Our Southern African neighbours praise us for the progress Mauritius is making in gender mainstreaming in areas such as governance, reproductive health and HIV and AIDS. Another area supposedly going full steam ahead toward gender parity is education. But, when we scratch the surface, it is clear that the country is committing a crime against its citizens, and women and girls bear the brunt.
The Entrepreneurship Training that Gender Links recently conducted with survivors of gender-based violence (GBV) was a real eye opener.
Out of the 64 women who attended the training, 46 percent were illiterate while the other 54 percent did not even have functional literacy. The women who could read and write had problems with the information technology (IT) training and struggled just writing down their business plan, and even just one paragraph about themselves. Although Gender Links translated the training manual into Creole, no one could read it. Trainers conducted the workshop orally and used pictures to help participants grasp different concepts.
At the launch of Dev Virahsawmy's book, Universal Bilingual Functional Literacy, Bhijay Madhou, director general of the Mahatma Gandhi Institute asked why the country is spending so much money and energy on education when 50 percent of the population is still illiterate. "We must revisit our policies. The access is there but not the content," Madhou added.
Virahsawmy, author of the book and local linguist, agreed that until government reforms language policies, women's illiteracy would not improve.
"Mauritius is the only country in the world where when a child goes to school she or he starts learning in three foreign languages: English, French and an ‘identity language’ but do not learn in their mother tongue. How can our children become literate? The ghost is behind the door. The time is now to have the right language policy," warns Virahsawmy.
After all the training Gender Links-Mauritius has conducted with councillors, women politicians and community members, we have seen this ghost and how this system is disempowering women, creating outcasts and perpetuating gender inequality.
Although Mauritius has not yet signed the SADC Gender and Development Protocol, the country has made some impressive gains on this front in recent years. The 2013 SADC Gender Protocol Barometer notes that the last elections in Mauritius saw a fourfold increase of women in local government from 6 to 26 percent.
At 76 percent, Mauritius has the highest rate of contraceptive usage in the region, also achieving 100 percent attendance by skilled personnel at births. Although maternal mortality has increased from 23 to 60 women per 100 000 births, this is still the lowest in the region. Provision of antiretroviral treatment for the prevention of mother-to-child transmission in Mauritius is also the highest in Southern Africa. The Barometer notes that the most comprehensive knowledge on HIV is in Mauritius.
On paper, it looks as though Mauritius is also doing very well as far as education is concerned. The 2013 Mauritius Barometer shows that the literacy level of women is 88 percent, putting Mauritius seventh out of the 15 Southern African countries. Mauritius has a higher proportion of women than men in tertiary level education (61 percent) - the highest enrolment in the region. Girls are generally performing better than boys at school, even in subjects previously dominated by males.
However, once we measure this against reality, we see something quite distressing, but our decision-makers keep turning a blind eye to this reality.
Gender Links also works in media, having developed several training manuals on media literacy for citizens. However if our citizens do not have functional literacy, how can we attempt to change mindsets, empower women and encourage gender equality through the media? How can the country posit itself as an ‘IT Island' if half the population is actually illiterate?
Mauritius cannot take credit for progression towards gender equality, when the language policies and education system continue to disempower women. This form of structural violence tempers all our achievements by perpetuating women's inequality, economic dependency and vulnerability to GBV.
The international 16 Days of Activism campaign against GBV, kicked off on 25 November 2013. What better time for those in power to start a discussion and initiate plans to reform their language policies and education systems for gender equality. Just this step would help put an end to all forms of violence against women.
- Loga Virahsawmy is the Director of Gender Links-Mauritius. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service, bringing you fresh views on everyday news.