Patrick Pillay

Patrick Pillay

Date: June 5, 2012
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Eight years ago during a stay in hospital undergoing treatment, a nurse friend came to Seychelles Minister of Health Patrick Pillay with a baby boy. “This baby is an orphan, I can’t think of anybody else apart from you who can care for and nurture the child,” said the nurse. Pillay dismissed the matter as a joke.

On his return from Reunion Island after a round of surgery Pillay went back to the same hospital for recovery. The same baby, in the same hospital, in the arms of the same nurse came back to him. “When you are married you can negotiate whether you want to adopt a child or not but when you are unmarried with two big children the scenario is completely different,” he pleaded. But when Pillay left the hospital he had his luggage in one hand and a baby in the other.

Pillay comes from a family of eight girls and four boys. “Although the girls are greater in number my parents made sure that there was no discrimination,” he recalls. Gender division of labour? Pillay has never heard of that! “We all had to share the household chores. We had no right to say ‘sa enn zafer madam sa’ (“these are girl’s jobs”). The same went for our education. We all went up to university.”

The Pillays lived on a farm and the eleven members of the family worked as a team. They took turns milking the cow, sieving and selling the milk. The same applied to the tobacco plantation, which the family owned. Before going to school they all had their piece of land to water. After their homework in the evening they all had to help their father to hang up tobacco leaves in a shed to dry. The dried leaves would then be tied in bundles ready for the factory.

Little wonder that when Pillay’s girlfriend left their three-year-old daughter with him to look after he did not panic. “I had a few complaints that I was braiding the hair of my little girl too tight and her braids were always twisting!” Otherwise, Pillay enjoyed looking after her, bathing her, helping her with her homework and putting her to bed.

When another girlfriend brought their four-year-old son to his doorstep, Pillay accepted his responsibilities with a sense of dejevu, but this time with the help of a domestic worker. Still, Pillay kept his privileged role as mum and dad.

Having succeeded so well with his two children, Pillay had a fair bit of experience to draw on with his adopted son.

“Of course, I had problems returning home from my convalescence with a baby in my arms. My 17- year- old daughter refused this new member of the family. She closed her bedroom door in my face.”

But Pillay cared for his baby day and night. “Not breast feeding, of course, but I gave him his bottles, changed his nappies, bathed him and put him to sleep. It did not take long for my daughter to get attached to the baby. She soon became a surrogate mother and nothing will separate them although she is now married and does not live with us.”

Now that Pillay’s daughter and eldest son have grown up, left home and started families of their own, his youngest son is happy to have dad all to himself. A man who exudes tenderness and care, and is well known in Seychelles for his gender sensitivity, it is little wonder that Pillay’s ministerial postings have largely been in the social ministries such as education, then youth and culture and now health. Globally, to the extent that women are in the executive, these are the kinds of portfolios in which they tend to be more numerous.

In Seychelles, Pillay said having gender balance enriches debate:

There cannot be one without the other. We need a balance. Men and women come from different planets. They both bring different lights, different voices, and different angles. Before 1997 we had different schools for boys and girls and now all our schools are mixed from pre-primary right through to polytechnic. Even our three private schools are mixed. In Seychelles we make sure that there is a gender balance across the board. The fact that women are very strong at all levels of Seychelles society has made men more aware and more sensitive to gender issues. Men too are raising these issues. The situation is changing; social roles are changing. More men are looking after domestic affairs. They look after children; they accompany children to hospitals or to schools. It is not uncommon to see men walking in the streets with their babies. We could not imagine such a scene some time back. Women are also becoming visible in male dominated careers. We now have women pilots and women seafarers in Seychelles. Women have found their place in information technology, which was male, dominated. They are in engineering. The balance is there.

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