Committee on Elimination of Discrimination against Women considers report of Mauritius

Committee on Elimination
of Discrimination against Women

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women today considered the sixth and seventh periodic reports of Mauritius on how that country is implementing the provisions of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

Introducing the report, Maria Francesca Mireille Martin, Minister of Gender Equality, Child Development and Family Welfare of Mauritius, said that since the last review by the Committee of Mauritius in 2006, the Government had set up a National Steering Committee on Gender Mainstreaming to be the gender focal point of all Ministries. Actions to address the issue of domestic violence were now geared towards gender sensitive policies, and a National Platform on Gender Based Violence that involved all stakeholders had been set up. Legislation had also recently been enacted on issues including HIV/AIDS, equal opportunities and combating trafficking of persons. There had been key achievements related to the social empowerment of women in the fields of education, health and poverty. The pace of implementation for representation of women in politics had fallen below the set target, with only 18.8 per cent of women in Parliament, although progress had been made with a new Local Government Bill. While women’s achievements had been numerous and positive, there was still an unfinished agenda on gender issues, particularly because of the patriarchal norms that remained strongly embedded in Mauritius society. However since accession to the Convention in 1984 Mauritius had upheld numerous challenges to uproot the entrenched causes of gender inequality and change mindsets and attitudes for a gender inclusive society.

Questions and issues raised by Experts during the discussion including women’s representation at a political and decision-making level, especially in relation to the new Equal Opportunities Act. The delegation was asked about the new shelters for victims of domestic violence, femicide and trafficking, and what measures had been taken to improve the system of protection orders for victims of domestic violence. Sex tourism and rates of HIV/AIDS infection, especially among sex workers, were also raised, as were measures taken to combat trafficking of women and children in Mauritius. Experts asked the delegation about absenteeism of school pupils, teenage pregnancy among girls in Mauritius and sex and reproductive health education in schools. The criminalization of abortion and high rates of clandestine abortions was broadly discussed, along with the sensitivities of reaching a consensus on legalizing abortion in Mauritius. Finally the delegation was asked about the salary gap between men and women in Mauritius, and provisions for maternity and paternity leave, as well as the rights of both part-time and migrant workers.

Ms. Martin, in concluding remarks, conveyed sincere thanks to all Committee members for their active participation in a meaningful discussion on how women’s equality was developing in Mauritius. She said the delegation had taken note of all views and recommendations made by Committee members and assured the Committee that the Government of Mauritius was committed to creating a society free of gender discrimination, where women and men enjoyed equal opportunities.

In preliminary concluding remarks, Silvia Pimentel, Chairperson of the Committee, thanked the delegation for providing a further insight into the situation of women’s rights in Mauritius. She commended the delegation for their efforts and encouraged the State party to take all necessary measures to address all of the recommendations of the Committee.

In today’s meeting the Committee welcomed and applauded the fact that the Nobel peace prize had this morning been awarded to three women activists, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, her compatriot Leymah Gbowee and Tawakul Karman of Yemen, for their “struggle for women's rights”.

The delegation of Mauritius included representatives of the Ministry of Gender Equality, Child Development and Family Welfare, the Attorney General’s Office and the Permanent Mission of the Republic of Mauritius to the United Nations Office at Geneva.

The Committee will reconvene on Monday, 10 October 2011 in a closed meeting to consider activities under the Optional Protocol. At 3 p.m., it will hold a public meeting to hear the shadow reports of non-governmental organizations on countries yet to be reviewed during this session.

Report

The sixth and seventh periodic reports of Mauritius (CEDAW/C/MUS/6-7) recall that since independence in 1968 successive governments have committed themselves to protect women's rights in Mauritius by setting up a specific Ministry of Women’s Affairs in 1982, accession to the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women in 1984, and the range of legislative reforms and policies pursued to empower women at all levels during the past forty years. Today women play a greater part in the political decision-making process. There has been a feminization of the civil service with an increased number of women in top decision-making positions. In politics there has been a leap in women’s representation from five to 17 per cent at national parliamentary and local government levels.

Universal free education at primary and secondary levels remains a reality and has contributed significantly to enabling women to reach a higher status in society. Despite the tight economic conditions the Government of Mauritius has taken bold measures towards the economic empowerment of women, opening 15 women’s centres that offered services that included re-skilling women workers. Measures have been taken to improve working conditions for pregnant women, especially those in the sugar and salt industries, although the report states that employers still need to be sensitized to the negative impact of sex stereotypes on women. The National Women’s Council has taken measures to assist rural women but needs to strategize on tailor-made services so as to mainstream rural women in all development programmes.

Regarding health care, the report specifies that although abortion is illegal in Mauritius, with the penalty of a ten year penal sentence, the practice is quite common among young women. There is presently much debate on whether abortion should be decriminalized or still prohibited by law. Concerning gender roles and stereotyping, the lead agency has intensified campaigns to sensitize the public on gender issues, including advertising campaigns, removing sex stereotyping from school text books and promoting women in non-traditional sectors. A National Action Plan to Combat Domestic Violence was launched in 2007, and measures including financial support to victims of domestic violence, pre-martial counselling and a family counselling support unit at the Prisons Department, have been taken.

Introduction of the Report

MARIA FRANCESCA MIREILLE MARTIN, Minister of Gender Equality, Child Development and Family Welfare of Mauritius, said that since its independence in 1968, Mauritius had been a living multiracial and multicultural democracy whose foundations were based on the promotion and protection of human rights. The People of Mauritius were its only resource, and investing and developing the full potential of every individual was the Government’s priority. In line with that commitment Mauritius had ratified the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women in October 2008 along with other conventions on the rights of the child and the rights of persons with disabilities. Since the last review by the Committee of Mauritius in 2006, the Government had set up a National Steering Committee on Gender Mainstreaming to be the gender focal point of all Ministries. The Ministry of Gender Equality, Child Development and Family Welfare had extended its infrastructure, for example opening three modern women empowerment centres in urban and rural areas that offered services to women. The Government was fully committed to strengthening its legislative framework, and had brought amendments to the Protection from Domestic Violence Act in 2007 and 2011. Those amendments provided for a substantial increase in the penalty for an offender, provision for payment of alimony to an aggrieved spouse and psychological counselling. Actions to address the issue of domestic violence were now geared towards gender sensitive policies, and a National Platform on Gender Based Violence that involved all stakeholders had been set up. Legislation had also recently been enacted on issues including HIV/AIDS, equal opportunities and combating trafficking of persons.

There had been key achievements related to the social empowerment of women in the fields of education, health and poverty. In 2010 the Government had achieved gender parity for the enrolment rate at primary level at 100 per cent. At secondary level the enrolment rate stood at 72 per cent for girls and 65 per cent for boys. At tertiary level the enrolment rate for girls was 51 per cent. More and more girls were now opting to pursue studies in non-traditional subjects, although the gender gap was still to be bridged. However the disparities were slowly being addressed and it was reassuring to find girls now enrolled in courses like woodwork and mechanics.

Concerning the health status of women, the Government had made substantial investments to give women access to decent health services. The key focus was on aggressive awareness-raising campaigns on woman-related diseases, as well as pap smear tests and mammographies to address the increasing rates of cervical and breast cancers. The feminization of HIV/AIDS was a matter of concern and there had been a gradual increase of women infected with the virus. The National AIDS Secretariat was addressing the issue holistically with free testing, counselling and educative campaigns, targeted interventions for sex workers and drug addicts, and 19 free condom-dispensing machines had been placed across the island. In an attempt to find a long awaited solution to the issue of abortion, the Ministry of Gender Equality had spearheaded consultations with stakeholders on the decriminalization of abortion. Discussions were ongoing regarding the termination of pregnancy in exceptional cases, such as when the woman’s life was in danger and for victims of rape or incest.

The pace of implementation for representation of women in legislature had been below the set target, with only 18.8 per cent of women in Parliament. A new Local Government Bill stipulated that any political group fielding more than two candidates must ensure the candidates were not all of the same sex. Women’s representation in decision-making instances had improved, with 47.1 per cent of judges and 63.6 per cent of magistrates being women. While women’s achievements had been numerous and positive, there was still an unfinished gender agenda, particularly due to the patriarchal norms that remained strongly embedded in Mauritius society. Since Mauritius’s accession to the CEDAW Convention in 1984, Mauritius had upheld numerous challenges to uproot the entrenched causes of gender inequality and change mindsets and attitudes for a gender inclusive society.

Questions by Experts

A Committee Expert asked the delegation about the timetable to put the Equal Opportunities Act into force, and whether economic, social and cultural rights were referred to within that act.

An Expert referred to the Constitution of Mauritius in which there was a prohibition of gender discrimination. However exceptions were made for discrimination in areas of adoption, marriage, divorce and division of property. In 2006 the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women had made a recommendation for that to be changed, as it was State-sponsored discrimination against women in Mauritius. What were the plans for the future to change that?

How had the Convention been publicised to women of Mauritius? What specific services did the Women’s Centres offer?

Response by the Delegation

Responding to these questions and comments, the delegation said that all gender laws in Mauritius were intended to be gender neutral. The provisions of the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women was found in different parts of Mauritius legislation. Regarding jurisprudence there should be nothing to prevent the judiciary from referring to the Convention. Training of law enforcement officials was regularly conducted by local and national institutions and the United Nations Development Programme.

The Sex Discrimination Act was still in force, that act had not been repealed by the Equal Opportunities Act. Provision was made for that repeal once the Equal Opportunities Act came into force. The Equal Opportunities Act was being reviewed and a bill had already been prepared. The functions and structure of the National Human Rights Commission were also being reviewed, and that was delaying the Equal Opportunities Act from being implemented. Economic, social and cultural rights were provided for within the Act, which specified prohibition of discrimination in those fields.

The National Women’s Council was under the edict of the Ministry of Gender Equality. Women could register with the Council and then benefit from facilities in around 20 different fields, including training, especially in women's rights, leadership programmes, seminars, technology (IT) training and advocacy committees. There was also an economic programme to encourage women to become entrepreneurs and start their own businesses, training women in business skills. Those facilities were offered in the 15 Women’s Centres that had been established across Mauritius. Promotional material on the CEDAW Convention had been widely dispersed in Mauritius.

Early into his tenure the Prime Minister of Mauritius realized that referring only to women’s affairs tended to alienate men from the process, which was why the Ministry of Women’s Equality changed its name to the Ministry of Gender Equality. Since Mauritius was a patriarchal society it was important that men were part of the process of combating domestic violence, and that they participated in child development and supported women's rights reform. For a long time child development was considered purely a woman’s issue, and it was hoped men would be involved in changing that.

Questions from Experts

An Expert said regarding the marriage law reform, it had an exception for persons of the Muslim faith, and a judge did not have jurisdiction to pass judgement on litigious issues arising between spouses of Muslim religious marriage without consulting the appropriate religious authority. How was that exception reached and were Muslim women’s groups consulted? Furthermore, were such cases decided in Sharia courts?

An Expert asked the delegation about progress made in establishing family courts, something that had been on the Government’s agenda for a long time.

Regarding the distribution of marital property, and the feminization of poverty, divorce was often a major cause of women in poverty and the Committee would like to hear more information on that. Were women being provided with sufficient information, prior to marriage, about consequences of property acquisition during marriage?

Response from the Delegation

A Muslim Family Council was set up in 1990 and given authority to celebrate religious marriage in accordance with Muslim jurisprudence. As mentioned in the last report to the Committee, the Government had set up a commission to investigate marriage celebrated in accordance with Muslim jurisprudence. Unfortunately, given the various schools of thought among the Muslim community in Mauritius, consensus could not be reached. Any religious marriage ceremony was governed by Muslim religious rules, and when it came to divorce, yes, the judge did not have jurisdiction to pass judgement without consulting a Muslim religious authority. However there were no Sharia courts and was no Sharia law in Mauritius.

There were no family courts in Mauritius but there was a court division that only heard family cases. Eventually the High Court would have a family division with all the required services, and a draft Family Law bill was being prepared. There was an ongoing consultation process on the draft bill with different stakeholders.

Normally, prior to marriage a man and woman would choose how they would acquire property in the marriage – jointly or separately - and how they would divide property in the event of divorce. Literacy programmes held in the Women’s Centres gave information to women on the legal implications of marriage laws and women's rights to property ownership. Legally, women had the same rights regarding inheritance, including of property, as men. Widows or widowers inherited from their spouse, even if there was no will, and property could be received under a will. Widows and daughters had the same inheritance rights as widowers and sons.

Questions from Experts

An Expert noted that changing mindsets in a patriarchal society like Mauritius took time. However, under the Convention, the Government agreed to use and implement all appropriate measures to do just that. Could the delegation explain what the Government was doing to fulfil their obligations in that regard?

Violence against women was the utmost demonstration of power of men over women. In that regard, what shelters were there for female victims of violence, and what measures did the Government have to prevent intrusion of male perpetrators into those shelters? What measures were there to prevent men disregarding protection orders?

Could the Committee have more information on how complaints of violence, particularly domestic violence, were filed? Women often had a sense of guilt over reporting a man for inflicting violence on them and it was seen as damaging to the honour of men. Were there campaigns to encourage women to come forward and file complaints and did women get advice on how to address those issues? Could marital rape be added to the sexual offences bill to make it a criminal offence?

Vulnerable women were falling victim to human trafficking, forced labour and forced prostitution. However data regarding women victims of trafficking was missing from the report, although data on child trafficking had been made available. There had been no real reference to trafficking of women in the oral report. Perhaps the issue of trafficking of women and children was not a priority concern in Mauritius? The 2009 Combating of Trafficking Act was comprehensive, but did the Act criminalize all definitions of trafficking?

An Expert asked what measures had been taken to prevent sex tourism, particularly regarding women victims? Furthermore, prostitution was illegal and penalized women, but what sanctions did persons who purchased the services of sex workers face?

Measures to prevent HIV/AIDS had been taken in brothels, but since prostitution was illegal, how did the Government reach sex workers to help them in that regard?

Response by the Delegation

Responding to the comments and questions, the Committee said that education had been the primary tool in combating traditional sexual stereotypes. Schools provided the same facilities to girls as well as boys, and girls were no longer forced to take traditional ‘feminine’ professions. Human rights education was a part of the school curriculum, as was sex education.

Mauritius had a major problem regarding shelters, with much less capacity to accommodate women and children who were in distress. The cabinet recently agreed to construct or rent more shelters, and it was aimed to have one shelter in every district, which would make a total of nine, instead of the three that currently existed. If was also hoped to have halfway homes, so women could be helped to work and live independently, with the aim of eventually having their own home. Funding would be given to non-governmental organizations to run shelters as well.

Domestic violence committees had been set up involving the police and judiciary, with the aim of supporting victims. There were also ongoing campaigns with community members of the ‘Zero Tolerance Clubs’, community leaders, youth and religious bodies. The police had a Family Protection Unit and had been running their own preventative campaigns in communities and schools.

Women victims of domestic violence could be given occupancy or protection orders, although in reality those orders had limitations as there was no real capacity to enforce them and protect victims of domestic violence either in their home or outside of their home. However there were warning mechanisms such as hotlines for victims, and on the preventative side there were family counselling services.

Marital rape was not a specific offence, but rape was a criminal offence and Mauritius intended to make express reference to marital rape in the new Sexual Offence Bill – consultations were ongoing. However it would be possible to prosecute marital rape under the criminal offence of rape if women reported any infringement that could be prosecuted. Regarding femicides, the Government was trying to give women information on their rights, while being conscious of the limitations of protection orders. The law did not provide for the perpetrator to be imprisoned without being tried in court. However there were preventative programmes and media campaigns, such as the ‘Men as Partners’ non-governmental organization sponsored-programme, to help men stand up and say that they were against violence. Furthermore harsher penalties had been given to perpetrators.

There were targeted interventions for sex workers, alongside the work of non-governmental organizations, especially to help protect them from sexually transmitted diseases and drug addiction. There was a needle-exchange programme for sex workers, as in Mauritius HIV/AIDS was mostly passed via infected needles. There was free condom distribution and dispensing machines located throughout Mauritius. Prostitution was criminalized, and where evidence was available the person who did the soliciting was also prosecuted.

The Government was very conscious of the demand for sex workers in the tourism industry and measures had been taken to combat sex tourism. Some 10,000 brochures had been dispersed in conjunction with the Ministry for Tourism. There was not yet an action plan on trafficking in persons, but the delegation took note of the Committee’s advice and said they would consider implementing one. It was added that the new Trafficking Act provided for compensation for victims.

Questions from Experts

An Expert wondered about the representation of Mauritian women at the international level, were there women Ambassadors, for instance? It was difficult for women to get those positions but it was a fundamental aspect of empowerment.

Furthermore what was the extent of women’s participation in political parties, trade unions and business bodies?

Response from the Delegation

Some non-governmental organizations were helped by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) on projects to enable women to get into politics, and to train women to be political leaders, the delegation said. UNDP were currently earmarking funds for the next round of programmes. Often women’s roles in trade unions were limited to member status and not manager. The Ministry was holding a workshop aimed at giving women more prominent roles within trade unions.

Women working within different political parties were often given specific responsibilities. For example the party currently in power had two female Ministers. Furthermore there were three female parliamentary secretaries, another woman was head of treasury budget and yet another woman was deputy chief whip. There were over 35 per cent female permanent secretaries, who held positions, for example, in the Prime Minister’s office and the Ministries for Tourism and Trade. Those women held strategic positions and influenced policy. They were well-placed to harmonize policies with the commitments of the Ministry of Gender Equality. In the diplomatic field there was one female career Ambassador, and two female political appointment Ambassadors (to Berlin and Canberra), which demonstrated that there was small progress in that area.

A local government bill was being considered by the Cabinet to change the gender breakdown of village counsellors. In Mauritius every village had up to 12 village counsellors, and the new bill would stipulate that up to four of those counsellors had to be women.

Questions from Experts

An Expert noted that education was free at all levels since 1976, compulsory up to the age of 16, and that the Government had recently invested in new schools. However, despite compulsory education there was a high degree of absenteeism by children. Was absenteeism higher among girls or boys? What sanctions did parents face for non-compliance?

What was the gender break-down of secondary level drop-out? Did teenage pregnancy affect girls’ drop out, and was there any social stigma to prevent pregnant teenagers completing their education? What was the capacity of those girls to become economically viable when they became young adults?

Was the topic of sexual and reproductive health and rights included in the school curriculum?

An Expert noted that in Mauritius the gender pay gap was huge: in many industries women earned less than half of men’s salaries when doing the same job. What plans did the Government have to modify that situation?

The law required twelve months of continued employment with the same employer before women were entitled to maternity pay, which prevented women from changing jobs. Four days of paternity leave were available, but only to married men. Were there plans to extend paternity leave to unmarried men? Were there plans to introduce affordable and quality childcare?

Mediation was the preferred method of dealing with cases of sexual harassment. That was not always the most beneficial tool and not in cases of grave violence. Were there alternatives? Was sexual harassment a cause for terminating the employment of the perpetrator?

Abortion, teenage pregnancy and HIV/AIDS were still taboo subjects in Mauritius. The delegation was asked to elaborate on measures taken to reduce HIV infection and conduct awareness-raising.

The report indicated that teenage pregnancy was a concern: sex education which specified safe sex practices led to a drop in teenage pregnancy. Did schools teach about safe sex practices? Given the high rate of teenage pregnancy and HIV infections among young people were there campaigns to promote the use of contraceptives, both in schools and in the wider community? Also, were there campaigns to change the attitudes of religious leaders and communities on contraception and safe sex practices?

Although abortion was illegal in Mauritius the practice was still common. What measures had been taken to prevent the damage of clandestine abortions, and what measures had been taken to facilitate dialogue on abortion which had such terrible consequences on women’s health and life. Did the Government intend to amend the criminal code on abortion in order to greater respect women’s health and human rights?

Maternal mortality was rather low in Mauritius, which was commendable. However there was room to further reduce the levels.

Response from the Delegation

Regarding absenteeism, the delegation said the Government was setting up an SMS system to alert parents to children’s absence from school via text messages on mobile phones. There was also a police department responsible for patrolling areas when minors tended to gather. The police may also contact the parents. There were no legal sanctions for parents as it was more of a moral responsibility to send children to school. Attempts were made to help parents better communicate with their children.

There were cases of teenage pregnancies in girls aged 14 and older. The girls could still go to school, but the problem was more social than structural. It was the way they were viewed by their friends and parents that made it harder for pregnant teenagers to continue schooling. There was a campaign to try to make teenage pregnancy better accepted and get civil society onside, particularly religious groups. A non-governmental organization ran a programme to provide counselling and support for teenage mothers. Life opportunities of teenage mothers were improving and increasing numbers of those girls were enrolling in vocational studies.

At primary school level there was no sex education as such (parental education had to be given for the reproductive education), but sex education started early in secondary school, around the ages of 12 to 13 years. The Ministry of Gender Equality tried to ensure that topics including the risks of unprotected sex were taught. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) had funded some programmes.

A very dynamic dialogue was ongoing on ‘backstreet abortions’. Religious leaders had entered the dialogue on that very sensitive issue, and it was hoped a solution would be found in the coming months to allow abortion in specific cases.

There were ongoing campaigns on HIV/AIDS and the Global Fund programme had provided funding for those.

In some sectors it was true that there was a disparity in salaries between men and women. The Ministry of Labour was focused on gradually eliminating those disparities. The Sex Discrimination Division of the Ministry of Gender Equality handled sexual harassment or abuse at work complaints, and if a criminal offence was disclosed the perpetrators would be prosecuted.

Work was also being done on maternity and paternity leave, for example in getting more than four days paternity leave for fathers and increasing the allowance to a week, under certain conditions that had to be met by the father. The law did not provide for unmarried couples but the delegation took note of the suggestion.

Migrant workers constituted a proportion of the labour force, and were treated as local workers. Their contracts were systematically examined by the Ministry of Labour and the rules and regulations pertaining to workers in the country had to be respected. There were cases of passports being kept from migrant workers by their employers, but the inspectors were efficient at reversing that tendency. It was not known if any migrant workers had been deported.

Part-time work was a reality in Mauritius, mostly because of the constraints that married and family life imposed on women. Many women chose to do part-time work in order to have a source of income, and were encouraged in that by the Government. However there was a need to reform legal aspects of part-time contracts so that woman would be covered under the employment laws of Mauritius.

Concluding remarks

MARIA FRANCESCA MIREILLE MARTIN, Minister of Gender Equality, Child Development and Family Welfare of Mauritius, conveyed sincere thanks to all Committee members for their active participation in a meaningful discussion on how women’s equality was developing in Mauritius. She said she had taken note of all views and recommendations made by Committee members, and assured the Committee that the Government was committed to creating a society free of gender discrimination where women and men enjoyed equal opportunities.

In preliminary concluding remarks, SILVIA PIMENTEL, Chairperson of the Committee, thanked the delegation for providing a further insight into the situation of women’s rights in Mauritius. She commended the delegation for their efforts and encouraged the State party to take all necessary measures to address all of the recommendations of the Committee.

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