Sarita Boodhoo

The Pravasi Woman and her Empowerment

— Sarita Boodhoo

As we celebrate the sixth Regional Pravasi Bharatiya Divas in Mauritius this weekend, it is essential and pertinent that we focus on some of the issues that are crucial to the development and well-being of the diaspora community as a whole. The gender issue is a major one.

The 27-million strong diaspora spread over 112 countries is a great powerhouse of human and economic resources, skills and knowledge. More than half this figure comprises women – Shakti. This is a mighty force for the whole diasporic community and humanity in general.

Throughout the plantation colonies, whether in Mauritius, Fiji, Trinidad and Tobago, South Africa, Suriname or Demerara (Guyana), the story of the woman girmitia is the same. Exploitation of woman was a devastating  malpractice. What was the feeling of the first Pravasi woman who climbed up the sixteen steps at Aapravasi Ghat in those dark days of despair? The story of humiliation, injustice, oppression is the same in all former plantation countries.

It is however, worthwhile to note that some 178 years since the first experiment of indentured labour, the Pravasi woman has come a long way. Today she is found occupying high posts of decision-making, in the public as well as in the private sectors. Though, in the latter sector here, the percentage is still below that of the public sector so far as the white collar job is concerned. Women of the diaspora are found holding responsible posts as judges and law makers. In Mauritius, for example, 66.7% of women are Senior Chief Executives and a good deal of them are PIOs. Women do hold responsible jobs at senior levels as functionaries. They are assertive, efficient and effective. More and more Pravasi women are aspiring to jobs or responsibilities so far considered men’s jobs such as truck driving, bus conductors/drivers, civil and mechanical engineers, construction contractors or at management level.

The Pravasi woman is found occupying a wide range of professional jobs as doctors, lecturers, actuaries, scientists. However, according to the latest CEDAW report (Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women – UN Report Aug – 2010), there is still a disturbing perception prevailing in society that politics and public life are more suited to men than women. However, lately there has been a growing awareness for more women representation at parliamentary, district and village council levels. A significant leap has been made from 5% to 17% in parliamentary politics. In 2008, the percentage of women occupying top decision  – making responsibilities as Permanent Secretaries and Senior Chief Executives rose from 31% (2005) to 37%. The Government of Mauritius has taken bold initiatives towards the economic and political empowerment of women and this includes obviously the PIOs. But we still have to meet SADC requirements.

It is a matter of great pride that in January this year, at the tenth Pravasi Bharatiya Divas Celebration in Jaipur, the Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, Mrs Kamla Persad Bissessar was the State Guest and Chief Guest of the Government of India, where she was duly honoured with the prestigious Pravasi Bharatiya Sammaan.

Grand daughter of an indentured labour immigrant from Bhelupur, Buxar in Bihar which I had the luck and privilege to visit in February this year, Kamla Persad-Bissessar is a very successful university professor, jurist and politician.

What better illustration of the success of the Pravasi woman than this high distinction at the highest pinnacle of a country’s destiny? Mrs Kamla Persad-Bissessar is not only the first woman Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, but the first woman Prime Minister of the Indian Diaspora.

Her remarks are pertinent: “The linkage between our (two) countries, forged through the experience of indentureship and maintained through a vibrant diasporic community are on the cusp of a significant renewal.”

Here in Mauritius, what do we expect for women of the diaspora from this Sixth Regional PBD? Under the joint bilateral agreements, provision for training in technical skills under the ITEC scheme is available. More women can be trained in leadership and advocacy training skills and capacity building under this scheme. Capacity building of women NGOs, mentors and individuals supporting project implementation such as the women centres of the government, the SMEs or the socio-cultural dynamic groups of Geet Gawai or Geetharines women needs be looked into. These village groups can be further empowered and equipped to professionalize their performance and artisanal crafts and have exchange programmes with similar gramin groups in Bihar and the Bhojpuri speaking belts.

On the other hand, Indian women have made rapid strides as CEOs of successful business houses in India and the Indian diaspora. Their expertise could be shared with up and coming women entrepreneurs in Mauritius and Africa in a South-South dialogue framework. They could bond with business women in Mauritius as equal/strategic partners in joint ventures and share knowledge, experiences and skills. A Council of Diaspora Women Entrepreneurs could be envisaged.

More exchange programmes in volunteerism, youth training and involvement in poverty alleviating schemes can also be envisaged. I know of several Mauritian girls and young women working with NGOs in this field in India.

I have in mind such successful programmes as SEWA project already in operation in Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Gujerat; others such as the SHG (Self Help Group) and Micro Finance Institutions could be valuable in grassroots projects.

The voyage of the Pravasi woman was long, enduring, full of hurdles when she left the shores of Mother India for an unknown destiny. But today, the Pravasi woman of Mauritius and indeed the whole of the diaspora, asserts herself in all her rights and swabhiman. On the other hand, she has never broken with her age-old tradition, cultural affinities and roots which she carried and nurtured all through this journey. She has helped to maintain language and identity, while at the same time asserting her capabilities fully in the globalised world. She has learnt to manage home, work, culture and modernity.

Sarita Boodhoo

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