Mauritius – “There is the need for a critical mass of women to change the status quo, in politics and in other roles.” Soonita Kistamah

Date: May 15, 2023
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“Providing the opportunity for women to participate effectively in politics should neither be seen as a favour on women nor simply a result of laws or quotas.”

Soonita Kistamah has more than 25 years of experience in the education sector. From 2007 to 2015, she was the first Director of the Early Childhood Care and Education Authority (ECCEA), a parastatal body responsible for the pre-primary sector in the Republic of Mauritius. Kistamah realized the significance of catering for the educational needs of young children to ensure a proper foundation. Furthermore, Kistamah has worked with various stakeholders in African and Asian countries involved in early childhood development and has participated in various education seminars and conferences worldwide. African countries focus more on the global perspective linked to education which is inclusive of the family, the role of women (health, wellbeing and conditions of living), gender, child development and education. Kistamah advocates for the adoption of such a holistic approach to human capital development in Mauritius, which relates not only to education but also to the empowerment of fathers, parents and the community.

One of her main achievements in the field of early childhood development has been the role of Lead Consultant for United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Uganda and Burundi from 2015 to 2016. During her work experience, she mentioned various productive discussions that took place surrounding the role of women in family life and the empowerment of the community. She was particularly surprised by the conditions of living of both women and children in some parts of Africa; some African countries are still facing challenges in relation to women empowerment, education, basic health care (hygiene, access to safe drinking water amongst others). Consequently, Kistamah firmly believes that Mauritians are lucky to have more opportunities such as free education, free healthcare and other facilities.

Moreover, Kistamah has brought about positive changes in the education sector development of other African countries as lead consultant for UNICEF. She has worked on program-based legislative framework on how the government can implement early childhood education in Uganda as well as Burundi. During this enriching work experience, Kistamah learnt and developed soft skills including communication skills and listening to people from the grassroots level to political leaders. She even met political leaders in Uganda who were convinced of the significance of early childhood education.

In terms of her involvement in politics, Kistamah was brought up in an environment where politics was closely linked to social work as her mother was involved in politics. She has been a candidate in 2015 for the general elections as member of the Mauritius Labour Party. Kistamah emphasizes that women are denied of their basic rights and other opportunities in politics, hence explaining why women’s representation and participation is still unsatisfactory in Mauritius. Being outspoken and firm in her views, she was offered the opportunity to become the executive member of the Mauritius Labour Party and thereafter she was elected in the politburo.

Having known Gender Links for a number of years, she was given the opportunity to attend training sessions on themes such as women’s empowerment and recently on women and youth in politics. Attending such training prior to elections enables women to navigate challenges they can face in their political career. Kistamah describes the training with Gender Links as very contextualized and a positive experience.

With regards to the challenges women face in politics, Kistamah refers to three key points. Firstly, given the folklore and political ‘culture’, many voters would prefer to see and elect a man. A woman candidate or leader may appear more alien to voters. Secondly, although many male party leaders or candidates may be cooperative, there still exists deeply rooted prejudices against women. For instance, Kistamah asserts how many men want to have the last word and control over how to campaign for instance. Thirdly, it is not the case that women are not supportive of each other. Indeed, many women clubs were supportive and invited Kistamah as guest speaker during social and political events. As a result, Kistamah refers to the patriarchal nature of the society we live in. Very often, men employ certain strategies to discourage women whether in politics or in other fields of work. It is paradoxical because the very same men recognize the potential of women whom they send for door-to-door campaigning. Women are also minimally involved in corruptive practices, which explains why they are often denied opportunities in the political arena. Kistamah affirms that indeed, most women in politics are very committed and task-oriented.

Consequently, Kistamah asserts that there is the need for a critical mass of women to change the status quo, in politics and in other roles. Providing the opportunity for women to participate effectively in politics should neither be seen as a favour on women nor simply a result of laws or quotas. Young girls and women should persevere. They should not be afraid to speak up, be forceful and challenge the status quo. Kistamah is convinced that incremental changes in the law will not yield success in relation to women’s representation and participation in politics. Instead, a society committed to gender parity should have a 50/50 quota to increase women’s representation and participation in politics.

Besides her passion for education and politics, Kistamah has also been the secretary of the NGO ‘The Women Achievers Association’ for nearly 20 years now. Various empowerment programmes were conducted for women as well as education-based programmes for children. She has also been the secretary of the Coromandel Community Centre for nearly 10 years and has actively endeavoured for the local community in collaboration with other NGOs. In addition, Kistamah is still working with international research organizations for example, the International Development Research Centre (IRDC), a Canadian corporation that funds research and innovation. She was a member of the evaluation panel which involved calls for proposals from NGOs in research where she assessed and recommended which proposals to fund.

In terms of her future plans, Kistamah will continue to advocate for the increased representation and participation of women in Mauritian politics. She hopes to see the Mauritian Parliament with 50% of women MPs. She continues to work as Consultant in the field of early childhood development for international development organisations. She is also on the lookout for consultancy work with various international development organizations and continues to be involved in social work. Pointing to the issue of a lack of adequate research studies in Mauritius, Kistamah recommends more visibility in terms of the outcomes of research being done in other countries which can then be adapted to the local context. Valid data and statistics represent a baseline which can guide decision-making, prompt reflection and awareness of certain issues and indicate improvements and the way forward.