Mauritius records many gender firsts in elections

Date: May 21, 2010
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Quantitatively Mauritius has not yet made the 30% women in parliament committed to in the 1997 SADC Declaration on Gender and Development, but qualitatively the Prime Minister seems to be doing some catching up. If this trend goes on, we have every reason to believe we will attain the 30% women target, if not more, for the local government elections taking place later this month. Though the nation still has far to go, it is also heartening to see women breaking new ground in government.

Although women’s representation was worrying low as the results of polls rolled in, the government used the “best loser system,” to bring another three women into Parliament. Instead of the 10 women in Parliament voted in, the nation now has 13 women – making a percentage of 18.8%. A meagre increase of 1.7% is definitely sad for a country that positions itself as a champion of democracy in the region. However, at least Prime Minister Ramgoolam sent the right signal by making history in other areas.

The creation of a Ministry of Gender Equality is a model for Southern African countries, if not for the world. In Norway and other countries, there are Ministries of Gender but not of Gender Equality. Dr. Navin Ramgoolam sends a strong signal that equality, unity and modernity must prevail in Mauritius.

Gender equality covers a broad spectrum of issues concerning the elderly, disabled, women, men, girls, boys, people living with HIV, sex workers, gay rights, and such contentious issues as the right to abortion. Having worked with Minister Sheila Bappoo, we know she is sensitive to all problems related to gender. We have every reason to believe that she will translate the slogan of GEMSA (Gender and Media Southern Africa) “make every voice count and counting that it does” into action.

The creation of a Ministry of Social Integration and Empowerment is another step forward, with regards to the eradication of poverty, which affects mostly women. Poverty all over the world has a woman’s face. Combining social integration and empowerment is a winning formula and if programmes are well implemented, thousands of women will not only break cycles of poverty, but also be able to get equal access, benefit and opportunities to contribute and benefit from the formal and informal sectors.

In another first, a woman, Hon. Maya Hanoomanjee, was appointed to the portfolio of Minister of Health. Hanoomanjee must be congratulated for breaking stereotypes in accepting this huge and complex Ministry. We believe that with the support of her colleagues, stakeholders and non-governmental organisations, she will do a good job.

Hanoomanjee brings over 33 years experience as a high official in the public sector to this Ministry. She was also the first president (let alone a woman) of the Mauritius Revenue Authority. Health is a gender issue and very often women are more affected than men with all kinds of complex problems.

For example, stigma on certain health problems like HIV and AIDS make it difficult for women to disclose their status. Post Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP) has yet to be included in the HIV and AIDS Act. HIV and AIDs care workers are still to be recognised and a policy developed. Care workers are mostly women who, very often, have to leave their jobs to look after positive children, mother, brothers, sisters and close relatives. Economic justice for these women must see to be done.

During the electoral campaign both Prime Minister Dr. Navin Ramgoolam and Paul Raymond Berenger, now Leader of the Opposition, said that they will field more women in 2015. Ramgoolam told men to “pran kont” (be careful) as there might even be more women than men in the 2015 general elections, while Berenger said “une femme dans chaque circonscription en 2015” (a woman candidate in each constituency in 2015).

Yet, why should we wait for 2015 when the local government elections are behind the door?
The nomination of 30% women as Parliamentary Private Secretaries (which are equivalent to Junior Ministers) is a signal that the Prime Minister will make positive advances for the local government elections.

The local government elections will be an indication of whether our leaders meant what they said about increasing women’s representation, or if they only wanted to get women’s votes. After all, there were more women voters than men voters according to the Office of the Electoral Commissioner. The time to get moving is now.

Loga Virahsawmy is the Director, Gender Links (Mauritius and Francophone Office) and President of Media Watch Organisation-GEMSA. This article is part of the GL Opinion and Commentary Service.



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