On the 31th of May 2021, Ki Nouvo Moris, broadcasted on every Monday live on Facebook, addressed the question of women’s right to choose in line with International Women’s Health Day. Despite the battles won in respect with women’s rights, this theme remains a major issue and a lot still need to be done specially in terms of recognition of women’s right over their body and sexual reproductive health.
Fanny Rengasamy, the host of this debate, received Anushka Virahsawmy, the Director of the NGO Gender Link, Cindy Trevedy, from AILES, and Manjusha Coonjan. Other contributors to the debate intervened through video interviews done priot to debate; Veena Dholah, Nathalie Rose, both activists from Rezistans ek Alternativ ; and Ameegah Paul.
Fanny introduced the theme by enumerating the roles represented by the woman’s figure and points out that even if life is not easy in general, it is actually even worse for women as they have to endorse a considerable number of responsibilities. She insisted on the sense of this debate in line with the International Day of actions for woman’s health by making the following statement :
- In 2021, we live in a society still patriarchal where women’s health which includes menstrual cycle and sexual health and right to abortion violence and inequality she faces in a society which recognises her gender is not recognised.
She related some statistics :
- Everyday 830 women die by inevitable causes linked to a pregnancy or a delivery. 225 millions of women , mainly in developing countries, want to avoid or delay a pregnancy but don’t have access to contraception.Every year 16 millions of girls aged under 18 become mothers and 90% of them are already married and this reduces their chance to get access to education or employment and this increases the risks linked with their health state or their children’s health.
The different forms of violence.
Anushka revealed some statistics on the different forms of violences comprising emotional violences and sexual violences, economic violence which is silenced. Wryly, she applauded the fact that conventions are signed without being put into practice and ended this touch of sarcasm by alluding to the alarming gap which is growing in a patriarchal society where the terms sexual reproductive health, gender mainstreaming and women’s values are not understood.
- The gravity of feminicide and incredible acts of violence against women brought by Covid are confirmed by the following statistics : in 3 weeks 15-16 cases were registered per day in a small island considered as a high income economy. Moreover, she joined Veena’s views* on sexual health by calling attention on abortion which is illegal, onto HIV, STD’S (sexually transmissible diseases) and the menstrual health’s taboo, fooling ourselves accordingly since not being able to understand, we refuse to see further than our thoughts.
She emphasized that schooling does not cater for menstrual health related issues as there is no sexual education in an era where girls are menstruating at an early age. She then took the case of the NGO she manages, a shelter for women who experience violence; in 2021 there is still a serious issue in terms of mind poverty as for some of those women experiencing violence, thinking is their fate. Believing that advocacies and talks have no meaning if real actions are not taken, she encouraged us to realize that violence against women is not miscellaneous news but actually a headline.
Stigma, caring and empowerment of women drug users and sex workers.
Cindy, team leader at AILES gave an outline of the aims of their struggle against stigma and discrimination still highly present in public health institutions; the peer educator’s main role is encourage people living with HIV and sex workers to seek medical help. She admitted that the medical staff themselves still attach stigma to patients, thus nullifying the efforts invested in the education of the population. They apparently tend to associate every health disorder felt by those women to dubious practices whilst physicians are supposed to treat pathology and not judge patients’ private lives.
- Most people living with HIV don’t realise they need medical help and AILES provide them with the reasons why they need those medicines, inform them about their rights, organise focus groups and empower them to be autonomous enough to react to the way they are treated in health institutions.
The biggest difficulty for a woman to take care of her health.
Dr. Manjhusha Coonjan, physician, correlated the fact that women don’t take care of their health to numerous dynamics but named time as the major factor;
- Being housewives or professionals, women play so many different roles and first and foremost ensure everyone’s good health except themselves. Furthermore the heavy load of household work and child related responsibilities even in couples are demonstrated by the following figure : 80% of mothers can be seen accompanying their child to the paediatrician in the waiting room.
Types of discrimination experienced on the ground
Cindy related that women won’t come forward, for an HIV test for example and prefer to hide themselves. She opined about feminisation and the young users of illicit products, the counseling and clean material provided by AILES and questioned illogical actions;
- There are residential centres, detox centres but only 1 for women and 2 for men. In addition, for a woman to receive the treatment of substitution, they have to wait for a number of women to be reached to form a group but it is not the case for men.
She focused on the immediate help that those women need as soon as they decide to stop and raised an important point concerning their children who are left since those centres cannot accommodate them.
Difficulties encountered by women in health institutions.
Manjusha reported that the documentation of cards in the title section (‘mr/miss/mrs miss labels’) need to be modified. She stated that more and more ‘madam’ is used in developed countries for all women and girls in order to stop the classification of women through their marital status, which however is not the case in Mauritius. She stepped back in history to relate that very long ago women presenting too many symptoms were considered hysterical as there was a lack of means to test that. She suggested somehow for the protection of the medical staff, like mentioning if the patient has any transmissible disease that will necessitate additional protection for medial staffs, to which Cindy responded and argued that she is against the naming of patient’s files because of the confidentiality disclosure status and took as an example lost files and the possibility that the file ends in the hands of the person’s family. She insisted that universal protection actions by all physicians were enunciated as precautionary measures should be equally taken and not only because Mrs X for example has HIV.
Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights.
Anushka defined the term ‘ sexual reproductive health’ which is a fundamental concept of human rights, as ‘the right to be educated and to care for our sexual rights’. She outlined the components of SRHR which are abortion, HIV, STDs, maternal health, the right to contraception, GVV, discrimination, stigmatization, child marriage and menstrual health. She reckoned that emphasis should be laid on the changing of mentalities since the raising of consciousness about sexual health can bring a beautiful evolution to build a safer and fairer Mauritius where women are not considered as second class citizen women.
Even if the law has changed abortion even if law has been changed, abortion remains a taboo subject. Nathalie Rose, citizen and activist asserted that even if we live on an island where health services are free, the right to health for women, the quality of health services and the extent to which those services respond to women’s needs are questionable. Women carry the consequences of a sexual life and some of them do not know how to get access to measures to protect themselves as they are not even aware of risks. She referred to “Le procès de Bobigny, 1972” to make us realise that abortion is not still recognised. There is no structure to accompany women who have decided to abort and only women with financial resources have access to reliable means and those who do not have money endanger themselves. She ended with the fact that women have their word to say when decisions are being taken for them and that representativeness is important if real protection wants to be granted to them.
The recognition of women needs for rights of a good health care.
Manjusha quoted that women who take contraception are more likely to have side effects with medicine taking, according to research compared to men. She also explained how tubal ligation, which is more common than many men who do vasectomy, is a clear example showing that women cannot even decide about their sterility since her partner has to give his consent for this operation to be done. Similarly, people think it is normal for women to suffer as if suffering is a part of us and this can be proved by the fact that modern medicine has by-passed endometriose for example.
In Mauritius, classes are mixed at pre-primary, primary and tertiary education but not at puberty age, at secondary level. Ankusha found mixed classes crucial at that age as she related her personal experience about attending a girls’ school and her friends who were not open families being overwhelmed by presence of boys for sports day for example. We need to understand the importance of mixity, as at all the other educational levels boys and girls find themselves together and this is important for a mutual understanding.
Despite the change concerning Abortion laws according to criminal code section 235(a), no real change can be noticed as we need to understand young people as things evolve, they think differently and there is room for presence and guidance them rather than the enforcement of a system based on prohibition. There are 4 cases where abortion is legal and one them include a time frame of a maximum of 14 weeks after the pregnancy has began.
Gender links’ current projects
Anushka explained about Gender Links works which are oft 3 levels. Firstly ‘Gender justice’ where women and men are invited to be educated on gender concepts, stigmas and preconceived ideas and structures, secondly ‘Gender in the media’ where journalists are informed about gender issues and gender mainstreaming and thirdly ‘Gender governments’ where the local community is educated since elected members of councils do not have much information and gender action plan are established.
Anushka spoke further about the 25 residents actually at the shelter and the importance of knowing the audience in order to differentiate the ways of working with young people, public sector workers, and women. She put forth that the person has to understand that the law is here but not the spirit of the law; consciousness about flaws in the law and their rights is where empowerment starts.
Feminisation of drug users
Studies have proved that from 2019 many more women have become drug users. Cindy shared that centres for harm reduction are visited most of the time by men and they have started to go on the ground to share clean materials. She proposed that pad distributors just like condoms distributors must be available since not everyone can afford them and this can be helpful.
The educational system and the development of individuals.
The response from facebook participants turned around the education system and Anushka underlined the fact that mauritian creole is the best language that can be used as a medium of expression of ideas and thoughts and sexual health as well as more debates should be organised for a better development of individuals. On her part Cindy, communicated the projects implemented by AILES, psychological assistance for staff and families, dance therapy amongst and supported the integration of concerned people when decisions are taken.
Manjusha took the example of Finland where under the age of 7, children only play and there is no academic syllabus for them and they are second best worldwide, after Estonia, at educational level. Environmental problems prove that individuals have forgotten how to interact with the rest of the world
Reconsideration of the age of puberty
Anushka related that boys and girls are often not even aware of the body changes and explained the unsubstantiated law about child marriage which allow a 16 year old person to be married with parents consent. Illegal marriage forms part of real problems that we refuse to see and hypocrisy is the reason behind teenage pregnancy. Black street abortion still exist in 2021 and we refuse to societal issues surrounding us; no one deserves to live in this kind of society where there is no safety.
Cindy promoted the benefit of discussion with concerned people and the collective consultation of every idea that can be followed and put into practice.
Manjusha builded on Cindy’s word by stating that all projects require consultation and detachment from what we want to be able to offer what is really needed. Her message for girls is: “Women don’t feel limited. You have a high potentiel, succeed and follow your dreams.”
Anushka insisted on the fact that it is time to voice out and crush taboos if we want the situation to get better. At the end of the day, we are the only ones who know exactly what we are going through. The change starts in our lives if we want to bring it to other people’s lives.
Veena Dholah’s input on violence against women :
Veena spoke expressed how she feels about this theme by making a state of matters with the Covid pandemia and the two lockdowns in Mauritius to draw a parallel with the fear and anxiety women constantly feel from their birth till their death. She mentioned the ‘48 declaration of Human Rights, the international covenant on Civil and political rights and the one related to economic, social and cultural rights and emphasises on the fact that this hasn’t lowered the number of women who die and supports her statement with this figure : Everyday 810 women die after complications due to pregnancy and maternity.
After referring to the report of the UN on violence against women has confirmed 1 on 3 woman or girl experiences violence in their life everyday, she presents a microscopic local picture of the situation with the case of the murders of two women both aged 40, Bibi Zahira Ramputh and Hema Coonjobeeharry and insists that this a femicide which is a term not recognised in Mauritius. She goes back to roots of the term ‘femicide’ or ‘feminicide’ brought by feminist thoughts in 1970; Diana Russels insinuates that it is so called to contrast it with ‘homicide’ to highlight oppression, discrimination inequality and the systematic violence against women. On her part, Julia Monares defined ‘feminicide’ as a progressive violent action which takes away emotional and psychological skills in many ways. Marcela Lagarde digs deeper by suggesting that the considerable number of women dying and suffering is a direct consequence of the irresponsibility of the Government who does not take actions in line with those international obligations.
Veena concluded by underlining that the right to live in peace, justice and dignity is a claim formulated for 100 years but many rights have still not been ensured to women for far too long now, the concept of the ‘eco-feminism’ which focuses on climate crisis and women marginalisation and the destruction of biodiversity as results of a patriarchal and capitalist system and the knowledge acquired through the history of mauritian women(Anna de Bengal, Anjalay and Chagos women among others) who stood up for their rights.
Ameegah Paul about the double challenge of being a disabled woman.
Ameegah Paul expressed that she does not understand why society does not recognise the problems women face and that despite our differences , despite our disability, we have desires. She confessed that women’s education is a duty and there is a lack of access to the necessary education tools for women to learn about their bodies. She voiced how hard it is for a woman with a disability to find a job as society doesn’t believe in them, in the hidden potential she may have. For instance, she said that the time has come for society to rethink its views and assumptions and that the Government needs to amend the 3% law about disabled people law enacted which is not respected. Her final words were : “Changes come within ourselves , it’s time for those women to be fully integrated in this society, for them to be protected, to be educated about themselves and bring their contribution.
Natalie Rose on abortion and the right of women over their body.
Even if the law has changed, abortion remains a taboo subject. Nathalie Rose, citizen and activist asserted that even if we live on an island where health services are free, the right to health for women, the quality of health services and the extent to which those services respond to women’s needs are questionable. Women carry the consequences of a sexual life and some of them do not know how to get access to measures to protect themselves as they are not even aware of risks. She referred to “Le procès de Bobigny, 1972” to make us realise that abortion is not still recognised. There is no structure to accompany women who have decided to abort and only women with financial resources have access to reliable means and those who do not have money endanger themselves. She ended with the fact that women have their word to say when decisions are being taken for them and that representativeness is important if real protection wants to be granted to them.