Women in Work and Production in Mauritius and Southern Africa

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“How do we work together and create the spaces for us women to share our know-how, our experiences in our daily struggles within this patriarchal-capitalist global society while analyzing through a political lens the whole conjunction?” “If us women do not become our own liberators and take politics back, we will keep being these invisible hands allowing men to decide for us and organize our lives.” These are the words of Mercia Andrews, a longtime South-African political activist, to urge the audience present on the 27th April 2017 at the Nursing Network Centre in Coromandel, Mauritius, into engaging themselves politically.

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This One Day Seminar on “Women in Work and Production in Mauritius and Southern Africa” was organized by the Centre for Alternative Research and Studies (CARES), in collaboration with the Mauritius Nursing Association (MNA), the Private Sector Employees Union, and the Manufacturing Workers.

CARES is actively engaged in the promotion of political education and research in Mauritius for women, youth, trade unionists, workers, ecologists and activists, encompassing labour laws and the multi-dimensional crisis of capitalism in society and nature and building peoples’ led movement in the region, continent and globally.

On Thursday 27th of April 2017, in an enthusiastic atmosphere, the audiences comprising mainly of women delegates, many of whom are care-givers, free zone workers, airport employees, representatives of women’s associations, small-scale enterprises and cooperatives and nurses have responded positively to the seminar. Approximately 40% of the participants were nurses. This enthusiasm has driven Mercia Andrews, a member of the Rural Women Assembly (RWA) of the Southern Africa, to invite the audience into joining the alliance of RWA which already comprises members from 8 SADC countries including Mozambique and Swaziland. “Mauritius is part of the Sub-Saharan African countries,” she pursuits, “and you need to be part of this women coalition”. “Mauritius where land issues with regards to land grabbing for hotel development and mono-agriculture are already a reality, imagine now the day you have no land to grow food and access to seeds becomes a struggle, how would you deal with that?. “In this context, it is imperative that you become the guardians of land and seeds.”

The other main speakers the Seminar were Dany Marie, Ms. Veena Dholah, Ms. Aichah Soogree, and Ms. Brigitte Caussy.

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Ms. Dany Marie, the chairperson of the Seminar, coordinator of CARES on the Women in Work and Production initiative, presented the history of the emancipative path of women struggles in Mauritius. She highlighted how Anna of Bengal, a women brought to Mauritius as slave under the Dutch colony in 1695, participated in the first rebellion in the Mauritius history.

“If Anna of Bengal despite tortures and the harsh sea breeze she was left to, had not taken the courage to set fire in Fort Frederick Hendrick at Grand-Port, probably today we would not have been even free citizens” said Dany Marie.

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She stressed the vital role played by women as freedom fighters to liberate both women and men throughout the long and bloody repressive history of Mauritius from a slavery, indentured labour system, to post-independence era. When it comes to taking to the street to protest for social rights, Dany Marie said, women were always in the front-line alongside men, despite severe repression women have to face with regards to police force and societal patriarchy. Many lost their lives in struggles, like the legend Anjalay Coopen, a pregnant woman shot dead by the police in a protest for better working conditions. Homage to these brave and inspiring women, said Dany Marie, who thanks to them, we as women have some vital rights like the right to vote.

Ms. Veena Dholah, long-standing feminist of Mauritius, ecosocialist activist of Rezistans ek Alternativ and executive member of General Workers Federation (GWF), consolidated the fact that women not only faced inhuman treatment by slave masters during the colonial times, by employers in the current post-independence period but also daily structural oppression from their life-partners and social sphere. “Do you know that women did not until recently had the right to open a bank account in Mauritius, let alone buying plots of land?” she asked the audience when stressing the discrimination faced by women in Mauritius throughout its history. Prior to the 1975 students’ rebellion, and thereafter where access to free education became universal following a protest march by students along the famous Bridge of Grande-Riviere North-West, there was only one public and free college (the Queen Elizabeth College) for girls, as compared to three for boys.

Even today Veena said, women despite her emancipations, could not enjoy the same freedom as men. “How many of us could walk freely on the street at night without being harassed and called by names? How many of us could attend a political meeting and not receive an unwarm welcome from our partners? Yet when it comes to working at night as you nurses do, your partners will not even bother to wear a long face, for you are bringing money right?”. “Even today,” she continues. But then she said, “although working women earn a salary, in many Mauritian households the husbands still control that hard-earned money”.

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We live in a structured patriarchal society, Veena explained, where women are regarded as inferior beings and her exploitations, in consequence, are seen as natural by both capitalism and patriarchy. No women are born as care-givers; we become one through the norms of societies. That naturalization of the sexual division of labour has become an internalized oppression that women are reproducing it to their daughters who in turn will have to submit to their roles as care-givers. Numerous work as care-givers contributing to the national economy and the family wellbeing go undocumented and thereby become invisible, she said.

On her part, Ms. Aichah Soogree, columnist, journalist, part of CARES Team and National Committee member of Resistance and Alternatives presented the audience a tabulated form of statistics to show how massively women were recruited in textile factories during the industrialised era in 1983 to work under poor working conditions and for meager salaries.

Women contributed greatly to the so-called economic boom of Mauritius and their works were devalued and rendered invisible. Many undocumented works, Aichah said, constitute the labour behind the economic growth of Mauritius. Almost everywhere in the world, women receive a lower remuneration as compared to men for the same type of job. “In Mauritius, you would hear and read in the news that girls do better than the boys at schools”. “Do you have an idea what happen to these women after graduation, for we see only a handful of them at the management level or in the Parliament?” asked Aichah on a note of reflection. Very few women she said contribute to the policy decision-making of government and companies. On another note, Aichah talked about how social gatherings are disappearing and with that the shared know-how and knowledge between women, a custom well present in our society a decade ago.

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When she looked at the banner of RWA on which we could read “ We are the guardian of Life, Seeds and Love”, Ms Brigitte Caussy from the Mauritius Nursing Association (MNA) proudly said: “us nurses do our job with love and affections and all newborn babies have to pass through the hand of nurses upon delivery.” She pointed out that without the solidarity of men, the struggle of women for her liberation will be very tough. On another note, she raised the issues on how women suffering from disabilities are discriminated and marginalized and we should not overlook the idea that disabilities may happen to anyone of us. Mauritius has ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2010, yet nothing has been done to improve their livelihoods.

Mercia Andrews on her part asked the women in the MNA: “If you were to reorganize the functionality of the hospitals you work in how would you like it to be? I am sure you would want more hospitals sufficiently equipped and more free public services. Start dreaming,” she said, “rethink how we should reorganize a society differently”.
The slogan on the RWA banner Mercia went on, has a very deep notation. “Land; women can work the land, the field and can grow vegetables, but she cannot own the land, coupling to that the issues of land grabbing. Seeds can be looked at multiple levels – it could be the seeds of life and as Aichah said, even today women have to ask permission from their husbands for the right of reproduction. Us women, we are defenders of Life and of Love”. Mercia, talking about South Africa said “South Africa is a very violent country with numerous cases of rapes and domestic violence. Much of the violence are hidden and happen behind closed doors. How do we love the bodies that are different from ours?”

Patriarchy, Mercia Andrews emphasized, transcends the capitalist system, and it will not fade away naturally under socialism. It is everywhere from our homes, churches, temples, political organizations and our workplaces.

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“In South Africa, the rate of unemployment is around 40% and it touches mostly men. While women are working, how come men remain at the head of families?” she asked. Women still occupy the main position in the caregiving sector and this has not changed since the past centuries. Men are almost invisible in this sector, for it has been conceptualized that women are the natural care-givers. We have a care economy, Mercia said, based on voluntary work. “Imagine the cost of the national budget that should have been allocated to old age care if women were not taking care of elderly parents? The invisible workers are subsidizing the State and the care economy. Care workers are unregulated and enjoy no benefits with regards to good working conditions.” she added.

“How do we bring together the intersectionalities with regards to diversity and consolidate our struggle for liberation through sharing, learning and solidarity?, the question that marks the reflection on the necessity for the emergence of a women movement encompassing both Mauritius and Southern African countries.

After the successful One Day Seminar, CARES, together with our partners hopes to create the conditions to rebuild the women’s movement in Mauritius towards a new platform of ‘women in work and production’.
*Article and pictures prepared by Ms. Kashmira Banee and the CARES Team, Mauritius, 7th May 2017

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