“You are not alone in your death, Marie-Noelle,” said Mrs Monique Derby. These words were said as she laid a crown of flowers on the grave of her own daughter, and in the presence of thirty women who had taken the day off work to commemorate the deaths of all women who have met untimely deaths because of an old patriarchal law. Mrs. Monique Derby is the mother of the late press photographer-journalist who met her untimely death exactly three years ago following an abortion that went wrong in a land where all abortion is prohibited under an 1838 colonial law. The mother, speaking to the memory of her dead daughter said, “All of us women here today are with you, Marie-Noelle. You are not alone. Your journalist colleagues are here too, you, who loved life, you who loved your work. Your children miss you. But do not be sad,” she said. Marie-Noelle Derby, 38 years old, left three young children.
The ceremony was at the Western Cemetery in Bain des Dames, Cassis, marking three years since her death, and marking international women’s day. Women walked in procession to the graveside, saying “Had it not been for this unjust law, Marie Noelle would still be here.” Paulo Ninan, 91 years old and the doyenne of the movement against the repressive abortion law, said how moving the action was to her, after all these years of working towards decriminalization.
An hour later, the same group of women, organized by the Muvman Liberasyon Fam (Women’s Liberation Organization) went to the Bois Marchand Cemetery, together with Ms. Marguerite Marla, whose daughter Sharonne Marla, 22 years old, died exactly three months ago, leaving two little children. There she placed a crown of flowers on the heap of earth that buries her daughter. On the crown was a ribbon with the words: “Enn lamor tro tris, akoz enn lalwa inzis,” (“The unbearable sorrow caused by an unjust law.”) She explained, at the graveside, that her daughter had come home on 24 December last year with presents for her children, and given them to them earlier than is her habit. By the night of 25 December, Christmas night, she had died as a result of an incomplete abortion. Everyone present had tears in her eyes. Sharonne’s mother, a frail quietly-spoken woman, who already cares for her own handicapped son, now takes care of two grandchildren, on Rs 1,950 per month, i.e. $67 per month. The tombstone maker present at the Cemetery said they would make her a stone, once the earth has subsided, without charging.
One of the Muvman Liberasyon Fam members present was a colleague of Sharonne’s, working together at a restaurant.
Before going in to the Western Cemetery, Anne-Marie Joly and Rajni Lallah, two leading MLF members, who are also members of LALIT, made moving speeches. Anne-Marie Joly traced the long struggle, and the number of times Governments have promised to change the law and then retracted Bills. Her speech left everyone knowing that the Prime Minister and the Government are assuming responsibility for further deaths. Rajni Lallah explained how the women’s movement has so thoroughly challenged the existing law, which causes so much suffering, that even the Director of Public Prosecutions, M. Satyajit Boolell, has said the law is so confused it is difficult for him to bring a prosecution. In fact, Rajni explained, the law refers to the illegality of recourse to abortion where the woman is “quick with child” which in medical jurisprudence means about 20 weeks into a pregnancy. She said how police officers who know women in the women’s movement have also told us that they are hesitating to go ahead with arrests and provisional charges now that they realize the enormity of the law that everyone had previously thought was clearly outlawing all abortion. Both women also referred to the heavy toll that poorer women, and working class women, pay. Women of means, if they are also well supported by friends, can just take a flight to Reunion Island, a French colony next door, or to South Africa or the UK, and get an abortion. Whereas poor women cannot even have any way of knowing what kind of abortion they are letting themselves in for. Today the use of the anti-ulcer treatment, which has abortive side-effects, is causing many poor women to get sick and to die.
In the evening, the MLF held a Conference situating the demand for complete decriminalization of abortion in the New Women’s Manifesto as a whole. At this second, also moving event, women said that we are now getting the feeling that our struggle is so just, so rational, so clear, and so necessary that victory is getting nearer. At this Conference, which started with women telling those not present at the cemeteries about the events, Rajni Lallah spoke on the class issues of illegal abortion, Sadna Jumnoodoo on the effect of repressive legislation in general and in causing illness and death, while Ragini Kistnasamy spoke of the link between the economic crisis and the need for abortion decriminalization, and Lindsey Collen spoke on how abortion being a crime is both a symptom of patriarchy and a cause of its continued domination. Shabeela Calla spoke about the horrors of being prosecuted. All present referred to the need to suspend the law immediately, if the Authorities believe that debate should continue. We have no objection to debate, so long as women are not exposed to prosecution, illness, criminalization and early death because of the law staying in place and in action.
Lindsey Collen said how when we were trying to confirm details of the death of Sharonne Marla, we found ourselves getting confused. The Press referred to the death as having been on 25 December, while our research showed it was definitely on 21 December; the Press referred to the death as having been at SSR Hospital in the North, while our information pointed to a death at the Jeetoo Hospital (ex Civil) in Port Louis. It took us a few days to realize there were two deaths in four days. We also learnt that another woman died after complications post-abortion, a woman living in Pailles, only two months earlier. She had been employed by the same company as Marie-Noelle Derby, so two abortion-related deaths in one work site in three years. She, too, was 22 years old, mother of two children. Her family do not want the case to be publicized.
The day will long be remembered for how moving it was and how much courage and strength it gave us. In all there were 40 women, the 30 in at the two cemeteries and the 10 others who came to join us in the evening, but could not be present during the day. “I felt the beginning of the end of this struggle,” said Marie-Josee Medon, afterwards, and “I saw victory before my eyes, in our own determination,” said Marlene Joseph.
Present at the historic events of 6 March, 2012, amongst others, were Marie-Noelle Elissac-Foy, Sadna Jumnoodoo, Monique Derby, Marie-Michelle Verloppe, Marguerite Marla, Lisette Toi, Rela Andre, Marousia Bouvery, Ragini Kistnasamy, Rajni Lallah, Margaret Berthelot, Lindsey Collen, Joanita, Marlene Joseph, Sealia Thevenot, Veronique Topize, Vimala Ramsamy, Marie-Josie Medon, Martine Mavisa, Indrani Canpanen, Doris Charlot, Joelle Ducray, Shabeela Kalla, Paulo Ninan, Benjamine Ramdalee, Anne-Marie Joly, Madhu Gungadin, Marie Laure Ziss, Cindy Clelie, Pushpa Lallah.