Mauritius – “Sustainable development will not be attained without gender equality.” Joanna Berenger

Date: May 15, 2023
  • SHARE:

“Engaging oneself in politics should be selfless and aimed at creating positive changes at the personal, community and country level rather than done for personal interests.”

Joanna Berenger has a legal background, with a specialisation in ‘droit social’. When she returned to Mauritius after her studies, she worked in the field of sustainable development management. She has integrated the political party, Mouvement Militant Mauricien (MMM), in 2010 and she was elected as the President of the Youth Wing in constituency number 16 in 2016. Furthermore, she was elected as part of the Central Committee of the MMM in 2018. She then presented herself as a candidate for the national elections in 2019 where she was elected as a member of the Opposition. She is currently a member of the Sustainable Development Commission and the Secretary of the “Jeunesse Militante” within the MMM.

Berenger describes her overall encounter and experience with Gender Links as pleasant. Her first encounter with Gender Links occurred via a workshop on ‘Leadership and Women’ in 2017 where she met Anushka who was participating in a panel discussion. She vividly remembers how Anushka spoke about the difficulties that women face in being represented legally due to the lack of resources. She had then told Anushka that, the day she becomes a lawyer, she would be more than willing to help those ladies on a pro-bono basis. She thereafter passed her Bar exams and is currently undertaking her pupillage. Berenger was also a panellist at the 50-50 Symposium organised by Gender Links which focused on the political representation and active participation of women in politics. She claims that Gender Links’ staff has always been welcoming and clear in their explanations.

In relation to the causes that she advocates for, Berenger strongly believes in social justice, climate justice and women empowerment. Firstly, in relation to social justice, Berenger elaborated on the issue of housing. In 2020, many squatters had their houses destroyed. She describes how traumatic this experience can be as the house often symbolises a place of protection. According to Berenger, a systemic issue underlies the problem of housing in Mauritius: the reason why most people cannot obtain a house is because they cannot pay the deposit amount in the first place. Without adequate and proper housing, the cycle of poverty persists. One of the measures that should be prioritised is to create houses for those who really need it. The means test for genuine cases should not be lengthy and cumbersome.

Secondly, Berenger advocates for the protection of Mauritius’ vulnerable environmental zones which represent our natural treasures and help mitigate the aftermaths of climate change. In 2022, with climate change becoming an emergency, it is no longer possible to prioritise making money over the sustainability and livelihoods of future generations.

Within her political party, members affirm that any form of development should respect certain environmental guidelines. The MMM set up a Commission for Sustainable Development and they organised a debate in March 2022 on how climate change is impacting Mauritius and what are the solutions to be envisaged. Members of the Commission also work on research papers on pertinent issues, the latest being the economic consequences of the Wakashio oil spill on the southeast coast of Mauritius and how to surmount the challenges being faced. As per Berenger, the gendered dimension of this ecological disaster has been side-lined; many female fishers and gleaners have been greatly affected by the oil spill and it is complex for them to find alternative jobs. On the occasion of the International Women’s Day in 2022, the Commission on Women of the MMM also organised a workshop on sustainable development. One of the main conclusions from the workshop included that sustainable development will not be attained without gender equality. Berenger also elaborated on the concept of eco-feminism during the workshop.

Thirdly, Berenger wishes to begin an advocacy movement on the significance of the values of eco-feminism in Mauritius. She illustrated the concept by comparing the Earth to an apple tree where every human is supposed to benefit from the tree and enjoy the fruits thereof. Nevertheless, it serves no purpose for women to try and claim the same share of ‘apples’ as men if the apples have already gotten bad. The advocacy movement for gender justice as well as climate justice should be done in tandem. She cited multiple examples of eco-feminists during the workshop, for example, Vandana Shiva who stated that the Earth nourishes human beings in the same way that women nourish humanity. Vandana Shiva even denounced ‘the cartel of poison’ – people who promote the use of pesticides which affects the health of citizens are also those backing the production of medications and the running of pharmaceutical companies. Berenger also spoke about Wangari Muta Maathai who initiated the movement entitled ‘Green Belt’ to fight against deforestation.

According to Berenger, progress has been made in relation to women’s rights but patriarchal values and mindsets are still pervasive. Using the metaphor of a Lego structure during the same workshop, Berenger probed women to question the existing status quo in order to rebuild a more equitable society. She used examples from daily life, for instance, both little boys and girls should do household chores such that boys do not grow up believing in stereotypical gender roles. What children are taught at home creates a snowball effect on their future. Furthermore, parents should not be hysterical if their little boys want to play with a doll; contrarily, this can help the boy to grow up into a a loving father and a caring partner. The sexual orientation of one’s child should also be accepted as everyone can make choices and it does change in any way the love parents hold for their children.

Being involved in politics, Berenger affirms that she derives personal satisfaction from enquiring about and attempting to resolve the grievances of citizens. In addition, the MMM has its own particular structure which allows decisions to be taken more efficiently. In contrast, many decisions within the legal profession for instance are delayed because of the hierarchical structure and sometimes a lack of courage. Mostly men take decisions too; there was only one woman at the top-tier positions at the private company where she worked.

At the community level, Berenger states that it is sometimes frustrating when one does not have the tools to resolve specific issues of citizens. Berenger also 0observed that a system of clientelism is in place in the political arena in Mauritius: people believe that elected members of Parliament have the responsibility to help them financially or resolve only their particular issues. This can unfortunately encourage corruptive practices. Besides a lack of constant solidarity amongst citizens, individualism is also rampant and considerations for the common good or interest are slowly dissipating. Corruptive practices also promote a culture whereby citizens are kept confused.

Since long, Berenger has been advocating for many constructive changes in Mauritius. She believes that people in need should receive assistance from the government. The right people should be redirected to the right positions in the public sector and the nomination system should be halted. An independent committee consisting of members from the government and the Opposition and designated professionals can be set up in this regard. Recruitment interviews for top tier positions in parastatal and public bodies should be rendered public to ensure transparency. The Constitution should be reviewed as for instance, the Best Loser System (BLS) in Mauritius, is obsolete and electoral reforms inclusive of the proportionality system are mandated. Furthermore, in 2019, the MMM had proposed during their campaign an independent institution called the National Environmental Agency where the Director will be selected independently by a competent panel and not nominated. The Agency would have had the responsibility to ensure the preservation of our natural resources and heritage. In relation to disability rights, Berenger has been advocating for the live broadcasting in Mauritian sign language. A focus on construction projects solely deters Mauritius from attaining the objectives set for sustainable development.

Berenger has a strong message to send to young girls and women willing to engage themselves in politics. She asserts that engaging oneself in politics should be selfless and aimed at creating positive changes at the personal, community and country level rather than done for personal interests. It is possible to find a balance between the personal and professional world when one is involved in politics. It is hoped that male partners will continue to be supportive. Moreover, Berenger states that young people should stay strong despite rocks being thrown at them. They can use the rocks as a stepping stone to achieve their objectives. As long as they do not lose track of their goal which is aligned to their value system, their family and that their conscience is clear, young people will be able to strive in life as well as in politics. Furthermore, Berenger advises young people to abide by their own rhythm in life.

In terms of her future plans, Berenger wishes to complete her pupillage and to continue to shadow a legal professional. She also endeavours to assume her responsibility as a parliamentarian to the best of her ability, to be the voice of citizens in her constituency and to put forward and address their grievances despite a lack of resources. Since she believes that giving one’s time or a listening ear is one of the biggest gifts to give to someone, she aims to stay in close proximity with citizens of Mauritius.

Albeit the challenges that we are facing, Berenger believes that we should keep hope and think positive. As the Ubuntu saying goes, ‘I am because we are’ – we should all strive to bring about positive changes and keep in mind the common interest.