Lovena Sowkhee – Mauritius

Lovena Sowkhee – Mauritius

Date: June 26, 2012
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Gorgeous! Absolutely gorgeous! That is the thought that first comes to mind when one sees 31 year old Lovena Sowkhee in her well tailored outfit. Many have made the mistake of thinking that’s all there is to her; a mistake that has prevented one of the country’s most talented councillors from progressing to national politics.

A municipal councillor from 2000 to 2005 in the Beau-Bassin-Rose Hill area of Mauritius, Sowkhee was the only non parliamentarian asked by her party, Mouvement Militant Mauricien (MMM) to speak in a public gathering on May Day 2005. Her leaders asked her to wear a sari because this is “how a woman (of Indian descent) should look in public.” Putting party first she obliged and agreed to be the crowd puller. The event attracted huge media publicity. She got a seat in the central committee of her party soon after.

But when it came to giving tickets for candidates in the July 2005 general elections, Sowkhee had a rude shock when her name failed to appear on the official list. All of a sudden her sari was not needed any more. Her competence as a lawyer apparently had nothing to do with politics. She did not “have the right profile.” Worst of all, her party claimed to have “indecent pictures of her with an old man” and therefore could not let her stand as a candidate.

Sowkhee has been attracted to politics since her school days. A social activist, she served as class captain and head girl. Her interest in gender justice encouraged the young Sowkhee to study law in England. She became involved in advocacy for women’s legal rights. In 2001 Sowkhee was appointed to a ministerial committee to review all laws in Mauritius pertaining to women. NGOs called her to make presentations and talk on the Domestic Violence Act. But she never thought that she herself would be subject to so much psychological violence in the political arena.

“This was so absurd that it was too much to believe. I considered it a joke and laughed.” But back home she could not control her anger and her tears. “I had been used by the party which I joined to fight communalism, to fight discrimination and now I was the one being discriminated against. Giving me a ticket meant that a man would lose his. Socio religious groups have a stronger lobby and they decide who should get tickets. Women do not fall into this category,” Sowkhee said.

The young politician had no choice but to slam the door of her party. But she could not stay out of politics. Believing that “the job must be done from inside with help from outside” she accepted a ticket offered by the opposition Labour Party to be a candidate for the municipal elections in Beau-Bassin-Rose-Hill.

Mercifully her former party did not attack her during the electoral campaign. “Maybe they knew they were losing and there was no need for character assassination. They were quarrelling between themselves to see who would get elected,” she reflected.

The Labour Party and backbone of the ruling Social Alliance (AS) has among the most progressive gender provisions in Mauritius, although it has fallen short of introducing legislated quotas (see Chapter three). “At least now I am respected for what I am: A professional woman fighting for gender justice. I wear my sari according to my whims not on the order of a political party. I have a voice and my voice counts.”

She cautions, however, that even in the progressive environment of her current party in which women are encouraged to participate in debates “we must be more careful than men. One single mistake and we are looked down upon.”

Building on her previous experience, she has knuckled down to work in her local constituency. “I started a kindergarten where parents could leave their children during holidays. This allowed them free time to look after themselves or do their shopping.”

In an island that markets itself as a cyber leader yet where the majority of people, especially women, are not connected to the Internet, Sowkhee plans to make IT work for women. “The computers are here. Women must be trained to use them.” Sowkhee believes that more collaboration between central government and local government will help projects move faster.

Reflecting on her experience in local government she says that “sexist remarks and unwarranted jokes about women are at their best in politics.” If these attitudes are not changed, she said, it will be impossible for women to succeed in local politics, let alone “get a foot in the door” of national politics.


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