Mauritius – “An increased representation of women in politics should not be pursued with the mere aim of a ‘politics of numbers’, but rather a ‘politics of ideas’ for greater social and gender justice.” Sheila Bunwaree

Date: May 15, 2023
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“Until and unless poverty and inequality are addressed, stability and social cohesion will be under threat. There can be no peace without justice”

Dr Sheila Bunwaree’s initial encounter with Gender Links began with a personal encounter with Loga Virahsawmy. Dr Bunwaree describes herself as a feminist, a scholar activist and shares many of the views that Loga Virahsawmy holds in relation to the promotion of women’s rights and the active participation of women in politics. Dr Bunwaree affirms that Gender Links had an instrumental role to play in the passing of the Local Government Act (LGA) 2011, aimed at increasing the representation of women in local government politics. Dr Bunwaree was also invited to attend various events organised by Gender Links over the years. Gender Links’ ability to gather senior male leaders of political parties around the question of a better representation of women at an important debate which took place a good number of years back, left an important mark on her. Dr Bunwaree could since that time appreciate better the challenges that both Gender Links and other women’s organisations faced to break the deeply entrenched structures of patriarchy. She however sees in the new generation at Gender Links a great sense of hope, competence and determination to transform Mauritian society into a more gender equitable one.

Dr. Bunwaree also attended the launch of the 50-50 campaign, entitled ‘Rezone’ in September 2021 which aims to promote gender equality and youth inclusion in the Republic of Mauritius. She sees the voices gathered at the meeting as going a long way to conscientise people further on the absolute necessity for a better representation of women in politics. The latter has to her mind become even more important now since the gains made on the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5-gender equality runs the risk of eroding rapidly in the post pandemic era. An intensified campaign for more women in politics is most timely and pertinent since the juncture we are at as a nation demands more than ever before that programming and policy making gets done with appropriate gender lenses.

In terms of her rich professional pathway, Dr Bunwaree has been involved in various profound and eye-opening projects. She started off her career as an economics teacher after reading Economics and Sociology (a joint honours degree) as well as an Msc Economics in social planning. Her interdisciplinary perspectives right from the start of her career gave her a competitive edge in understanding the different interconnections of societal functioning and operations. She joined the University of Mauritius as a lecturer after obtaining her PhD in the early 1990s. She has been particularly interested in issues of poverty, equality and exclusion with a gendered lens, and this partly due to her family background. Her father was a practitioner in the field of social welfare and community development. She used to accompany him in the late 1960s in various villages across Mauritius, visiting the different social welfare and community development centres. Seeing the kind of poverty prevailing at the time marked her as a young adolescent and she has always wanted to assist in improving the conditions of living of people. Her mother was a strong feminist who despite her own limited schooling, was bent to empower her daughters. Values of hard work, discipline and integrity were well inculcated to her by both parents. These have forged her to become the politician she has become, determined to infuse governance with ethics and gender justice. One of the most significant projects that she worked earlier on in her career, was the ‘Social Fabric Study’, which she led under the aegis of the Mauritius Research and Innovation Council (MRIC) in collaboration with the Tata Institute of Social sciences in Mumbai, where she looked at different aspects of the Mauritian society such as – education, poverty, housing, small and medium enterprises (SMEs) amongst others and how these could be improved so as to enhance justice and social cohesion in the aftermath of the February 1999 riots. Many of the issues in the study were addressed through a gender prism and recommendations made improved gender consciousness and policy making in the country since a national dialogue on the social fabric study was organised. The dialogue and ensuing conversations as well as policy making focused on sustainable solutions and empowerment, thus avoiding the fostering of a dependency culture within marginalised groups. Another major study which had a transformative effect in which Dr Bunwaree played a key role was the National Study on Exclusion, commissioned by the then President of the Republic of Mauritius, Honorable Cassam Uteem. This study too made several key recommendations which have had a bearing on policy making and lasting peace, in many ways enabling Mauritius to be cited as a model of multiculturalism and social cohesion.

Dr Bunwaree’s journey to empower the vulnerable and marginalised does not stop with theory and policy recommendations only. As a scholar activist, she ties theory with praxis. Dr Bunwaree set up a non-governmental organisation called the ‘Institute of Social Development and Peace’ (ISDP) with colleagues across faculties at the University of Mauritius, so as to address societal problems from an interdisciplinary perspective and in a pragmatic manner. During the year 2000s, the acuteness of the housing and poverty problem was revealed further when several families, mostly single mothers with young children, had to leave their precarious houses which were destroyed due to cyclonic conditions. Tents were set up in the Camp Le Vieux area. Dr Bunwaree visited the families under the tents. Memories of young mothers and children sleeping on wet mattresses, with little clothing, flies on the baby bottles, inadequate food, no shower and toilet facilities remained etched in her memory. This prompted her to create the project entitled ‘Lifting girls out of poverty’, where ten women colleagues from the different faculties at the University of Mauritius, each took one of the young girls from the tents under their wings as a form of accompaniment for their empowerment. Programmes revolving around their education and instilling an entrepreneurial culture were developed with them. She herself accompanied her girl for around three years and then the little girl and her mother migrated to France in search of a better future. The project was relatively successful since some of the women academics – the role models reported that the girls were after a few years well integrated in society and empowered. The ‘Lifting girls out of the Poverty’ project and the various other hidden forms of poverty convinced Dr Bunwaree, that she had to leave the ivory tower of the university to join the political arena. She first joined a small splinter party, but very quickly realized that her views of politics and the kind of transformation she wanted to bring were not in accord with the party which was hardly able to appreciate her feminist and ethical views.

Thereafter, Dr Bunwaree created her own party: ‘Parti Justice Social’. She stood as a candidate for the 2014 national elections in the constituency where she lives. On the campaign trail, she saw injustices, poverty, issues related to women (whereby they are thrown out of houses from their landlord, after being abandoned by their own partners). The women faced various forms of discrimination and inequality. These were reproduced across various levels and spheres. Dr Bunwaree was motivated to use politics to leverage the concerns of these women and to address them.

In relation to women’s participation in politics, Dr Bunwaree argues that an increased representation of women in politics should not be pursued with the mere aim of a ‘politics of numbers’, but rather a ‘politics of ideas’ for greater social and gender justice. She however emphasises the need for a minimum critical mass of women so as to make a difference. She sees the necessity of more work being done to assist women in combating the patriarchal structures of male dominated political parties. Alongside recognising the significant role that civil society organizations play, Dr. Bunwaree also ponders over how financial, technical and human resources, the right mindset (determination), openness of mind can provide one with more possibilities to address patriarchy. Gender in general is a cross-cutting issue; unless we can master it all, we will not be able to have a new development model, which recognises the pertinence of the care economy and that of the ecological question. She always vouches for a humanist ideology. She believes that the latter should be central to all political manifestoes and that the dignity of the person should always be first on the agenda. Without dignity, there is no humanity.

In relation to the challenges she faced in politics, Dr Bunwaree asserts that she was welcomed by many but not all, when she decided to join the political arena. She was perceived by some as being ‘bossy’, ‘someone who thinks she knows too much’ and lacking knowledge and experience about the political world. Many others thought that politics needed people like her with the necessary competence and integrity to bring change but not brave enough to say that openly. Efforts to shut her out are not lacking and she continues to push for the idea of ethical governance, to change the Mauritian society and she emphasised on human dignity while preparing for the electoral manifesto of the Mouvement Militant Mauricien (MMM) in 2019. She also oriented the development of the manifesto to people’s aspirations and needs by developing a new methodology where ‘voice’ was given to the stakeholders. Another challenge she faced was that she had to resign from her professorial position at the university to be able to engage in politics. She sees that as discriminatory and anti-constitutional. It also meant her foregoing her livelihood and becoming dependent on her husband financially. She did not like this situation at all but her desire to serve far outweighed her own person. She affirms that such rules which prevent people to engage in active politics should be reviewed. The latter would go a long way in attracting a new pool of women and youth in politics- new blood that the country badly requires.

Besides being in politics, Dr Bunwaree created an NGO called ‘People’s Voices Network’, in a bid to allow more people to voice out and to ensure collaboration with other NGOs. Women and youth in Mauritius are not afforded the opportunity to let their voices be heard. Very rarely do we find the media giving voice to women or youth on key issues affecting society. Despite forming part of 51% of the population, women are effectively rendered invisible. Furthermore, there are many young people with ideas, talent and critical thinking who are denied opportunities in politics.

Following her participation at the 2014 elections, and having seen so many injustices in the system, whilst on the campaign trail, she was convinced of the necessity of having the right legal knowledge to address certain problems but without falling into the trap of being too legalistic. This pushed her to enrol as a mature student for a law degree at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan), a full 3-year course from 2015-2018 and she graduated with a First Class. The trigger behind undertaking the law degree also concerned the issue of legal aid and the discrimination and inequality that she witnessed on the ground. She thoroughly enjoyed her law degree and it helped her as a socio-economist to enrich her interdisciplinary approach in addressing societal problems. In addition, she developed a special interest in environment law as she is convinced that our small island state is ecologically fragile. She is concerned about the fact that the wetlands in Mauritius are being utilised for construction purposes, leading to greater environmental concerns. In the aftermath of the Wakashio oil spill (an ecological disaster), Dr Bunwaree witnessed food solidarity shops being set up. She herself together with some other colleagues, distributed food packs to families around the region. The stories and narratives of affected skippers, fishers and women working in small jobs around the beach area were poignant, making it even more important to rethink the Mauritian development paradigm according to her. Dr Bunwaree affirms that the ecological disaster could be averted and sees it as some kind of ‘criminal negligence’ on the part of the authorities.

Moreover, Dr Bunwaree was directly responsible for the Educational Project for the Truth and Justice Commission set up in 2009. Visits were conducted in all prevocational schools and both children and teachers were interviewed. Amongst a host of issues, many children explained that racist and derogatory language were often used towards them and that they did not think the curriculum was relevant to their needs. As a result, Dr Bunwaree concludes that teachers’ training is largely flawed, simply not preparing teachers to teach children living in disadvantaged communities. While investigating whether education could be used a tool for ‘reparation’ and to heal historical injustices, she attests that the potential has not been tapped fully, particularly with regards to curriculum justice and teacher training. Unfortunately, only very few of the recommendations of the Truth and Justice Commission report have been implemented so far.

At a personal level, Dr Bunwaree stands by values and principles as well as her convictions. For instance, she chose to leave her comfort zone to engage herself in the political arena and to also become a vegetarian during her first year of undergraduate studies at the University in UK. She started to research on the links between vegetarianism and the environment and started advocating for greater environmental protection and justice. She also chose not to have children since she believes that having one’s own children can easily make people not see the misery of others and focus mostly on the advancement of their own children, even when others are not even having their basic rights fulfilled.

Dr Bunwaree has just completed a book on sustainability and the sustainable development goals, in which she and her co-authors ask the key question whether COVID 19 presents an opportunity for an alternative development paradigm-one where policies can be made and implemented to prevent the erosion of the SDGs, particularly goal 5 on gender equality. She is proposing to hold an awareness campaign in the context of the book launch before the end of the year so that citizens are made more aware of the urgency of an alternative paradigm, based on a feminist agenda. The book is not a pure scholarly work but rather an advocacy tool for a more just society where gender justice prevails. She intends to have the book translated in Creole to reach a maximum number of people.

Right now, Dr Bunwaree is working on another book on the theme of democracy and governance. This would be a compilation of some of her press articles with a long introduction explaining why we urgently need to overhaul the current political system, review our constitution and make a difference to people’s lives. In terms of her future plan, Dr Bunwaree will draw thematics from her latest work (forthcoming book) to engage people on the ground in seminars and debates so as to encourage a bottom-up development. Through this, she also believes that more women will be encouraged to participate in the political arena and thus assist in unshackling the deep patriarchal structures, causing so much harm to our society. She is revolted by the various forms of injustices in the Mauritian society and wants to create synergies and platforms to make women’s voices heard. Fighting communalism and contributing to building a strong Mauritian society also forms part of her struggle. People should know that their vote should not and cannot be bought. She argues that she will do everything she can to put an end to ‘money politics’.