participating in a march in the streets of Port Louis, a workshop with Head of Political Parties and a workshop with media practitioners.

 

At the workshop, political leaders committed to filing more women as candidates, which they did, though unfortunately the 30% target remained elusive. Xavier Duval, leader of the Parti Mauricien, stressed the “chronic deficiency” of the low representation of women, highlighting the importance of proportional representation as well as favourable party lists. Duval went as far as to question, “why not a woman President or Vice President of the Republic or a speaker of the Legislative Assembly?”

 

At a Parliamentary session in 2008, the Prime Minister Dr Navin Ramgoolam suggested a quota for women, which he repeated recently. No decision was taken and now we have a snap election. Many people, including some women, oppose quota systems. However, a quota system is necessary to correct current imbalances.

 

Another strategy is the zebra or zip system, where parties list one man, one woman, alternating throughout the list, ensuring equal numbers of women and men. Nevertheless, this must happen at party level, and if a party cannot adhere to its own Constitution, it is unlikely to work.

 

Although journalists are usually present when leaders make statement and commitments, they rarely take politicians to task for failure to deliver. I am sure that most of the population are more interested to hear about how well leaders live up to their promises, rather than the private lives of our politicians!

 

Some argue that women’s multiple roles, juggling jobs and domestic duties, make it difficult for them to participate in politics. But I wonder, can’t men juggle multiple tasking? Why can’t men support women who want to go into politics? Women have always helped men to get into Parliament, why can’t it be the other round?

 

Ask any politician about women’s contribution to elections, they will say that women are the best political activists. While doing their political activism, they already juggle a full time job, their domestic duties – and getting men elected.

 

Politicians must walk the talk and make space for women. Women on the other hand must join political parties, work at grassroots level, know their mandates, their needs, have their say in their political parties, and give their inputs into political manifestos and programmes.

 

When women are no longer sidelined, have their say at all level of decisions, and have the opportunities and the training needed, we will start breaking stereotypes and live in a better society – a Mauritius fit for our children, where violence, sexual assaults, rape and other crimes against women will start coming down.

 

Political leaders have taken their decisions for the General Elections, but I hope they will show some boldness for local government elections.

 

Yes we can! The time is now!

 

Loga Virahsawmy is the Director, Gender Links (Mauritius and Francophone Office) and President of Media Watch Organisation-GEMSA

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