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The Phenomenon of the NGO-ization of Women’s Associations by MLF members


This is a translation from Kreol of the paper presented by Marlene Joseph and Sadna Jumnoodoo and prepared together with Shabeela Kalla. It includes some refinements that took place during the debate at the LALIT Symposium on 30 and 31 July, 2016.

 Marlene Joseph began by saying how women’s associations have existed for some 70 years in Mauritius. And said there have been a number of “waves” in their evolution, and that she would give an outline of “the first wave”.

 Wave One : Political and Educational

The first wave, which exists until today in the form of dozens if not hundreds of Women’s Associations, began in the 1940’s. Associations were set up, mainly by the Labour Party, in order that women get the right to vote because, in order to vote, you had to be able to read and write. So, they were set up with these very advanced aims: politics and education. The now defunct Independent Forward Block (IFB) was also involved. So, this wave of women’s associations was directly linked to the political movement, the movement for general emancipation of everyone, and the movement towards Independence. They called themselves, and still often do, by the English name “Women's Association”, and they are still present in many neighbourhoods in the towns and in each village. They were self-run, and financed by members’ contributions, and were concerned with the two subjects of politics and education. They were non-communal, too. But in the 1970-s and 80’s they became partly dependent on Government through a sneaky system of “matching grants”, and communal associations began to be registered, too.  But, the important point is that their aim was women’s emancipation. They were not the jam and sewing patterns type of associations that one might expect. Those aspects were later a temporary add-on.

 In this same time, before Independence, there was the massive movement for contraception. The activism within the Mauritius Family Planning Association involved mainly women. They did door-to-door popularizing of contraception, and struggled for it to be freely available and free of charge. It was a hard political battle. And the battle was won.

 There was another association called the Ecole Menagere, linked to the Church. It mainly trained young women so they could work abroad as domestic workers. And despite being completely different from the Women’s Associations, they considered themselves part of the movement towards women’s emancipation, and in the 1970’s participated in common platforms with the rest of the movement for emancipation.

 The Second Wave: Emancipation, Liberation & Socialism

Sadna Jumnoodoo then explained the rise of the second and third waves.

 What we are calling the second wave, she said, is characterised by a continuation of the struggle for emancipation, but now for liberation as well, meaning liberation from patriarchy and linking this to the struggle for socialism. The Association that Marlene and I are in, Muvman Liberasyon Fam, is part of this second wave, and it, naturally like many Women’s Associations, is alive and strong until today.

 Our Associations was born in 1976, and was right at the heart of this second wave.

 In fact, for 40 years this year, the Muvman Liberasyon Fam, a nation-wide association – not a neighbourhood one – has kept to our manifesto, and to a coherent program for women’s emancipation and liberation. And what characterises the MLF is its comprehension of the need to oppose and defeat patriarchy (by which we understand the reign of a pyramid-like structure with powerful males at the top dominating the rest) and also, at the same time, struggling against the capitalist system which keeps women in a kind of double submission. We consider ourselves and all women, to be dominated by patriarchy and exploited by capitalism.

 When the MLF was formed, La Ligue Feministe and Association Des Femmes Mauriciennes, already existed. So, why was the MLF created? It was formed because these two existing associations, though considering themselves feminists, for different reasons did not, or could not bring themselves to, oppose the repressive anti-abortion laws.

 After the creation of MLF, there was also the Mauritius Alliance of Women, which was more like the first wave of association but a nationwide association rather than neighbourhood one like the other Women’s Associations.

 The Domestic Employees Association, a trade union with mostly women members and leadership, and the Federation of Pre-School Playgroups, again with mostly women members and leadership, both became a long-term allies of the MLF.

 So far, all these women’s organizations, or organizations of mainly women, were not “NGOs”.

 During the 1970 s and until the end of the 1980s, we worked in a general agreement amongst women that we were, together, struggling in different ways for emancipation and liberation. And, when necessary, with the greatest of ease, we worked together in Common Fronts. First there was the Fron Komin Organizasyon Fam on the anti-women immigration laws. And later there was a very broad front called Solidarite Fam that existed from 1977 for some 20-25 years, and which was based on a conscious program with very advanced aims.

 Then, towards the end of the 1980s we began to see a few new organizations that called themselves NGOs and that were very different from us, being set up.

 In a way, they were a perverted result of neoliberalism. This was the third wave of women’s organizations in Mauritius, and it was the NGO wave. It has existed alongside the two existing waves. It represents the way in which the capitalist system set about to dissolve women’s rebellion against the system, and to get women to aim at something truly hideous: rising within the patriarchal pyramid, or within its hierarchy. So, women’s NGOs are women’s organizations tamed by neo-liberalism.

 So new women’s organizations, these NGOs, often fail to look at the whole of the women’s question, or women’s struggle, but choose a single issue. This, they will address, as though it were independent of the rest of society. One of the early NGOs was called MAPBIN CHAN, and it was interested only in breast feeding. Another characteristic of NGOs, true for this one too, was that it was not autonomous, but was funded from abroad. It was like a branch of some organization in a developed country. It was run by a Board. Then we got SOS-Femmes which chose to look after battered women. Again, a “single issue”. They also fall into the desperate logic of funding from beyond their own membership – and rely for money on the State, on foreign organizations and even on the private sector, directly.

 In the epoch of this third wave, what happened is that the status quo and particularly the Press, came and gave enormous coverage to this third wave, the NGO wave, and chose their directors as the spokeswomen of the women’s movement. The Press gave very reduced coverage to the first and second wave organizations, that are still here, and that do the real political work. So, this pushing to the forefront of the media of these NGO spokeswomen has gone on for 20 years, thus making out that the women’s movement is only interested in how many women have risen to positions of power within the patriarchal society we live in.

 This tendency has continued, and still goes on. We have had more women’s NGOs springing up. There are “Gender Links” and “Media Watch”, for example, which come out of some funding logic whereby SADC Governments from all of  Southern Africa put aside money for this kind of tame funding. The SADC says it is financing “civil society”.

 In the same vein, we have WIN (Women in Networking) and WIP (Women in Politics) which have openly pro-capitalist programs and that are an important component of the NGO wave. They are arch representatives of making women rise in the patriarchal hierarchies. They are financed by the private sector, which they promote, and are supported by the State, which they form part of, in a way. Media Watch even seemed to be part of a press empire, La Sentinelle. So, Gender Links, Win and WIP, all consolidate this line, whereby they seek the advancement of individual women within patriarchy, without so much as touching on the themes of women’s emancipation and liberation! So, in a way, they are not part of the women’s movement at all. NGOs like this are outside of it.

 These NGOs got enormous support from the Labour Party Government, and from the State itself, the press, the private sector and international organizations accountable to no-one. For them there is no longer really a women’s struggle for emancipation and liberation from the double submission to patriarchy and capitalism. It’s incredible but true, WIN has recently turned itself into a private company.

 Let’s list the differences between the MLF, on one hand, and the women’s NGOs, on the other.

 - The MLF works towards women’s liberation.  

- Women’s NGOs aim at and works towards a few women rising to positions of power within an unequal society which is taken as “given”.

 - The MLF unites women, and we together, struggle for our own liberation (the emphasis is on “we” and “our”.

- Women’s NGOs are run often by a kind of Board, that then targets a few women, who they will help to rise within the hierarchy. (One group of women is organized to do a favour for a different group.)

 - The MLF aims at organizing ourselves to liberate ourselves from patriarchy and capitalism.

- Women’s NGOs aim a lobby group pushing up a few women to positions of power within existing patriarchy and capitalism.

 - The MLF relies on its own funds for its actions.

- Women’s NGOs rely on the private sector, the State and foreign organizations, sometimes even embassies, for its existence.

 - The MLF unites women, and together we struggle for the liberation of all women, and of all of society.

- Women’s NGOs have a Board and then, separately, “beneficiaries”.

 - The MLF  is egalitarian and democratic in both its organization and its aims.

- Women’s NGOs are rather more colonial, a kind of colonizing by one class of another, or sometimes even one country over another. They are neither egalitarian nor democratic.


What is important is that the struggle for women’s emancipation and liberation is still here. And the organizations that aim at this are, too. There are still Women’s Associations in neighbourhoods that have resisted the pressures of the phenomenon of NGO-ization. They continue to struggle for emancipation and liberation. As MLF, does. And MLF still works with these organizations precisely because we share the same vision of freeing ourselves from patriarchy and capitalism.

 This means that today there are two different whole currents: there are those like us, in the women’s movement proper, who struggle for emancipation and liberation, and against patriarchy – and there are also those influenced by neo-liberalism that want to buy off individual women, who then rise on the social ladder over the tops of the heads of other women, who remain oppressed and exploited as ever.