No democracy without women

Date: January 1, 1970
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The next couple of years will see elections all around Southern Africa. Zimbabwean elections have been the most recent, Angola and Swaziland both have elections this year, and Malawi, South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, and Mozambique will go to the polls in 2009. In 2010, it is Mauritius’ turn. With the target of 30% and now 50% of women in decision-making, the question of women in politics is a vital part of the lead up to voting day.

Though Mauritian elections are two years away, the time is now to start making sure women take their place in leadership positions. After the 2005 elections, representation of women in Mauritian Parliament jumped from 5.6% to 17%, moving the country out of lowest to 5th place among Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries regarding representation in Parliament.
The increased number of women did not happen on its own. Political leaders, at a workshop organised by Media Watch Organisation-GEMSA and Gender Links prior to the elections, took commitments to promoting women in politics. Will this tiny island nation make the mark in 2010?
The workshop took place at a strategic moment, five months before the general elections. It attracted considerable media coverage. There was also some backlash from the then ruling alliance, who withdrew from the rest of the programme after presenting their views to the hundreds of women and men who came to hear them.
During the same year that Mauritius missed the boat, Tanzania joined Mozambique and South Africa by reaching the 30 % target of women in decision-making set by SADC.  The Tanzanian cabinet since has 26 % women in cabinet and Mauritius has 10 %. Two of their Ministers Dr. Asha Rose Migiro and Sakhia Meghji are in Finance and Finance and Cooperation respectively, and our two women Ministers are in Women’s Rights and Social Security.
The Parliamentary session for the year 2008 kicked off with a good omen for women.  Prime Minister Dr. Navin Ramgoolam suggested that there should be a quota for women and the opposition did not walk out.  He told the house that as from May 2008 all political parties will be contacted to find a consensus on this issue and the opposition agreed.
It is not very often that we see both sides of the house talking the same language.  Maybe they have realised that little tiger of the Indian Ocean is being sneered at for its poor performance of women in politics. Mauritius, considered the most democratic country in the SADC region, has indeed a lot to learn from other SADC countries when it comes to gender.
In the report from the Commission on Constitutional and Electoral Reform, 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.” A situation, he added, in which “half the population ends up with only a one-twentieth share of representation manifests a grave democratic deficit.”
At the 2005 workshop, Xavier Duval, who was in the opposition and is now Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Tourism stressed on the “chronic deficiency” with the low representation of women. He said that he believed in proportional representation as well as  he party list. “Let’s make the effort of party list so that more women can go into politics,” he implored political leaders present.  He also said that a woman could be nominated President or Vice President of the Republic, and “why not speaker of the Legislative Assembly?” he questioned.
However, unfortunately, politicians forget what they say.  All we got is a woman Deputy Chief Whip, Kalyanee Jugroo. With some variations, all political parties present at the 2005 workshop agreed that the electoral system of First Past the Post (FPP) has not helped women fairly represent women in politics.
Dr. Navin Ramgoolam, the then leader of the opposition, assured all those present that his party was very much aware of this deficit and “the first past the post constitutes a major impediment for women while a proportional or a mixed system can be favourable to women.” He added that, “I hope that when we will be in power we will have the consensus to introduce a PR system in our electoral reform.” 
Now that Dr. Ramgoolam is in power, we hope that he will make sure that a consensus is reached not only for the PR system but for making sure that women are included in the party list.  Rama Sithanen, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance who recently obtained his PhD on electoral systems can confirm that women do get access through pro-active measures, such as the zebra or zip systems, which guarantees parties field women as candidates.
We are three years late with the 30 % SADC Declaration on Gender of Development.  We have two years in front of us to know if political leaders will walk the talk. However, even if we reach the 30 per cent commitment that Mauritius is a signatory to; will we be  able to reach the 50 % by 2015 stipulated in the SADC Protocol on Gender and Development, which is being reviewed by SADC Heads of State this coming August?
Paragraphs 211 and 212 of the Mauritius Government Programme 2005-2010 are very much in line with Article 14 of the SADC Protocol. The Protocol talks about State Parties ensuring that legislative and other measures are in place to achieve the 50 %, while the Government Programme talks about mainstreaming gender and sustainable action for the social, economic and political empowerment of women.
In an interview for At the Coalface: Women in Local Government, Sheila Bappoo, Minister of Social Security and National Solidarity said that the curse of Mauritius is, “our patriarchal society coupled with the mentality we have at political party level. The lobbies, be it in terms of ethnicity, culture and religion is very strong and women do not form part of these lobbies. The male domination is anchored in our society.”   
The Labour Party amended their constitution in 2003 to make a special provision so that there are at least 30 percent of women in the party structure at all levels.  “The party’s Constitution is one thing but fielding 30% candidates is another thing as ethnic lobby makes it very difficult for women,” Bappoo added.
The Mauritian Militant Movement (MMM) is the only party in Mauritius that puts quotas for women’s participation in the legislative and local elections. Yet, the 20% stipulated in the party constitution has never translated into action.
While we may be looking two years ahead to election, we are also just four months away from the SADC Heads of State meeting that will include the review of the Draft Gender Protocol. The question only remains whether politicians will for once hold their heads and prove they can do it instead of the rhetoric and ink wasting? The time for action is now.
Loga Virahsawmy is the President of Media Watch Organisation in Mauritius. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service that provides fresh views on everyday news.

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