One cannot continue to lament about the decline of our social fabric, the loss of moral values, the lack of respect for parents and elders, increasing violence and insecurity without the state rethinking its relationship with the family, the workplace and society
Consider a roll call of our present social problems. From January to May 2018, there have been 109 cases of teenage pregnancies. Violence in the family and at school is heard about in everyday conversations. The number of young people admitted to hospital for drugs is increasing and drug addiction among the very young is on the rise. The number of people between 25 and below the age of 50 in prisons in 2017 was 2325, and it would have been useful to know how many fall in the range of the 30 years old.
For the majority of observers, the country is sick. A major cause of the problems can be traced back to the 1970s and 1980s in the wake of industrialization when succeeding governments paid little attention to the dehumanizing conditions befalling lots of Mauritian families and which have left a deep scar on those in the age range of 30 years and below of the present generation. In the past it was understandable that our governments could not anticipate such problems and were not prepared and equipped to deal with them, but thirty or forty years after, it is unpardonable that the State cannot rethink its relationship with the family and come with family-friendly policies.
Any monocausal explanation of any phenomenon is always suspect. While there may be a number of other factors at the root of our social problems, the fact that a great majority of women took up employment for the first time in those years (70s and 80s) meant that a great majority of children during that period were left uncared for and were thus deprived of the parental care which is so crucial for their harmonious development. Many still remember the miserable lives of those children. Parents used to wake them early in the morning, prepare them for school, take them to the bus-stop if the school was far, or thrust them in an overcrowded school van. While many parents were able to collect their children at two or three o’clock after sneaking some time from work, others were taken back home in the school van and left at home sometime unattended just to watch TV until the parents came home at around 5.30 pm.
The exhausted parents rushed to prepare the evening meal before putting them to bed for an early rise next morning. Some were lucky to have a parent or a neighbour to care for them or keep an eye in case any problem cropped up, but the majority finished their school life in these conditions. This took a toll on both parents and children. Frustration, lack of parental love or moral values were to show up until adulthood and beyond, and may partly explain the social problems we face today as the ills of yesterday are reproduced as a result of poor parenting skills today.
To blame society or government for what’s happening today is a convenient way for everybody to absolve themselves of the failure to take proper care of their families. There is no such thing as an ideal family and every one of us of the older generation shares some blame in failing to bring up the younger generation to the standards we would have liked them to achieve today.
One has to admit that many families faced even more complex problems of survival that they could hardly cope with as parents, and their children drifted by the wayside. For others, it was a difficult choice to make – sacrifice one’s career, opt for overtime or not, even when it was not compulsory, or perhaps wrongly believing that material compensation was an adequate substitute for parental bonding and guidance. While the problems cut across classes, it was the working women and families from the lower rungs of the ladder who faced the most rigid labour conditions and whose families and children suffered the most.
One has also to acknowledge that over the years there have been even more changes in the family structure. Until some research institutions feel the need to look into changes operating in the Mauritian family, some observations though impressionistic are worth making.
Women’s participation in the labour market has kept on increasing. There are more divorce cases than ever before, and many children are brought up by single-parent families, with or without the support of relatives. With an ageing population, many families have to care for the aged or the sick. Finding proper child care is faced with many difficulties and the informal care system is coming under great stress. If we agree that deprivation will result in anti-social behaviour, then something must be done at all levels to address the problem at its source.
What happened in the past cannot be undone, but one can surely draw on past experience and prepare a better future. One cannot continue to lament about the decline of our social fabric, the loss of moral values, the lack of respect for parents and elders, increasing violence and insecurity without the state rethinking its relationship with the family, the workplace and society. If we accept that the family is the basic unit of our society and that the parents are the first teachers of their children before they step out for formal education, an important dimension of our social problems may be traced to the home. The state has therefore the responsibility to craft a new family policy that impacts positively in the home.
There is no need to reinvent the wheel. Many societies face similar problems and they have tried to address the issues outlined above. But we desperately need a proper investigation that looks into these problems thoroughly in a holistic manner and come up with some practical recommendations. In the 1960s, two professors contributed significantly to put Mauritius on the path of development. Professor Titmuss helped us to solve our population problem, and Professor Meade provided us a blueprint for our economic development. A comprehensive report on our social problems can help to guide us for the future. What must be avoided at all costs are cosmetic and copycat measures that make no significant impact on the family.
Pending a comprehensive report, the State can intervene in the workplace to help parents give more time, affection, guidance and support to their children and thus prepare the future generations. There is much more than improving the workplace. A fresh start can be made in this area while working towards a new family policy. However, such policy cannot be devised without the close collaboration of various institutions and professionals as well as other stakeholders. It cannot operate in a silo and must work in tandem with other branches of society.
For example, the digitization of government departments and companies could have helped many employees to work from home. Flexitime and Work@Home Scheme have been talked about for years and the latter scheme has been recently included in the budget but still awaits implementation. More paperless departments should be set up. There is no reason why trade unions should not press for more changes to help workers and their families. The concept of work as continuous attendance at the work site or man as a breadwinner is a male concept that is now outmoded.
Rethinking all these issues in the light of our own experience and drawing from the experience of other countries can help us to better grasp the challenges which confront us today. We have a choice: either let things drift away into chaos or summon the political will to chart a new future.
Both the state and its institutions as well as the corporate sector can make significant contributions towards creating family-friendly policies without any loss of productivity. Some organizations may be doing it already, but what is needed now is that the state accepts full responsibility to devise and implement family friendly policies for the whole country.