As Covid-19 continues to create uncertainties throughout the World and in Mauritius, UN International Women’s Day 2021, on the theme: “Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world”, highlights women’s and girls’ efforts to cope with the pandemic and to shape a more equal future.
The Global Agenda
The substantive changes for women’s rights and equality have not happened in a vacuum. At the global level, the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848 remains amongst the first women’s rights conventions recorded in history that launched the women’s suffragist movement. During this event, Elizabeth C. Stanton, chief philosopher of the woman’s rights and suffragist movement, stated: “We are assembled to protest against a form of government, existing without the consent of the governed—to declare our right to be free as man is free, to be represented in the government which we are taxed to support, to have such disgraceful laws as give man the power to chastise and imprison his wife, to take the wages which she earns, the property which she inherits, and, in case of separation, the children of her love.”
Progress: Landmarks in Women’s Rights History in Mauritius
More recently, a delegation from Mauritius comprised of government and NGOs was represented at the Beijing Conference in 1975. The Mauritius Government adopted the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action with twelve critical areas of concern to be addressed by Member States party to the Convention. The Platform for Action shaped the national agenda in addressing women’s issues relating to education, poverty, economic empowerment, legal measures, violence against women, the girl-child, and the environment. The changes in Mauritius have been progressive and women have been key actors advocating for reforms in the law and policies of successive Governments, through community action and policy advocacy.
One of the most vivid memories of women’s advocacy remains the struggle of Anjalay Coopen, a female agricultural labourer who was killed during the sugar estates uprising in 1943. Women’s activism peaked in the 1970s with activism around changing patriarchal regimes under the Civil Code and the Immigration and Deportation Act which allowed for the deportation of foreign husbands of Mauritian women. Among the major changes brought forward to improve the condition of women in Mauritius was the amendment of the ‘Code Napoléon’, which imposed the status of “a minor” for married women. Amendments to the Code recognized the equal status between women and men. In the 1980s, further adjustments enabled women to open bank accounts without the consent of their husbands. Moreover, in 1999, additional amendments to the law established different marital regimes sensitive to women’s rights.
Other important changes towards gender equality include voting rights in 1956; the appointment of the first female Member of Parliament in 1963; the setting up of institutional structures such as the Women’s Desk in 1976, and the enactment of legislation to protect women from Domestic Violence in 1997.
Adopting a Paradigm Shift: From Women’s Empowerment to Gender Equality
Unequal gender power dynamics are now understood to be a root cause of gender inequality. This has resulted in a paradigm shift from a women’s empowerment approach to gender mainstreaming. In this context, Mauritius adopted a National Gender Policy (2008) to mainstream gender in all sectoral policies with the support of the UNDP, and activism from all quarters. This paradigm shift has triggered significant changes in the situation of Mauritius in relation to various indices pertaining to Gender Equality.
Since then, Mauritius has performed relatively well in various indices. It is one of the top six economies concerning gender equality in Sub-Saharan Africa and has fared well in areas including the public service where the proportion of women in the most senior positions in government services was 37% and 39% in 2018 and 2019 respectively. Furthermore, female employment increased annually by 2% whereas male employment increased by 0.4% from 2008 to 2020.
Unfinished Business: Gender Equality in Mauritius
While there has been some progress on the socio-economic front, gender equality remains an unfinished agenda. The Protection from Domestic Violence Act has not curbed gender-based violence. Moreover, it is reported that 24% of women in Mauritius have experienced some forms of violence in their lifetime, and breaches of Protection Orders by perpetrators of domestic violence still exist.
In addition, as at March 2020, there were more unemployed women than men. For example, among 326,487 employees in large establishments, 61% were male. This is despite unemployed women being generally more qualified than their male counterparts, with about 60% of them holding at least a School Certificate compared to 48% among males. Gendered livelihood pathways also remain largely determined by the educational pathways. Women are oftentimes skewed towards sectors which in turn contribute to their employment choices. In 2020, it was noted that more women were enrolled in topics such as administration, accounting, as compared to information technology and engineering.
COVID-19: a pandemic exacerbating inequalities
According to António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations, “The Covid-19 pandemic has erased decades of progress towards gender equality. From high job losses to exploding burdens of unpaid care, from disrupted schooling to an escalating crisis of domestic violence and exploitation, women’s lives have been upended and their rights eroded.” Women of the Republic of Mauritius were not spared by the negative effects of the global pandemic. An analysis of the sex-disaggregation in some employment sectors in Mauritius reveals that a higher percentage of women are employed in the tertiary sector which has been considerably affected by COVID-19. Similarly, between March and June 2020, the number of reported cases of gender-based violence increased significantly, as compared to the same periods in 2018 and 2019.
In 2020, UNDP Mauritius has extended technical and financial assistance to the Prime Minister’s Office towards the conceptualisation of a Gender-Based Violence Mobile Application “Lespwar”, which allows its users to receive quick assistance from the police and other support services in cases of domestic violence. UNDP Mauritius also provided support to different stakeholders with a view to implementing a National Strategy and Action Plan Document (2020-2024) on the Elimination of Gender-Based Violence (GBV). UNDP will continue to extend support to sectoral Ministries and the Parliamentary Gender Caucus, through its 2020-2023 Country Programme, to implement gender mainstreaming strategies in all policy, programmes and processes, so that SDG5 is achieved as part of the 2030 Agenda.
According to The World Economic Forum (2019), achieving gender equality will probably take another 100 years. With new gaps appearing due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, it has become high-time to renew efforts to make women leadership a powerful element in the build back better process. In his address on the occasion of International Women’s Day 2021, Achim Steiner, Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) states that: “It is time to finally fully harness the power of women’s leadership to realise a more equal, more inclusive and more sustainable future”.