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Manohur Chand Poonyth

February 10, 2023  .  15 min read  .  1179

Interview with the former President of Mauritius - Ameenah Gurib Fakim

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On his trip to Mauritius in August 2022, our Executive Coordinator, Chand had the opportunity to meet with the former President of Mauritius, Ameenah Gurib Fakim to interview her. Our NGO, Istanbul&I, is an ambassador of the United4Her project by the Garip&Zeycan Yıldırım Foundation. Being one of the impactful leaders on the African continent, it was a unique opportunity to have a chat with the former President of Mauritius and her thoughts about gender-based violence, gender issues in Mauritius, and lastly, the United4Her project.

C: I recently read an article on Gender Links (South Africa) about you, and there were a lot of taglines such as "The first female President”, “A President of the Republic not coming from a political background” or “African and Mauritian woman makes it to the top”.  These taglines were used to describe your appointment as the President of Mauritius. Considering the strong profile you have, do you think this was too much for Mauritius to absorb? Considering that we are in a typical patriarchal society, do you think it was too much for a developing country like Mauritius to absorb?

We have to look at the progression of women through the lens of free education which became available in 1976. Well, I put this as a milestone because prior to that parents used to have to choose between educating the boys and educating the girls. This is because educating the boys would make economic sense and this is how the society was structured. Structured in such a way that, it is the boys culturally and socially accepted the norm that they have to look after their parents. So, the parents would be investing in their education in the hope that they will find a better job and look after the family. But, once education became free in 1976, this is when the mindset started to change because now parents didn't need to make that choice. They could educate their boys and girls equally.

Over the years, we have seen the feminization of many sectors in Mauritius: the medical sector, the teaching profession, and even the judiciary. However, I think the problem still lies with the obdurate world of politics because female representation remains among the lowest on the African continent especially as we do not have any laws regulating their representation through a quota system which should have been at around 30%.  In Mauritius, the world of politics remains brutal and this would perhaps explain why women tend to shy away from it and let us not forget that we have a very patriarchal society. So, in a way, I remain an oddity because I dared! In a way, I got punished by society for that. The pushback came from all quarters, interestingly not from my conservative family, but some religious leaders and others whose narrow view of the world still lead them to think that the woman’s place should be in the kitchen. To have a woman at the helm of the country, as head of state, was too much for them to stomach.

I do recall the reticence when my name was mentioned in 2014. In Mauritius, one does not run for Presidency; the President is elected by the National Assembly.  but, for the first time, the name of the President was mentioned during the campaign and became part of their manifesto...I was unanimously elected to the National Assembly.  

Although I was in the highest office of the land,  the pecking order still applies. You're subtly but constantly reminded that you are a woman and should know your place. 

And, this is where the terminology “lonely at the top” applies so well. It is a ‘straight jacket’ position and limited by what the President’s bible allows - the Constitution. However, whether rightly or wrongly, there is so much more the President can do...I came into that position without any political baggage but as a scientist, an entrepreneur, and having left my comfort zone of academia. I also landed in that position by not being risk averse. Throughout my journey to the position of head of state, I took many risks: I left my comfort zone of academia to translate my research into an enterprise, and finally when I threw my hat into the world of politics… thus becoming an ‘accidental president’!

So, at the Presidency, I said that we should be doing much more than just sitting there looking pretty (bar the pun). So I said to myself that Africa needs talent, Africa needs to hear the narrative of science, investment in science, and investment in our youth because science and technology have transformed the world. And I think that was my mistake. If I had sat there doing nothing, I may have remained President much longer!  I got hammered for having dared to do things differently

C: So, they expected you to be a ‘vase à fleur’?

They expect me to sit there, to be seen, not to be heard, and to be… Sorry to have to say this… Be a rubber stamp. This may well have been their expectation of a woman president. But I am who I am, a self-made woman and I feel the country needs all the talent that it can garner together because we will face challenges as we no longer have any safety net. These nets helped in our economic journey post-independence.  Because we've had a safety net before this and this is what propelled economic progress.

So, for me then and more so now, we need to nurture the talent of our youth with the tools of science and technology and not neglect female representation. At the end of the day, no economy can make headway if the country leaves behind 52% of its workforce. If one looks at different sectors; one has to concede that women make a huge contribution.  On the African continent, women feed the continent. Institutions like the IMF have been able to translate that contribution in economic terms through percentage points added to the  GDP. Countries that have experimented with this have made tremendous progress and I think the best example remains Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 of the United States in the 1970s.  This is where access to education, sports, and everything was ensured for girls. We eventually saw the effect further downstream. This was my message and this is what I was trying to do when I had the Presidential megaphone. I felt that the only way to do this is by seeking partnerships, by tapping into the funding coming from philanthropies. This is how Facebook emerged. There was a philanthropist who gave Zuckerberg a hundred thousand dollars to go to Palo Alto to register his company. So, I'm still in that mindset. Even though I left the Presidency five years ago, I'm still getting called by many organizations across the world to speak on that. So there is a thirst for this narrative, especially in the empowerment of girls in the sciences. So from that perspective,  I feel  I have served that purpose. But maybe I was ahead of my time and as such paid very dearly for it and got removed from the Presidency. 

C: So, from what I understood, the way that you wanted to approach your duties was probably too much for the cabinet at that time, but was there a way where the President could mentor the ministers? Were you allowed to do something like that? 

Oh my goodness! They don't want you to come anywhere near their ministries! The male ego gets in the way. I was only trying to help the country through the vast international network that I had. At one point, one minister told me to keep away from his ministry!

C: But what about the constitution? Do you think such a role would give too much credit to the President?

If we stick to the protocol and the way that things are meant to be done, everything has to be channeled through the Prime Minister because he was my main interlocutor. I would meet him at the weekly meeting when the Prime Minister comes to brief the President. He would often ask me to write down the ideas/recommendations so that he could take them up with the council of ministers the next day. But there has been a lot of resistance. Was the resistance because I was a woman, or the ideas made them feel vulnerable that I will take the credit? I do not know. But I didn't care about taking credit. I was on duty for my country. My concern was and still remains the welfare of the people of this country. I still represent the country but on a personal level...Fortunately, I married somebody who has been supportive of my career and has done so by being happy with what he was doing. There was no competition. Otherwise, the backlash has been absolutely colossal. For years now, either in or outside of the office, I have learned to live with insinuations/innuendos leveled towards me either in social media or in the local press.  When they can't hit you above the belt, they hit you below the belt. So, either way, there's no winning.

C: As you see, the direction of this interview has led to topics such as discrimination, the male ego, and patriarchal society to mention a few.  I would like to lead it to the big question: Where does Mauritius stand on gender equality? You did mention the 30% of the representative quota earlier. I read that for the past years, it's been between 12 and 19%. Second, one of the oldest parties in Mauritius has restructured the party, but we barely saw any women in the key positions. Let's get back to the first question. Where does Mauritius stand?

Very badly. We are very poor students as far as the African continent is concerned because, at the end of the day, we are part of the African Union. We have seen very progressive countries over the past years. I mean countries that have had very painful historical pasts like Rwanda, Ethiopia, and South Africa. And they are all doing well in terms of gender representation, and I can venture on to say that it's because of this gender representation that the economy of Rwanda for example is doing well. Rwanda is still recognized as one of the most progressive countries in Africa. I was there a few months ago and the ministers you see around are young women. The President of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, as it appears that he doesn’t need this ego massaging because he seems to let the women thrive. 

But we are poor students and there is a lot of work to be done, especially at the level of the political arena. Why does it matter to have women at the political table? It is because the presence of women shapes the decisions and policies. But having said this, the private sector is not doing any better. The public sector has moved the needle in terms of women representation but if you look at the boards of many of the private sector it's terrible. In the private sector, having women on board is still tokenism.

C: I also read the statistics mentioning that in 2021 Mauritius was ranked 110th out of 156 on the global gender gap. What is being done to improve the gender gap in Mauritius?

Yes, this is the current ranking. This statistic was based on a study by the WEF Global Gender Gap Report. Hardly to be proud of. Fundamentally, I do not see a real effort for empowering women. If there are, they are mainly cosmetic. Culture and religion loom large. Representation through the caste system also plays a determining role in the choice of representation. So when all these factors get flagged, one often wonders if the best woman candidate will fulfill all these criteria?  We pride ourselves by calling ourselves a rainbow nation but in a rainbow, all the colours are juxtaposed with each other. We are not talking about a melting pot which would be a better representation. Unfortunately, we still do not have such a melting pot.  Having said this, I grew up in a small, diverse village that I call the microcosm of the world. Everybody got along well. I grew up with many Hindu, and Christian friends and went to a catholic school both at the primary and secondary levels. But when it comes to the elections, this is where this diversity of Mauritius is weaponized. This is when calculations are made only for the purpose of gaining votes. Yet as I keep saying: our diversity is our strength! 

C: What would be the first step to tackle GBV issues? What should be done? What can be done beyond sensitization?

We need to empower women. Let’s consider a simple case. A woman has been beaten by her husband at night. First, that women should have access to the appropriate tools to be able to call for help and support. So, the first thing that the woman would need is a dedicated phone number to make a call. She needs to be reassured that both she and her children will be safe. She should feel this reassurance from the state and it is only then that she can reach out to the authorities like the Police. The police must also be responsive and even proactive. They can help take the woman and her children to a shelter when dealing with a violent husband. Protection orders must be issued and enforced when requested. It is possible to tackle this issue if there’s a sound legal framework.

C: Mentioning appropriate tools for communication, a service known as ‘Kırmızı Işık’/ ‘Red Light’ was developed by Vodafone during the Covid period. The Red Light application was developed to support women's protection from violence and to inform them about the fight against violence against women. Are similar projects being done in Mauritius?

We can't tackle everything at the same time but we can definitely start somewhere. I think we need to start pilot projects. For example, something similar to the SOS alerts on the phone by Vodafone can be done very quickly. The use of technology can be instrumental to spread the word. Then, regarding shelters, they have to be structured and there should be regular visits and follow-up exercises. Why? Probably the government or other organizations support them through grants but are they using the resources properly? So, if we really want to tackle gender-based violence, we need to be present on the ground. We can talk and have all the sensitization campaigns but the work has to be on the ground and also the husband/partner must be held accountable.

C: Now that you are no more the President, what are you trying to do to empower women? Are you doing some school visits and talks to inspire the youth? You are actively seen at conferences abroad but how’s it here in your own country? 

Well, that’s the way that I would've wanted it to be. You know, when I was at the State House, I wanted to do something called the ‘Afterschool Program’. The purpose of the ‘Afterschool Program’ was to keep the kids busy and safe after school. We came very far with the project because we identified that children can be vulnerable after school hours. It basically involves engaging with the kids between 14 00 to 17 00 during weekdays because this is the time when the parents are still at work and may return home late. So, we said to ourselves, let’s create a program for the students to keep them busy and engaged. By doing so, it will not only make the students more productive but also reduce the tendency to fall into drugs or other social ills. We prepared the whole program, we contacted the schools, we got the logo, we got the bags, we got the kids, we got the project, and we got the schools to do that. We were even going to start pilot projects for some schools. But sadly, it never got any further.

C: Last question, we talked about empowering our women. What about educating the men?

If one wants to tackle gender-based violence, it starts with the education of men.  They already start with an advantage by virtue of their gender and entrenched patriarchy. Societal norms always favor men. Just imagine a scenario when a woman comes late from work! The response will inevitably be that she is careless, does not look after the children, she may be having an affair, etc… even though she may be late by virtue of a demanding job...When a man comes home late...He will be judged as hardworking!  All the decks are stacked against the woman. 

C: So, as you know, we reached out to you regarding the United4Her project. You’ve read about it and you shared your thoughts too. Do you have a message for the founder of the project, Zeycan Rochelle Yıldırım?

Well, I  think that choosing sports was judicious. It's a great approach to raising awareness. Other details such as the choice of the color of the jersey are definitely interesting. I know that there are other organizations that are coming up with similar initiatives among the Commonwealth Nations. The Commonwealth is constantly addressing the root causes of violence such as toxic masculinity to mention a few. So, I wish her the best with the initiative and looking forward to seeing the rollout of this project!