Step forward for women in Mauritius

All across the Southern African Development Community (SADC), we hear a lot about the economic empowerment of women.

Yet little real action takes place. Few politicians walk the talk, and national budgets rarely turn rhetoric into implementation.

During his speech at the launch of the Mauritius “Business Unusual ‘ Gender and Economic Workshop” the Minister expressed concern that of the large number of people who recently lost their jobs in the Export Processing Zone (EPZ), 85 % were women.

As a result, the female unemployment rate on this island nation soared past that of male unemployment.

“The significant job losses in the textile and clothing sector where women accounted for more than 85% and the shedding of jobs in the sugar sector are examples of the vulnerability of women due to the globalisation process,” he said.

The Mauritius ‘Business Unusual’ workshop at which the Minister made the comments was part of a regional project initiated by Gender Links to expose business and economic reporters to key decision makers and entrepreneurs.

Participants in the workshops explore a whole spectrum of gender and economic topics including gender and the macroeconomic environment, planning budgets, trade, enterprise and globalisation.

The participants were at first skeptical, thinking that he was making the normal speech that any Minister of Finance makes on the eve of the budget.

Then the Minister went a little bit further and argued that the economic independence of the thousands of women who lost their jobs in the EPZ sector must be restored. “Government will stand by their side,” he said

I skeptically asked myself, “How can dignity and economic independence be restored only by sympathy?” Then, the Minister went on to say that, he was looking for potential areas of development for women. We then had a glimpse of hope. An unusual late night telephone call from the Minister showed he meant serious business. We were busy in the newsroom of L’Express editing articles of workshop participants when the call came in. He said he was serious when he talked about the economic empowerment of women.

The conversation did not stop there. “Send me a concrete and realistic proposal for the empowerment of women and I will put in the national budget of 2006-2007”.

We, of course, could not let such an opportunity pass. A whole machinery was spurred into action to decide what project to write, engaging experts and gender activists. We sent our project right on time before the presentation of the budget.

Our surprise did not end there. For the first time in the history of Mauritius, a whole chapter focuses on women – a budget with great sensitivity.

The tone was set in the budget. The Minister has decided to walk the talk with immediate commitments to action.

He announced an immediate measure to help restore the dignity and the empowerment of the thousands of women who lost their jobs.

“To address these issues, the empowerment programme will offer training and reskilling activities geared to women, while taking account of their need for more flexible working conditions and to have facilities for taking of their children while they are acquiring news skills,” he said in his budget speech.

The immediate release of five billion Mauritius rupees (US$ 150,000,000) towards this Empowerment Fund came as a breath of fresh air not only for women but also for the Mauritian society in general. A steering committee is in place to monitor the fund. Both women and men can access loans to set up small businesses.

Knowing full well that women need economic literacy programmes to help them build their capacity, the Industrial Vocational Training Board (IVTB) now offers courses tailored to women’s needs. Proper training and skills will help them to start their own businesses.

It is now for women to tap all the avenues offered to strengthen their abilities and skills to sustain themselves and their families. The budget also earmarks a tourist village where women will be able to sell their products.

So it shows that when politicians want to turn rhetoric into action they definitely can.

When women have opportunities for economic empowerment, it becomes a matter of business unusual. Women’s lives can drastically change when political leaders make the economic commitments to accompany promises, making our region a better place to live not only for women but also for all its citizens.

l Loga Virahsawmy is the President of Media Watch Organisation in Mauritius.

October 2006
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