The relevance of applying an intersectional approach to advocate for women’s empowerment and gender equality in Mauritius


    Sheistah Bundhoo-Deenoo, Lecturer in Management at Charles Telfair Education


    The article examines the intersectional inequalities from a gender dimension in the Mauritian context. Intersectional inequality gained recognition through the work of black feminist Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw. Intersecting inequalities is very much prominent in  Mauritius given the colonial and patriarchal history of the country. However, it has not been noted that this aspect was neglected in social activism of Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) lobbying for human rights. As such, the article sheds light on the dimensions of intersectional inequalities relevant to the Mauritian context and focuses on the impact it has on the female population.


    The Relevance of Intersectionality in Mauritius

    The impacts of intersectional inequalities are multi-fold, severe, and directly challenge core human rights. The term “intersectional inequality” gained recognition through the work of the well-known black feminist Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw in 1989 through her work on “Demarginalising the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.”  Despite the relevance and significance of this term amidst the social sciences sector and the social policy discipline, this dimension has not been well conceptualised in the work and lobbying activities of CSOs in Mauritius. Nonetheless, it remains of utmost value to expand this notion and incorporate an intersectional axe in advocacy given that the colonial and patriarchal history of Mauritius is embedded with aspects of sexism and gender, social class as well as ethnic and income inequalities.

    Madhoo and Nath (2013) elaborate on the fact that factors such as limited access to education, housing, and healthcare, alongside the unequal distribution of income and persistent poverty can impede the development of human capabilities and the equitable distribution of benefits from economic growth in Mauritius. They also highlight the ethnic dimension of Mauritius by acknowledging that the country stands out as an example of ethnic cooperation in contrast to certain Sub-Saharan African nations where ethnic divisions have often led to power struggles and resource conflicts. The authors further acknowledge that the segmented Mauritian society, characterised by its ethnic divisions, has proven to be conducive to both economic growth and the enhancement of welfare.

    Regarding the gender dimension, Ramtohul (2012) argues that Mauritian women carry a multitude of diverse and sometimes conflicting identities primarily rooted in factors such as class, religion, caste, and ethnicity which therefore lead to the social division of women into distinct interest groups and identity clusters. Ramtohul (2012) further explores the intersectional identity of Mauritian women by making the link with religion and its impact on feminism. The author puts forward that religion provides an underlying ideology of male authority over women and the endorsement of women roles within the family as caregivers, wives, and mothers. Consequently, these religious contexts offer limited space for organisations to challenge patriarchal authority, transcend intersecting identities, and engage in feminist activism that extends beyond the inclusion of women in education and domestic skills training.

    Intersectionality versus Diversity

    When applying intersectional lenses in advocacy, it is crucial not to confuse “intersectionality” with “diversity”. The Poverty and Inequality Commission puts forward that “intersectionality is not a synonym for diversity”. Indeed, while diversity initiatives primarily focus on increasing representation and inclusion across various dimensions of human differences, such as race, gender, age, and sexual orientation, intersectionality rather posits that social identities and systems of oppression are interconnected and mutually constitutive towards the reinforcement of hierarchical categories. Therefore, diversity initiatives aim to promote fair representation and subsequently create awareness while intersectionality provided a nuanced framework backed up by concepts of power and privilege to understand existing social inequalities.

    Intersecting social differences demonstrate the dynamics of power and complex inequalities. This phenomenon is not solely applicable to CSOs. Ken and Helmuth (2021) analysed 379 articles on intersectional topics having a nominal mention of mutual constitution where the most common elements remained the gender, race and class dimensions. Interestingly, in their analysis, the authors point out that there also seems to be a non-reciprocal understanding of the definition of “race”, “class” and “gender” by several authors. The Equality and Human Rights Commission has taken steps to establish its own interpretation of the concept, thereby facilitating its practical application in the context of monitoring equality and human rights. A measurement framework has even been provided to measure intersectionality in the education sector, health services, workplace, political and civic participation and so on. In accordance with their perspective, intersectionality is employed as an analytical instrument to elucidate the various specific manifestations of harm, abuse, discrimination, and disadvantage encountered by individuals when multiple social identity categories intersect with one another. This tool can be beneficial when designing and implementing human rights and equality advocacy strategies. For instance, the Framework provides six domains (Education, Work, Living Standards, Health, Justice, Personal Security and Participation) which are measured using three core and two supplementary indicators each. This measure allows an organisation to track practical intersectional implications to present the distinct forms of harm, abuse, discrimination, and disadvantage experienced by people when multiple categories of social identities interact with each other.

    Intersectionality and Gender Diversity

    Research has shown that intersectional inequalities have a direct influence on how we understand violence against women, children’s exposure to intimate partner violence, gender-based violence politics, mental health, educational performance and achievement as well as on global gender inequality. The various consequences of intersectional inequalities provide solid ground for adopting intersectional lenses when advocating for the elimination of social issues and uplift human rights. It is essential to have an intersectional foundation discourse which reflects the multiple identities and experiences of people. It has been acknowledged that intersecting inequalities can be cultural, spatial, economic and political. Besides, various indicators have been used to measure economic inequalities  including income or wealth (also termed as vertical inequalities) and social discrimination (also termed as horizontal inequalities). Nonetheless, it has been proved that gender inequalities cut across all the forms of inequality which therefore positions women and girls from poor and socially marginalised groups as the most disadvantaged persons in  society.

    The World Bank Report (2018) reveals that the primary driver of escalating income inequality is derived from household income generated through labor. This phenomenon can be ascribed to two principal intersectional factors: firstly, demographic aspects encompassing the composition, amalgamation, and attributes of households, along with the extent to which individuals marry within their own income group; and secondly, labor market dynamics including participation in the workforce and disparities in individual labor earnings. The  report  also shows that Mauritian females encounter significant disadvantages to access the labor market even though there has been consistent increase in women’s participation in the labor force over the past decade. The gender disparity remains alarmingly high, and this is explained by differences in age, educational level, marital status, household demographic structure. Moreover, women are also paid less (on average of 30% less) than men per hour worked in the private sector.

    Intersectionality, Gender and Mauritius

    Dabee’s thesis (2018) titled “An Intersectional Feminist Perspective” highlights that intersectionality enables an understanding of Collin’s (1990) ‘matrix of domination’ faced by Mauritian women.  This thesis argues that Mauritian women negotiate withing the site of power-struggle within both the private and public spheres given the colonial and patriarchal history of Mauritius.

    Being a pluri-ethnic society with an ethnic majority, the Mauritian intersectional context can thus be studied from a feminist post-colonial theory. From a post-colonial feminist perspective, Tyagi (2014)  puts emphasis on the fact that women “suffers from ‘double colonisation’ as she simultaneously experiences the oppression of colonialism and patriarchy”.  Tyagi (2014) depicts nationalism as being pivotal in fostering the advancement of women’s emancipation movements in the African region and at the same time makes a clear distinction between feminism and nationalism characterising the two concepts as being ‘complex’ and adversarial dynamic due to the inherent discordance between their respective social and political objectives.

    Indeed, looking back at the history of women’s movement and empowerment in Mauritius, it is noted that women’s activism peaked in the 1970’s with a focus on challenging patriarchal systems through efforts directed at amending the Civil Code and the Immigration and Deportation Act. Ramtohul (2012) argues that the progression of the women’s movement in Mauritius unfolded gradually, with women initially congregating within religiously oriented organizations primarily dedicated to education and social welfare initiatives.

    Social stratification in Mauritius is deeply rooted in the history of slavery, indentured laborers and traders who seek to accommodate themselves according to a color-caste-class rules. Till date, the caste system is still embedded in contemporary Mauritian society, for instance, Hindus exhibit divisions based on factors such as the caste system, language, region of origin, and religious affiliation. Similarly, the Creoles perceive divisions among themselves based on aspects of skin color (light and dark) and language preference (French and Creole speakers).

    This intersecting stratification is more profoundly felt by Mauritian women, and it is noted that there is not only a lack of research in this field but also, it has been left out in the advocacy discourse for female empowerment and/or gender equality. It is insufficient to only respond to the call  for applying gender perspective in the public domain andadopting gender mainstreaming or more inclusive policies. Intersectional inequalities should feature across gender-based projects and initiatives aimed at advancing equality in order to address the core issue which has been omitted from the discourse.

    The National Strategy and Action Plan 2020-2024 is a powerful strategic document aimed at addressing inequalities with a ‘new approach to address gender based violence (GBV) in a holistic manner.’. As such, a study on Religious Practices that Impede the Rights of Women and Girls had been planned for 2021 and ‘women with disabilities, the elderly, different forms of gendered-identities and individuals from lower socioeconomic groups’ have been recognised as “context specific risks” as often these groups are considered as homogenous. These factors indicate an understanding of intersectional inequalities (though the concept is not mentioned in the action plan) but there is a gap between policy intent and implementation.

    The topic of women empowerment, gender equality and feminist movements in Mauritius remain subjective to the implementing agency (be it CSOs, private and public sectors and research institutions). For instance, the National Social Inclusion Foundation, which is the main institution receiving and allocating public funds to NGOs, identifies ‘family protection including gender-based violence’ as one of its priority areas. On the other hand, private sectors tend to be more aligned with Sustainable Development 5 Gender Equality as a foundation for gender equality and women empowerment projects.

    It has been noted that the conceptualisation of “womens empowerment” and “gender equality” in Mauritius remain subjective to individuals as well as institutions despite its widespread usage in debates, discourses, or projects. Women do not constitute a homogeneous group, nor are their needs. As a matter of fact, Dabee’s thesis (2018)underpins the extent to which ‘women’s interests’ in the Mauritian context has been ‘framed in response to women lived experiences, socio-economic and political status at particular points in time’. Therefore, it remains a challenge to capture the essence of women empowerment and gender equality in contemporary Mauritius due to the diversity of perspectives and experiences; yet it is of crucial importance to identify a unified advocacy approach to address women intersectional issues.

    Communities and Partnerships

    The way forward to tackle intersectional inequalities in Mauritius can be embedded in the advocacy actions of CSOs. The European Network of National Human Rights Institutions stresses  the power of community. By collaborating and leveraging their respective skills, diverse CSOs can enhance their capacity to bring about meaningful transformation. Partnerships are widely encouraged to ensure a participatory dialogue and to harmonise data available and collected by CSOs. As such, addressing intersectional inequalities automatically become a prime focus when human right defenders collaborate on their initiatives and advocacy strategies.

    The best practice set by Kaleidoscope Trust under the Equality & Justice Alliance (EJA) programme for Mauritius proves that collaborative work can yield insightful results. Under the said programme, the Kolektif Drwa Imin (KDI), which constitute of several non-governmental partners was formed to advocate for change in laws and policies towards a sustainable future that ensures a life free of violence, discrimination for women, children, and LGBT+ persons. As a matter of fact, several frameworks have been provided to guide CSOs to mainstream intersectional inequality in their advocacy actions. For instance, Freedom House working on defending human rights provides a toolkit for “advocacy in restricted spaces” and recommends  developing an advocacy guide as a starting point, followed by assessing ‘alternative entry points’, ‘engage unlikely allies’, ‘use of evidence-based approach’, and ‘creating cultural resistance’ all with an underlying intersectional axe.

    The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (Maputo Protocol) signed by the Mauritian state in 2005 is very relevant when addressing women’s intersectional inequalities. In contrast to other existing instruments addressing women’s human rights, the Maputo Protocol outlines a broad and substantial array of human rights pertaining to women, encompassing the entirety of civil and political domains, economic considerations, social and cultural aspects, and environmental rights. Thus, the representation of the intersectional experiences of women is reflected through the protocol and is further reinforced by the Solidarity for African Women’s Rights (SOAWR) which represents a coalition of 80+ civil society organisations from 33 countries, working towards ensuring the articulation of the protocol. Interestingly one of SOAWR core values include “diversity and inclusivity”, accentuating on the fact that women’s intersectional identities intensify discrimination.

    Conclusion and the way forward

    In a nutshell, based on feminist and post-colonial theories, research and contextual analysis, it can be recommended that applying an intersectional lens in advocacy can yield sustainable results which at the same time addresses core and subsidiary human rights and social issues. In order to pave the way forward, there should be partnerships fostered with multiple stakeholders; collaborative work which includes a plan, strategy, collective goal setting; as well as measurement of impact from an intersectional perspective.

    Main photo by Audrew McMurtrie on Pexels

    Charles Telfair Centre is an independent nonpartisan not for profit organisation and does not take specific positions. All views, positions, and conclusions expressed in our publications are solely those of the author(s).

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