A Liberation Week: Women on the Move

This week is dedicated to Liberation: liberation of woman, liberation of the mind and liberation of the country. So many dates are commemorative. On Monday last we had our thoughts, feelings and consciousness uplifted towards Shiva. Swami Dayanand was a champion of woman’s liberation. The mighty Swami did a lot for the uplift of women as a whole. On the 8th we celebrated the International Woman’s Day.

Independence of Mauritius and Women’s Mobility

The 12th of March tomorrow will see the 48th commemoration of our Independence Day. Another day where we celebrate liberation: this time a patriotic endeavour to liberate our country from the shackles of colonial domination. In this context, Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, Father of the Nation and first Prime Minister of independent Mauritius, had given women not only political status but economic and social achievements. Mrs Lachicoree was the first woman elected in 1958 as member of the Legislative Assembly. He gave women access to social welfare benefits such as old age pension, family allowance, widow’s pensions. When the first International Women Conference was held in May 1975 in Mexico City, he set up the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and nominated Dr Radha Poonoosamy as the first woman minister who led a delegation of 23 women from Mauritius. Since then, women of Mauritius have been able to achieve rights inch by inch through successive governments.

It is important to recall here that women had a phenomenal access to the right to vote in Mauritius in 1948 together with men. They did not have to militate for that right denied to them in the western world and which right was obtained due to the suffragettes’ movements.

Today women have come a long way in the developmental process – women form 51% of not only the world’s population, but in Mauritius too they are a majority.

Despite all the achievements, women continue to be considered as the third world element, not to speak of their excessive use in publicity and media as a sex and glamour symbol to sell all types of goods ranging from cars to tools.

Board Room Decision Making

The private sector employs women massively as machinists and at lower scale jobs but the board rooms of corporate bodies are male-dominated and male-oriented orbits.

The media employs a good number of women as reporters, journalists and more and more “camerawomen” are seen around but the newspapers’ policies continue to be made by males.

The political scenario though has seen the celebration of women to the highest level of the country’s responsibilities, but still the percentage of women in politics falls below the SADC requirements.

All major political parties are controlled by men. They create women’s wings to their political parties as a pivot in vote catching. Women are happy to be thus treated and acknowledged though very little decision-making remains in their hands. But women MPs and Ministers barring three symbolical posts – those of Ministry of Gender Equality, Child Development and Family Welfare and Ministry of Education and Human Resources, Tertiary Education and Scientific Research and Ministry of Social Security, National Solidarity and Reform Institutions and who are doing their jobs with verve, are few and below the proclaimed expectations.

Women Empowerment

This is a term which has emerged since the past two decades and has indeed done much through workshops, conferences and meetings to help the mobilization of women towards more forceful leadership roles. Succeeding governments have seen to it that women are empowered. Women have become more vocal and articulate in expressing their capabilities and skills. Altogether these have led to the development of hundreds of small and medium sized women’s associations. However, their voices are still timid, in terms of more powerful assertion and articulation. A more inclusive business mindset is still to be achieved.

The process of having more women leaders should become a priority within the business fold. The current leaders have to sponsor women to greater opportunities to step in. But women themselves need to make their voices felt and heard.

In general however, women has come a long way to occupy the front rows in society. They are more visible in the public sector. Many women now hold decision-making posts as Permanent Secretaries and other upper cadres of government. There are two women Vice-Chancellors: that of the University of Mauritius and the other as Director of the University of Technology.

Women CEOs are rare however. The business leadership could be more inclusive. Across the world in fact, women make up only 24% of senior business roles, 17% of board positions and 12% of CEOs. And in Mauritius the figure is almost nil. Women too need to support each other in advocating and asserting their positions.

Identify Potential Women Leaders

If women are to make a breakthrough in the glass ceiling to reach senior positions, they have to be helped by companies’ executives, who should identify potential women leaders. Women must be given the roles that will enable them to advocate for their gender. If they are denied this access in preparation, they will not have the required experience they need to move up. They need more exposure to build that kind of experience and be prepared for higher responsibilities. A pipeline of potential future women leaders needs to be built.

Women Professionals

Portias are plenty in and around the Supreme Court. More and more younger women are entering the professionals and stick to their guns too. Since the time of Laure Pillay being the first woman barrister in 1955, women in the black robes have gone a long way in holding key legal positions as attorneys and judges.

But the going has not been easy either here or elsewhere. The testimony of Justice Leila Seth, writer and mother of the world famous Indian writer Vikram Seth is most revealing. At a memorial lecture at the India International Centre, New Delhi on 18 December 2015, Leila Seth gave the traumatic experience of her move to enter a fiercely male-dominated legal sector. She said: “It was so difficult for me to get into the profession, despite the fact that I had stood first in the whole of England in the Bar Examination in 1957”.

When she came back to India and sought to have a legal job, it was very hard for her to have access to a competent senior barrister Dr Sachin Chaudhuri who later became Finance Minister of India. He told her: “Instead of joining the legal profession, young woman, go and get married.” To which she replied nonchalantly: “But sir, I am already married.” He added: “Then go and have a child.” She responded: “I have a child.” He retorted: “It is not fair to the child to be alone, so, young lady, you should have a second child.” She replied: “I already have two children!” He finally gave in: “Then come and join my chambers, you are a persistent young woman and will do well at the Bar!”

She finally became the first woman Judge in the Delhi High Court and the first woman to become Chief Justice of the State High Court of Himachal Pradesh.

Another sector where women do well is the medical field. Gone are the days when women were confined only to jobs as nurses and were denied access to the medical profession. The case of Marie Curie battling to be a scientist is another illustration of the struggle. The battle has been fierce for women to enter a male-dominated world where men make the rules. Throughout the greater part of history, women have been contained and given fewer legal rights and career opportunities.

When we look further down the bathosphere, then the situation can be terribly depressing. Violence, principally domestic violence against women remains a major issue fuelled by patriarchal social mores, lack of adequate laws and education. The World Bank Report highlights the abject poverty of women-led households.

The crusade for women’s rights is an ongoing process. But in a growing destabilized world in constant social flux and insecurity, undergoing rapid changes and challenges, the role of woman as the guarantor to a stable emotional life is primordial. Therefore, together with fighting for her rights she also needs to ask what is her duty in bringing stability in the matrix of society. She is still mother!

*  Published in print edition on 11 March 2016

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