A giant step towards gender equality, Local Government Act provides for legislated quota

A giant step towards gender equality, Local Government Act provides for legislated quota

Date: May 29, 2012
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The passing of the new Local Government Act in 2011 may have opened a way for Mauritius to sign the SADC Protocol on Gender and Development.

Because of lobbying and advocacy around the then Local Government Bill and resultant constitutional amendment to allow for affirmative action as well as pressure from the Mauritius Alliance Network to sign, the Prime Minister of Mauritius committed to signing the SADC Gender Protocol. This he did at a meeting with the Gender Links Mauritius and Francophone Director, Loga Virahsawmy held in January 2012.

The piece of legislation does not only advance Articles 12 – 13 of the Protocol on governance but there are threefold benefits of this innovative Act. It will not only enhance women’s participation in politics at local level but also sets a creative model for the SADC region and open the way for Mauritius to sign the SADC Gender Protocol according to Dev Virahsawmy in an article to commend the Mauritius government.

Mauritius has positioned itself to be a model of democracy in the SADC region. But a true democracy cannot exist when 51.8% of its population, women, are not adequately represented in political decision-making processes both at national and local levels. Women currently account for only 6.4% at local government level and 18.8% at parliamentary level; a dent for a country that is otherwise showing progress against indicators for gender equality including against the 2008 SADC Protocol on Gender and Development’s 28 targets.

Mauritius is one of two countries, the other being Botswana, that are yet to sign the SADC Protocol on Gender and Development. However, Mauritius has demonstrated that it is committed to the ideals and targets of the SADC Gender Protocol, which encompasses and enhances existing sub-regional, regional and international gender instruments that it is a signatory to. This is includes the predecessor policy framework – the 1997 SADC Declaration on Gender and Development and AU Protocol on the Rights of Women. The two instruments call for countries to endeavour to achieve the 50% women representation at all levels of decision making by 2015.

The passing of the Local Government Act in 2011 is an example that shows the SADC Gender Protocol at work. The Act requires that political parties field a minimum of one-third of candidates of either sex for the municipal and village council elections.

The piece of legislation advances Articles 12 – 13 on governance which call on Member States to endeavour that, by 2015, at least 50% of decision making positions in the public and private sectors are held by women including the use of affirmative action measures as provided for in Article 5.

Mauritius had reservations about signing the Protocol because its constitution did not allow for affirmative action or positive discrimination. The main problem lay in Article Five, which provides for affirmative action and special measures to increase women’s representation and participation in decision-making positions. However, that argument has fallen away after the country adopted the 2011 Local Government Act. This led to a constitutional amendment allowing for gender neutral quota.

This has not been an easy road but a result of many years of lobbying and advocacy by gender advocates led by Gender Links, MWO-GEMSA, which is the Mauritius Alliance focal point and Women in Networking.

The Gender Links Mauritius and Francophone office has been collaborating with the Ministry of Local Government and working with municipalities and village councils as part of the Centres of Excellence in gender for local government initiative. This involves a ten stage gender mainstreaming and on the job training for the selected councils. The surrounding communities participate in village level workshops that raise awareness on key provisions of the SADC Gender Protocol.

The Minister of Local Government, Louis Herve Aime also attributed some of the successes to the work that GL had done. He highlighted how the article published in the media in July 2011 written by Virahsawmy on the impending Local Government Bill had contributed immensely in the campaign.

He said, “The article came at a crucial time, as there was some grumbling going on with regard to the participation of women, as contained in the new law. Some people said that it would be difficult to get so many women candidates while others wondered whether the measures were constitutional. The optimistic and upbeat way that the article was written was definitely a great help”.

The Prime Minister of Mauritius, Dr Navin Ramgoolam officially acknowledged Virahsawmy during the 2012 International Women’s Day celebrations on the work GL on gender violence particularly the Gender Based Violence Indicators Report – a comprehensive GBV study that looks at prevention, response and support. A flagship of the COE process is to ensure that local government is involved in addressing gender violence through integrating a section in their gender action plans.

He said “I do not know where Loga finds the time and the courage. She came to see me with the report (the GBV Indicators report) and I was shocked with the findings. I want all my Ministers to be involved with the report. I hope she is in the hall listening to me!”

The long road travelled – to get gender firmly on the local government agenda
During a Gender Links Workshop, prior to the 2005 General Elections when Dr Navin Ramgoolam was leader of the opposition he assured the hundreds of participants in the audience that his party was aware there were very few women in parliament, 5.4%. He added “The first past the post constitutes a major impediment for women while a proportional representation (PR) or a mixed system can be favourable to women… I hope that when we will be in power we will have the consensus to introduce a PR system in our electoral reform.” That set the tone for the electoral reforms that would follow.

Mauritius is a signatory to the SADC Declaration on Gender and Development signed in Mauritius in 1997, which had increased its target from 30% to 50% women in all decision-making positions by 2015 in line with the AU Protocol on the Rights of Women.

As part of its strategic communications training and media literacy series of workshops Gender Links trained female political activists to encourage them to run for political office and the general population to sensitise them to vote for women since it began working in Mauritius.

When a GL satellite office opened, local government was sighted as one of the potential sites of transformation especially to increase women’s representation and participation in governance issues particularly in politics. The work was elevated to the Centres of Excellence initiative that would be rolled out in a 10-stage long-term process in at least 10 countries following a groundbreaking research At the Coalface: Gender in Local Government.

In June 2010 soon after Herve Aime’s appointment as Minister of Local Government Virahsawmy, the Francophone Director of Gender Links had a meeting with him. She informed him of all the work that GL and Media Watch Organisation had been doing in all localities of Mauritius since 2007 around assisting them in developing gender aware action plans. He showed even greater interest when Virahsawmy told him that GL would help all the localities to implement their plans and to develop strategic campaigns. She seized the opportunity of expressing the concern of GL about Mauritius being a model of democracy and yet having only 6.4% women in Local Government. He listened but did not say anything on the matter.

GL continued to have a series of actions to promote gender mainstreaming in local government in line with targets of the SADC Gender Protocol on governance. This included village level workshops to raise awareness on these provisions.

For example, in the run up to the 2010 General Elections, Gender Links trained women of the Executive Committee of the Labour Party and the Mouvement Socialiste Mauricien (MSM). After the four day training the 40 women said they hoped that their party would give them tickets for the Local Government Elections. “If we can do campaigns to get men elected we are sure we can get women elected,” they said. The figure rose by a mere 1.7% from 17.1% women to 18.8%.

The work that GL was doing was getting recognition for the change it was making as well as contributing to influencing policy change and public education and awareness.

On International Women’s Day 2011 in front of hundreds of women at the Grand Baie Convention Centre the Prime Minister Ramgoolam committed himself, “I think that finally we have to put a quota system”. He thanked Virahsawmy for the work she is doing for women to join politics.

On 28 May 2011 GL organised a debate around the quota for women in the Local government elections which saw the participation of parliamentarians of the Labour Party, the MSM and the Parti Mauricien Social Democrate (PMSD) attended by former Minister of Gender Equality, Child Development and Family Welfare, Sheila Bappoo (now Minister of Social Security). The Minister talked about the impending electoral reforms for local government to make space for more women but she could not officially commit herself.

The New Local Government Act is passed – a milestone towards gender equality
October 2011 saw the presentation of the New Local Government Bill, which marked a revolutionary step in the history of the country. Government amended the constitution in order to push the bill through and allow for a gender-neutral quota in the Bill. Parliament reached a consensus as the opposition supported the amendment of the constitution.

This was a milestone towards promoting increasing women’s representation and participation of women in local government in Mauritius. This is in line with the SADC Gender Protocol, which calls for special measures to be put in place to facilitate women’s representation in decision-making positions. It opened the way for the country to sign the SADC Gender Protocol.

Soon after the Bill was approved at Parliament, the Prime Minister announced that there would soon be major electoral reforms for the general elections, which would radically change the electoral system for the next parliamentary elections scheduled for 2015 the deadline for achieving the SADC Gender Protocol targets and MDG3. This is proof that the long struggle of feminists to break down barriers to women participation in politics is starting to yield results.

Since the new Local Government Act that stipulates that there will be legislated quotas to encourage women to stand as candidates, GL has embarked on a series of training programmes on Media Literacy and Leadership Skills for Women in Politics as module in the COE process in rural and urban regions of Mauritius.

The main objectives of the training include giving women appropriate training, tools and skills to engage with the media such as talking on radio and television; to get access to media so that they can participate as critical citizens and use the skills to transform themselves and the lives of their communities. Campaign skills are a critical component of the training where women are taught to develop their own political manifestoes among other objectives.

While the legislation has been put in place the challenge is now for all especially gender activists to make sure that we do get the 30% women candidates in localities by encouraging women to join politics and overcome the barriers that prevent them from entering politics.

For example, they have financial constraints and family constraints due to their multiples roles. This involves conducting campaigns at night; lack of transport and the fact that some of these women are illiterate because they have not been to school.

Another challenge is that not all political parties are receptive to the GL training. For example Mouvement Militant Mauricien has verbally said that they do not need training after being approached by GL.

Changing lives – when one plus one equals three
Aime promised GL that they “can count on my full collaboration” in the roll out of the COE in gender in local government process. The Ministry has been supporting GL in its work.

Other government ministries have been supporting GL’s work with local government. In a letter to the Ministry of Social Integrity in May 2012, Suren Dayal, Virahsawmy thanked him for “collaboration, support and input for a two day workshop held for 10 villages of Moka.” This included providing catering for participants and administrative support from officials.

Virahsawmy added “The workshop was indeed a great success and we even came out with a list of potential candidates for village elections. We also hope that we will have more potential candidates as we must now walk the talk and make sure we have at least 30% women elected for the forthcoming village election.”

The Ministry of Environment had distributed medicinal plants, which allowed the workshop to have a session on gender and climate change.

Monitoring and evaluation conducted periodically by Gender Links through collecting profiles, beneficiary analysis, gender attitudes quiz to gauge whether interventions are changing mind-sets and knowledge quiz to gauge citizen’s knowledge of the SADC Gender Protocol shows that the work is contributing to changing people’s lives.

For example, Bamini Kheta who attended one of the workshops is grateful to GL. She had come to the workshop just to learn and had made a decision not stand as a candidate. But “after these two days with you and having the opportunity to participate… I can confirm that I will stand as a candidate for the next village election”.

Shyamla Naga Ramdoyal said that the training she got from GL “helped me affirm myself, have good communication skills as I need to talk to people a lot and understand their problems.”

A Hindu Priestess, Satyam Chummum who had a chance to follow a four-day GL Media Literacy and Women in Politics course had this to say. “I realised that I cannot dissociate culture, tradition, religion and the media with gender based violence. I read the newspapers and watch news with new eyes and listen to the radio with new ears.”

Where to from now?
It is not every day that we find that political leaders walk the talk. Both the Local Government Minister Herve Aime and Prime Minister Dr Navin Ramgoolam must be congratulated for the bold decision of making it legal to have at least 30% women in Local Government as candidates.

In March 2012, during his keynote address at the Mauritian Local Government Gender Justice Summit organised by GL Aime said “The Republic of Mauritius has a lot to be proud of as a nation. It consistently does well in international surveys in various fields, usually coming out top in Africa. It is one of the world’s oldest democracies, having an elected Parliament for over a hundred years and a local government of one form or another for over two hundred and fifty years. Yet a domain in which Mauritius has always fared poorly is the representation of women in politics, notwithstanding that education and employment opportunities are equitably available to both sexes.

Though no similar provision exists so far at the national level, the forthcoming local government elections will see a three-fold rise in women candidates in the urban areas, and more than a five-fold increase in the rural areas. The total number of women candidates will increase from under five hundred nationwide to more than two thousand.

However, the new legislation only guarantees that an adequate number of candidates will be women the proportion that end up being elected is still up to the population.

The Minister reminisced about Loga’s article that mentioned his meeting with her in June 2010 when she had expressed Gender Links’ frustration at the low percentage of women in local government. “She noted that I listened carefully, but did not commit myself. Of course, I had already provided for this problem in the first draft of the Local Government Bill. But it was too early for it to be made public. “

He mentioned that now that the Local Government Act is law it is up to gender activists such as Gender Links to encourage women to enter politics and added that “Knowing the track record of Gender Links, I have no doubt that you will be up to the task.”

GL has taken on the challenge in drawing up a strategy to contribute to getting more women in local government in the next village election scheduled for later in 2012. The organisation has been proactive in getting the Secretary Generals of the Labour Party and Mouvement Socialiste Mauricien (MSM) to send the list of all women on their Executive Committee. These women were trained on the Women in Politics and engaging with media modules developed by GL. Certificates are awarded and the public media has given the initiative a good profile.

GL has approached Ministers to suggest workshops in their respective constituencies and the possibility of them funding these workshops to facilitate buy in and solicit their assistance in getting more women nominated. An innovation, which involves the twinning of villages and sharing of experiences of the different villages in writing the candidate’s electoral manifestos has proved enriching.

The initiative to get more women representation and participation in local government can be sustained because the new law facilitates this. Organisations such as Gender Links have to continue to provide training and assist potential candidates. It is evident from workshops held by GL that they need assistance with information such as where to register as candidates and forming support groups among other issues.

This is a new chapter for women in politics in Mauritius and there is bound to be more reforms to come especially to facilitate getting more women in the 2015 general elections.

Mauritius may finally be putting pen to paper on the SADC Gender Protocol, which will go a long way in demonstrating commitment towards achieving gender equality by 2015.

The New Local Government Act sets the pace for the rest of the SADC region
Many SADC countries are either undertaking electoral law reforms or going through constitutional reviews and Mauritius provides a good example of how the legislated quota could be carved.

The approach of the New Act is more elegant than the imposition of a quota (in fact the word “quota” does not appear in the new legislation), it also safeguards the possibility of a domination of women in politics in the future as the provision ensures that there will be at least one-third candidates who are men.

The fact that Mauritius may be signing may leave Botswana as the only country that has not signed the SADC Gender Protocol. This does not augur well for a country that, like Mauritius, is relatively doing well against many indicators on gender equality including the 28 targets. The Botswana Alliance Network, which is led by the Botswana Council of NGOs (BOCONGO) gender sector has drawn up a strategy for getting the SADC Gender Protocol signed.

To find out more about the Local Government Act please read article by the Local Government Minister Louis Herve Aime that he wrote for the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service:


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