Mauritius is an island that is famed for its beautiful beaches and for its reputation as an “African success story”. Since its independence from the UK in 1968, it has had tremendous economic progress, consolidated its democracy and maintained political stability.
Mauritius has held 11 general elections since independence. But the recent general elections highlighted one serious political failure that the country continues to grapple with: poor female representation.
While Mauritius has excelled in most democratic indicators, it has been slow to improve gender equality in politics. Women’s representation in the Mauritian parliament was 5.7% in 1983 and 1987, 17% in 2005 and 11.6% in 2014. In the latest elections, the figure rose to 20%.
The Mauritian political system is a parliamentary democracy based on the Westminster model. It has a legislature consisting of 62 elected members, a prime minister, who is the head of government, and a ceremonial president. There is no quota for gendered representation in parliament. Mauritius had a woman president between 2015 and 2018 and a woman vice-president between 2010 and 2016.
All prime ministers of the country have so far been men.
Mauritius’ constitution guarantees the equality of all citizens and ensures that women have the same legal rights as men. But as I argue in my paper, which examines the participation and presence of women in politics, cultural and societal barriers still prevent women from fully exercising their rights. The country’s political parties and electoral system are not gender-sensitive. Little space is made for women in the political field.
Symbolically, it is important to have equal representation of women in parliament since women represent slightly over 50% of the population of the country. Moreover, women form a distinct political group with specific interests that concern them. Women parliamentarians can also serve as role models to encourage more women to get involved in politics.
Over the past 50 years women’s lives have improved on a number of fronts. In education, both girls and boys have access to free education from primary level to university and pass rates are higher for girls. Women have better access to employment opportunities, especially in the manufacturing and services sectors. And they are more financially independent.
But political representation has consistently remained low despite Mauritius having ratified several international treaties. These cover women’s rights and gender equality. They include the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, Optional Protocol on Violence against Women, and the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa.
But unlike many other African countries, Mauritius has not adopted any policy of affirmative action to increase women’s presence in Parliament. In the last elections, 12 women candidates out of a total of 60 were fielded by each of the three of the main political groups that were competing to win.
Of the 24 ministers appointed, only three were women. There were three women ministers in the previous government as well.
For my research, I interviewed women politicians and leaders of women’s organisations to examine the factors that affected women’s political participation.
A major impediment to women’s political participation is that Mauritius is a conservative, patriarchal society. These values govern notions of respectable femininity where women are discouraged from adopting what is considered to be masculine behaviour and roles. This becomes problematic in the political sphere where aspiring politicians are required to be in the field a lot and to lead public meetings where the crowds are mainly men. As such, politics is viewed as inappropriate for women, and therefore, bad for the reputation of a family.
Mauritian society is also highly family orientated and women are expected to shoulder the bulk of domestic responsibilities. This leaves them with less time than men for political activities. Those that do end up in politics usually have strong family support and financial security.
The prevailing patriarchal culture also leads to discrimination against women politicians both overtly and covertly. A recent example was when Joanna Bérenger, a new politician, was described in a headline of one of the country’s most read newspapers as coming to parliament with “ek zak dan tant”. This Creole expression literally means “jackfruit in the basket”. Bérenger is pregnant.
Many Mauritians, especially women, found the headline offensive and it led to a wave of protest on social media and elsewhere on the internet. The main issue highlighted was the fact that Mauritian society still makes reference to women’s reproductive roles despite their success as political leaders.
Many of the women candidates in the most recent election were young, indicating an emerging interest of young women in political careers. This is encouraging.
One way to challenge male dominance is through coordinated action among women’s movements. Unfortunately, women’s organisations have not been able to forge a national consensus on the significance of women’s representation in the Mauritian parliament. As such, the women’s lobby has remained weak.
On top of this, Mauritius has failed to set up and implement mechanisms to increase the participation of women in politics. It needs a new electoral system to ensure a more equitable representation across the board. The country also needs a gender quota.
Ramola Ramtohul is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology and Gender Studies at the University of Mauritius.
First appeared in The Conversation.