It is a sad day when a country with one of the strongest traditions on democracy fails to sign the SADC gender protocol because of its laws on child marriage.
In June 2016 the SADC Gender Protocol Alliance under the aegis of Media Watch Organisation and Gender Links facilitated a one day National Workshop with Government officials and NGOs to work on the updated version of the SADC Protocol prior to the Senior Officials and the Gender Ministers meeting from 20th to 22nd June in Botswana. Nobody from the Ministry of Gender attended the workshop. The SADC Protocol on Gender and Development adopted in 2008 has now been aligned to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), Beijing Plus Twenty and the African Agenda 2063. It is accompanied by a strong Monitoring, Evaluation and Results (MER) framework.
Mauritius did not sign the Protocol because of the words “affirmative action” which is against the Constitution. The Protocol went through different drafts whenMauritian Senior Officials and Ministers had the chance to highlight this anomaly but it was only on that day of 18th August 2008 that the then Prime Minister, Dr. Navin Ramgoolam, refused to put his signature on the Protocol.
At a technical meeting in October 2015, Mauritius showed positive signs as affirmative action was changed to special measures. But at the Botswana meeting the Permanent Secretary and the Gender Minister signalled that Mauritius will not be able to sign as 18 years is the minimum age permitted for child marriage in the revised Protocol. SADC Gender Ministers took a firm stand on child marriages at their meeting in June 2016. The revised SADC Gender Protocol highlights that no person under the age of 18 shall marry. This removes the previous qualifying clause that made this subject to national laws. But the Civil Status in Mauritius highlights that “A minor over 16 and under 18 can contract civil marriage with the consent
of his/her parents.” The Muslim Personal Council forms part of the Civil Status Act as there is a Muslim Personal Law which makes it difficult for the Prime Minister to sign the Protocol unless laws are changed.
ADDING INSULT TO INJURY
Child marriage has been the focus of several campaigns, especially in Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. UN Women played a role in lobbying for new law to raise legal age to wed and have worked with traditional leaders to annul marriages. Recently Malawi Chief annulled 330 child marriages before the age of 18.
The Prime Minister of Mauritius, Sir Anerood Jugnauth, adopted the SDG in New York on 27th September 2015. This was a historic moment as the SDG is a promise by the Government of Mauritius to reduce inequalities among its citizens. Goal 5 of the SDG is a standalone goal to achieve gender equality in all spheres of life. Women represent more than half of the population of Mauritius and yet among a few of the problems women and girls face are: child marriage, violence, rape, incest, maternal mortality, gender wage gap, political gap, early pregnancy and illiteracy.
Knowing the commitment of the Prime Minister on gender issues, we urge him and the Attorney General to look into the civil status act on child marriage.
To add insult to injury according to the World Health Statistics 2016 which focuses on the SDG, Mauritius does not seem to be doing well. From 70 women on 100,000 who died while giving birth we are not at 73. No woman should die while giving life. The under-five mortality rate is 5 per 1000 live births. Deaths due to HIV/AIDS have gone up dramatically per 100,000. We are now 5.5 compared to previous statistics of 1.0. Deaths due to tuberculosis among HIV have also gone up from 0.53 to 1.2.
Women have rights and this must be embedded across legal systems as well as proactive measures. It is important to note that at the Botswana Meeting Gender Ministers recalled activities on Combating Trafficking in Persons especially women and children. And yet in Mauritius the 2016 Trafficking in Persons Report highlights Mauritius as “a source, transit, and destination country for men, women, and children subjected to forced labour and sex trafficking. Girls from all areas of the country are induced or sold into sex trafficking, often by their peers, family members, or by businessmen offering other forms of employment. Taxi drivers allegedly introduce child sex traffickers to victims with whom they engage in commercial sex acts.”
DIRT UNDER THE CARPET
According to a survey done by Gender Links in June 2016 about 93% of respondents, mostly NGOs and Government officials, said they do not know what trafficking is let alone knowing if there are laws in place to protect victims.
Mauritius may have the best laws but if they are not implemented with proper monitoring, evaluation and good structures put in place, we will keep putting the dirt under the carpet. The Combating of Trafficking in Persons Act of 2009 prohibits all forms of trafficking of adults and children, prescribing penalties of up to 15 years’ imprisonment for convicted offenders. The Child Protection Act of 2005 prohibits all forms of child trafficking and the Judicial Provisions Act of 2008 prescribes punishment for child trafficking offences of up to 30 years’ imprisonment.
For once let us think about the future of our girls and women and work hand in hand. The future is today. Together we can “End all forms of discrimination against women and girls; eliminate all forms of violence against women and girls in the public and private spheres, including trafficking and sexual and other types of exploitation”. (extract from Goal 5 of the SDG)
Government has promised to reduce inequalities among its citizens comprising women who represent more than 50%.