? To what do we owe the pleasure of the presence of UNIFEM at this workshop on the empowerment of women in politics?
One of our programme areas in UNIFEM is democratic governance, peace and security. Ensuring the equal and effective participation of women in politics is very much part of our brief. Secondly, UNIFEM provides technical and financial support for work on the empowerment of women and gender equality. Thirdly, and also very importantly, the United Nations (UN) resident coordinator is responsible for bringing in agencies that are not necessarily resident in Mauritius, but which have the technical expertise to make the UN’s work as effective as possible.
? And what have you noticed about the situation in Mauritius in terms of the representation of women in politics?
We’ve been informed by the minister of Gender equality, child development and family welfare that progress has been made, in particular that there’s been a 2% increase in the representation of women in politics. She also recognizes that it’s not enough and that work needs to be done.
? What is UNIFEM’s position on quotas?
Quotas are a form of affirmative action. The Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, which is the international bill of rights for women, specifi cally states that governments should consider affirmative action policies and programmes with a view to ensuring an increase in the number of women in these positions. Suffi ce it to say, any type of affirmative action needs to be closely monitored because we want equality but we want it in the context of equity, good governance, etc. We’ve passed the stage where people get into positions of power for the sake of power.
? Over and above the need to correct certain imbalances, why exactly do we need more women in politics?
If I may ask, why do you believe we need to see more women in politics? It’s a moot question. And it’s important to point out that while women have certain skills and abilities that men don’t, it’s simply a basic human right that women be out there enjoying the same privileges as men and using that power constructively to transform the values and the norms of the power game. This would have the additional benefit of giving men the chance to do things differently.
? You describe politics as a “power game”. Isn’t it more urgent to change the nature of the game? If not, won’t women just play by the same old rules?
The nature of the game does indeed need to be changed.
But not all women take on male values when they accede to positions of power. Many of them resist. The problem is that their resistance begins to ebb after a while. They become tired.
That’s when they tend to take a backseat and open themselves up to criticism about ineffectiveness. The structure of the system is simply not conducive to them doing what they’re supposed to do. If, for instance, a woman makes a point of talking about issues like gender equality and women’s rights, people will just say, “Oh, there she goes again”. That’s why you need a critical mass.
? And what is that critical mass?
The basic minimum to ensure that the right decisions are made about this particular issue is for parliament to be composed of 30% of women. When only 15 or 20% of MPs are women, it’s very difficult for them to make their collective voice heard. On the basis of the right to participate however, women represent 50% of the population and therefore deserve equal participation. Fortunately, our heads of State have heard us which is why this objective is part of the Protocol to the African Charter on Women’s and Peoples Rights.
? They may have heard you but have they actually listened? The fact that in 2010 women are still grossly under-represented in politics suggests that they haven’t.
The Mauritian government, through the ministry of Gender equality, has launched a campaign on the issue with the view of changing the attitudes and stereotypes pertaining to men and women. If this campaign is successful, you and I will be having a very different conversation in five years time.
? Let’s hope so. But campaigns are a dime a dozen.The hard part is changing mentalities. Where’s that change going to come from?
It has to come from all sectors. That’s why we’re looking at how different countries have succeeded in establishing structures, policies and legislations promoting gender equality and the empowerment of women. We also recognize that a lot of work needs to be done on attitudes and practices as they mitigate against the implementation of these measures. Strategies for changing attitudes exist. Look at the struggle against HIV/ AIDS where real progress has been made. We have to get out there and see what has worked in other areas.
?What about balancing the demands of their personal and professional lives?
Well, going to parliament, providing services to the community, doing work in one’s constituency, etc. all take a lot out of a person. If we don’t think strategically about our lives, one area or another is bound to suffer. More often than not, our families are the ones who pay the price. So it’s crucial to decide what’s important in your life in order to get the work/life balance just right. It’s also worth bearing in mind that what’s important today might not enjoy the same prominence in the future. Take time to heal, to recover and to reenergize because that’s the only way to be effective.
? Let’s end with the million rupees question: what do women want?
Women, at least the ones I’ve spoken to, want a life free from violence. We want to be able to go into a job interview knowing that we’ll be judged on our skills, capacities, knowledge and expertise and not on the basis that we might leave the company because we’ve fallen pregnant. We also want to be active in politics, whatever the level, and be treated with respect and dignity.
Interview by Nicholas RAINER