As a schoolgirl I was told that abortion was illegal in Mauritius. No exceptions. There was no reason for me to believe otherwise. At church I heard men pontificate about God’s will, the sacred foetus, the mother’s responsibility, the sin of murder. At school I heard women speak on the virtues of abstinence, of adoption as a gift. No-one spoke of abortion at home: my mother perhaps didn’t believe she had any reason to do so. When I was six she bought me an illustrated book explaining where babies came from; when I was nine she taught me about contraception; when I was a teenager she prevented me from going out, confiscated my phone, checked my messages.
I knew nothing of the protests, the legal challenges to our colonial law, all the work that was being done by Muvman Liberasyon Fam (MLF), the first women’s rights organisation that publicly stood in favour of abortion.1 I’d only vaguely heard of Lindsey Collen; whenever her name came up the phrase ‘radical madwoman’ usually followed.
It was the early 2000s and all I wanted was perfect grades, a scholarship, an exit from the island. Abroad, I hoped for kindness: the girls I knew who’d left for Europe spoke of freedom. They said no-one cared about what they did, there was no surveillance; there were problems, yes, but most of the time people – at university, in the workplace – took them seriously, treated them with respect.
Kindness, care, respect. We had none of that at the Catholic school I attended. I called our despotic headmistress Folcoche, after Hervé Bazin’s Vipère au Poing [Viper in the Fist] (1948); Paule Rezeau, named Folcoche (folle-cochonne, or ‘mad pig’ in English) by her sons, is one of literature’s cruellest mothers. Our Folcoche was so terrible that a group of older students planned to write a letter to the local newspapers, denouncing her sadism and the malice of some of the other teachers: the way they’d taunt, scream; the way they patrolled the gates in the early morning, ready to castigate teenage girls for talking to the boys at the school across the road, inform their parents of their bad behaviour. Parents would show up at school and publicly humiliate their daughters. Putain. Salope. Vaux rien. Girls beaten outside and inside their parents’ cars.
One teacher seemed to have found an especial vocation for eviscerating her students. We were all afraid of being taught by her (and her teaching skills, like most of the staff’s, were mediocre). She’d taught an 11-year-old Creole girl who killed herself; whispers were that she had made this child’s life intolerable. I thought she’d be merciless to my friend, Anaïs, who became pregnant at 14, but beyond glacial condescension she didn’t say much: almost as if she expected Creole girls to end up this way. Besides, Anaïs was only following the Church’s code of conduct. Carrying the foetus to term was penance for her sin.
Anaïs drank ‘ancestral remedies’ of wine and spices but still the foetus grew. She’d heard of abortifacient pills but none of us knew their names or where to get them. She was terrified of her draconian parents, her violent father who clung on to the respectable middle-class space he held in society. She ended up telling them that she’d been raped by her boyfriend. They didn’t know him, a sweet child who was slightly younger than us. They didn’t press charges. He wasn’t allowed to see the baby after he was born. I remember him crying outside the school gates, begging Anaïs to tell her parents the truth, to let him be a part of her life, her son’s life.
That same year another one of my friends became pregnant. Her parents were awful but she understood that she didn’t have a choice, that attempting to get rid of it on her own wouldn’t work. She went to her mother, who took her to some grotty, dark place. She didn’t speak of the procedure, only that she saw the foetus dumped in a toilet afterwards. She was terrified. There was no-one to comfort her.
The fight to decriminalise abortion in Mauritius started with the Muvman Liberasyon Fam. And the movement emerged from one of the greatest protests the island had ever seen.
In 1975, students from state schools and private schools marched peacefully from the centre of the island towards Port Louis. They demanded free and equal education; they wanted schools to be allocated equal funding; they wanted Kreol introduced as a language of instruction and for the curriculum to be decolonised. By the time they reached the entrance of Port Louis the riot police cracked down on them using tear gas and batons.
The protest hadn’t emerged from a vacuum. The years preceding it were tumultuous: there were the racial riots of 1969; a new socialist party, the Mouvement Militant Mauricien, was on the rise, and its members and activists were targeted in a series of assassination attempts (one activist was shot dead in 1971); a few months before the protest, Cyclone Gervaise – one of the most intense to have struck the island – had devastated homes and infrastructure across the country. Incredibly, amidst all of this, the country was growing rapidly prosperous. An Export Processing Zone was set up and many women found themselves newly employed as factory workers, manufacturing products from textiles to food destined to be exported, duty-free, abroad.2 Their wages changed the balance of power in their homes, to seismic effect: this was still a time when women were locked indoors by their husbands as they left for work in the morning; when women needed special permission to leave their houses; when it was common to be harassed and assaulted on the street.3
In the wake of the protest, Lindsey Collen, Ragini Kistnasamy, Ashriya Somauroo, Dolly Antoine, Marie Bhagan, Danon Chelvenaigum, Mala Toussaint, Antoinette Baya and the late Salma Toorabally set up a co-operative school for lessons. Most of these women had been part of the march as students and as teachers. The co-operative school led to the creation of key left-wing associations in Mauritius that still exist today. These are Ledikasyon Pu Travayer,4 an association that teaches literacy to adults and which promotes Kreol and Bhojpuri; Muvman Liberasyon Fam, an association that aims for the complete and collective emancipation and liberation of women, and Lalit de Klas,5 an independent left-wing monthly magazine which became the LALIT political party.
Muvman Liberasyon Fam was radical in its very name. ‘Fam’ was (and is still) considered the rude way of describing a woman in Mauritius; a woman treated as ‘fam’ and not ‘madam’ is believed to be immoral. The MLF owned the word, and the power it represented: these fam were at the helm of protests and strikes in the coming years, such as the general strike movement of 1979, the biggest in Mauritian history, led by sugar estate labourers, mill workers and dock workers.
‘Women workers organised these huge, illegal protests, and they did so without fixed line telephones, which was all the more remarkable. And they were young women, around 15 to 19 years old. I was 26 at the time, the “granny,”’ Collen told me. I met her in early June, at the LALIT office in Port Louis. From the office I could see part of the Grand River North West bridge, the place where riot police attacked the protesting students 47 years ago.
Three weeks later in the US, Roe v. Wade would be overturned. I hadn’t set out to write a topical essay, just (hopefully) a necessary, long-overdue piece, one that I’d started researching years ago. There weren’t that many people I could interview, beyond the women of the MLF: though there were many women’s organisations in the country in the 1970s and 80s, the MLF was the first to publicly advocate for the decriminalisation of abortion and still stands at the forefront of abortion rights almost half a century later. Collen herself has become an emblematic figure, indissociable from LALIT and the movements she belongs to. The fresh, intelligent newsletters she writes for LALIT are widely shared. Though I sometimes disagree with LALIT’s methods, there is no questioning the party’s deep commitment to socialism. They have consistently taken stances that mainstream political parties and organisations often shy away from, or won’t proclaim outright, or will brandish many years later, once the issue has become somewhat palatable to the general (rather conservative, patriarchal) public. Examples include marriage law reforms; the introduction of Kreol and Bhojpuri in schools as languages of instruction; anti-imperialism and anti-militarism, in the fight against the Anglo-American control of the Chagos archipelago; the reintroduction of village elections; social housing reparations. I could go on and on.
Collen is a warm, soft-spoken, unassuming woman. She’s in her mid-seventies now and is still very much engaged in Mauritian social and political life, so much so that her own writing seems almost like an afterthought – though she is, indisputably, the greatest Mauritian writer in the English language. She won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Africa twice. John Berger described her brilliant novel Mutiny (2001) as ‘a break-out and a breakthrough. Magnificent’. The Rape of Sita (1993) is my favourite book of hers: it follows the story of Sita, a member of a local women’s movement, as she comes to terms with her sexual assault. Collen weaves in myths, folk tales, poetry and drama (The Rape of Lucrece, for instance) in Sita’s reckoning with power, colonial and postcolonial. The book was banned in Mauritius within days of publication, though it is doubtful that it had even been read by Mauritian censors. The title had incensed Hindu fundamentalists. Supposedly speaking on behalf of the roughly 50 percent of Mauritians of Hindu faith, they claimed that the book was an insult to the Hindu goddess Sita, a desacralisation of sorts since the name of the goddess was juxtaposed with the word ‘rape’. Collen had to go into hiding for a few days: she was threatened by telephone and through letters, messages wishing her death and public rape. The Prime Minister at the time stated in parliament that ‘a glance at the back page of the book suffices to indicate that this publication may constitute an outrage against public and religious morality’ and urged police to ‘take action’. He likened his decision to the local ban that was enforced on Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses in 1989. Even now, you can only find some of Collen’s books in the National Library of Mauritius and the Institut Francais de Maurice – they aren’t sold in bookshops.
Collen told me that a year after the movement’s inception, the MLF held island-wide meetings. Abortion was a topic from the very first. In another radical linguistic act, the MLF decided to call the procedure by its name. At the time, most women referred to abortion as ‘getting rid of it’, or ‘fer li ale’ in Kreol.
‘We were nervous, but thought we really should speak up,’, said Collen, remembering a meeting in rural Baitka, Belle Vue, in 1977. ‘There were women of all ages there. We slowly tried to work our way to the topic. An elderly woman spoke up and said “yes, we all believe that hospitals must do this operation. All women here agree, don’t you worry.”’
Women in their thousands supported the MLF, and as the movement grew in momentum it faced increasing hostility from the Catholic Church. The Church stood against abortion and contraception, and advocated the temperature method as ‘birth control’ instead: keeping a daily record of your temperature for at least three to six months, so as to learn when you ovulate. Though your bodily temperature rises during ovulation, it may also fluctuate for many others reasons, including sickness, breastfeeding, alcohol, oversleeping, stress, medication, and travel. In 1982, a priest writing in La Vie Catholique, the Church’s magazine, compared women seeking abortion to Nazis.6 Pressure from the Church may very well be one of the reasons why several draft bills legalising abortion ‘disappeared’ from parliament.
In the decades that followed, the MLF contested the 1838 Criminal Code and its archaic, colonial diction. Though the French version of the law criminalising abortion used the word ‘enceinte’ (pregnant), the English version used the term ‘quick with child’. The English version, crucially, took precedence. After consulting colonial-era legal tracts and papers that define ‘quickening’ or ‘quick with child’, including Bouvier’s Law Dictionary (originally published in 1839), the MLF argued that the term, in medical jurisprudence, referred to the motion of the foetus in the womb – a ‘quickening’ that is felt around the twentieth week of pregnancy. This gave grounds to the argument that abortion under 20 weeks of pregnancy was legal. The MLF, as part of the Common Front on Abortion, brought it to the attention of the Government and Director of Public Prosecutions in 2009.7 It became the crux of the matter in the trial of Shabeela Kalla, who two years earlier had been charged with ‘procuring her own miscarriage when quick with child’ after getting an illegal abortion when she was eight weeks pregnant. Her lawyer contested the terminology and won.
The move towards decriminalisation was growing. The MLF had even found an effective counter to the Catholic Church’s anti-abortion stance. In radio programmes and in the press, they’d question whether the Church truly intended to set the police on women and young girls who were already in a precarious position. Did they really want to see these women pulled out of their homes and put in prison?, they’d ask. The Bishop eventually relented somewhat, stating that, though opposed to abortion, he understood women’s distress and accepted the procedure if the foetus was endangered.
In 2012, a national debate was held in view of amending the Criminal Code of 1838 with respect to abortion. That same year, Marie-Noelle Derby and Sharonne Marla made national news after dying from backstreet abortions. The MLF held candlelit ceremonies at their graves, accompanied by their families. When Parliament met to discuss the bill there were women in the galleries, protesting for their rights. Relatively few MPs stood against the amendments, which were passed in June.
At the time of writing, these amendments mean that we have more abortion rights here in Mauritius than a person does in Texas. They are still highly restrictive, however.
In Collen’s novel Getting Rid of It (1997), three Mauritian women band together to dispose of a miscarried foetus. They can’t bury it, since the neighbours could be watching or a dog could dig up the grave. They can’t toss it in the bin or in a river: someone may see and report them to the police, say that the foetus had been aborted. They carry the remains of the foetus in plastic bags around Port Louis, trying to find a solution that evades the patriarchal eye.
The ways in which a person procures an illegal abortion are described in the span of one conversation near the beginning of the book.
‘You went to see Madam Naga? Why didn’t you ask me to come with you on the day? What if you keeled over on the way back or something? Are you sure she’s got it all out?’
‘No. I tell you, it came down by itself. All by itself.’
‘You went to the chemist’s and got Cytotec and took it?’
‘I went to the chemist’s but I didn’t buy anything.’
‘You bought those latizann bazar with the wild pineapple and god knows what poisons all tied in a bundle and stewed them up, put them to draw and strained the brew and drank it?’
‘No, no, no.’
‘You pawned god knows what and went to a doctor?’
‘No. And don’t you cross-question me either. I’m not a criminal, Gold. I’m just a woman. And I feel dizzy right now. Giddy woman.’
Jumila was what you call learning to talk. Talk as in talk back.
‘Well, why are you acting like one then?’ Meaning a criminal. ‘Poor thing, look at you. There’s a left-over question, you slipped and fell like everyone else in the slip-and-fall ward?’
‘No. I’m telling you, no. I’d tell you the truth. I didn’t do anything. It came down by itself. I promise.’
Collen writes of ‘Madame Naga’, the backstreet abortionist;8 Misoprostol, sold under the name Cytotec, a form of medication used to treat and prevent stomach ulcers which can cause abortion; herbal remedies sold in the bazaar for ‘lateness of periods’; the ‘doctor’, the most expensive option of them all, and the ‘slip and fall’ wards of hospitals. Street talk suggests that women suffering from post-abortion complications are able to go to this ward and get treated, no questions asked.
The latest statistics we have on abortion in Mauritius date from 2020. 1338 women were treated for complications following abortion in 2020, compared to 1850 women in 2011, the year before the amendments were passed. We don’t have any information on the number of abortions that were legally performed in the years following 2012. From their work in the field, though, both the MLF and the Mauritius Family Planning and Welfare Association estimate that around 10,000 to 15,000 abortions are performed here every year. This would mean that the vast majority of abortions are still practiced illegally, despite the amendments.
Under the amendments, women are still punished by law if they procure an abortion by themselves using medication or other devices. Power solely lies within the medical establishment: an abortion can only be carried out by a practiced gynaecologist in a prescribed institution, and only then upon conferring with a peer that one of four following conditions are met. Here are the conditions as written in the law:
- The continued pregnancy will endanger the pregnant person’s life;
- The termination is necessary to prevent grave permanent injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant person;
- There is a substantial risk that the continued pregnancy will result in a severe malformation, or severe physical or mental abnormality, of the foetus which will affect its viability and compatibility with life; or
- The pregnancy has not exceeded its fourteenth week and results from a case of rape, sexual intercourse with a female under the age of 16 or sexual intercourse with a specified person which has been reported to the police.
The amendments assume that Mauritians who need an abortion have the financial means and/or knowledge necessary to seek a gynaecologist and undertake the paperwork required by different ministries. Though public healthcare in Mauritius is free, patients face extortionate waiting times, discrimination and medical malpractice. Working class women are sometimes turned away by public officers who claim they ‘don’t have time’ for them. Earlier this September, a Creole woman sued a hospital doctor who had ‘forgotten’ a swab inside her uterus after a caesarean section; he told her that her pain was due to ‘panic attacks’.
The amendments do nothing for women who do not have the financial capacity to have another child. Subsection (d) is particularly vile, and ignores the fact that working class women are often maligned when they go to the police (or any other government institution, for that matter), that police brutality and torture is widespread, that children who become pregnant don’t necessarily come to their parents with this information within 14 weeks – and their parents, upon learning of the pregnancy and its circumstances, may not go to the police at all.9 Clause 3, which follows the conditions, gives an extra incentive to women to avoid the police: if their testimony is found lacking – if, say, these women are up against men that are more powerful than they are, who are armed with lawyers – and they are charged with ‘a false declaration of rape, sexual intercourse with a female under 16 or sexual intercourse with a specified person to the police’, they could be imprisoned for up to 10 years.
It should be no surprise that most Mauritian women seek their salvation illegally – and are punished for it. Several newspaper articles detail ‘investigations’ that have occurred over the years, in which the ‘investigated’ parties are often poor. There’s the story of Jessica, who was ‘known to the police’ for living in a situation of extreme domestic violence: her stepmother had stabbed her, her parents had protection orders against her. She tried to get rid of her foetus by swallowing abortifacients and inserting pills into her vagina. In January this year, police arrested a woman who’d ingested about 15 Cytotec pills to ‘get rid of it’; she’d told the police she couldn’t afford another child. She’d thrown the remains into a bin; someone must have seen her, for it was an ‘anonymous call’ that tipped the officers off. She already has three children and her husband is in prison.
Collen told me that these investigations are more of a form of harassment, and that actual convictions are very rare in the MLF’s experience. I think of the number of times Collen was arrested for her work as an activist, the terror of the Mauritian police and prison system that she describes in her novel Mutiny. The protagonist Juna (who, incidentally, is pregnant) is locked up along with a young girl named Leila and an elderly woman from Chagos, Mama Gracienne. When news breaks of a mega-cyclone heading to Mauritius, Juna plots the inmates’ mutiny and escape. Like many Mauritians, Juna has been imprisoned for ‘allegation’ – ‘not for making one, oh no. An allegator, like me, is someone against whom an allegation has been made. It sometimes suffices for more than just the arrest and detention, and bleeds into judgement and sentence as well.’ It is one of the most appalling aspects of the Mauritian judicial system.
It doesn’t matter if these women are rarely imprisoned. The harassment and the threat of jail time are abhorrent enough, and one wonders of the fate of women who are alleged to have had an abortion.
I wrote part of this essay under the thrall of hyperemesis gravidarum. This is my second pregnancy, second battle with the condition. I’ve become so good at vomiting that my stomach is completely flat. My bones protrude. I’ve lost 10 kilos, again. I vomit so much and so hard that I think I’ll heave an organ into the toilet, my lungs, my heart. And when I heave my ribs feel tight as if gripped by tongs. I can’t imagine going through this condition – repeatedly – if this pregnancy wasn’t fully and firmly my choice.
I end this essay now under bed rest. I started bleeding at 16 weeks, diagnosed with a subchorionic haemorrhage. If I were to miscarry now, the treatment I’d receive would be an abortion. A woman has recently made headlines for miscarrying at 16 weeks in Malta, a country where abortion is illegal; she was denied proper care and had to be airlifted to Spain. Both our pregnancies were wanted, hoped for. The pain and fear I’ve felt over the past few weeks have seemed depthless. There is no rest to be found in sleep, my dreams are filled with blood. To suffer through that, and not receive basic healthcare immediately should I lose this pregnancy – horror beyond diction.
It was during my first pregnancy that I learned about the older methods of abortion. Women around me felt freer to speak about these matters. I was told that our grandmothers would eat an excessive amount of aubergine and wild pineapple; failing that, one could find an expert in these matters around the neighbourhood, who’d usually have a catheter in hand. One would go to these experts, addresses shared from mother to daughter. And if those abortions somehow failed, too, well – newborns died.
I remember a church service in 2012, before the amendments were passed. It was one of the last masses I’d ever attend. The priest ranted about the banalisation of that sin, the murder of ‘new life’. I was 20 years old. I took the sombre faces of the women around me seriously; now I wonder whether, like my mother, these were just masks of agreement that they removed in private.
‘This is women’s business,’, said a very religious, middle-aged woman I know, who was surprised my husband was so involved in caring for me during my pregnancy. ‘Men don’t know anything. It’s better that way.’
I think about my friends from school. I wonder if they know that, had they been markedly wealthier, their parents would have taken them to the island of La Reunion for the procedure. Had they grown up to become ‘society women’ here, they’d have known which local gynaecologist to call, which words to use. Wealth buys care.
Complete decriminalisation of abortion in Mauritius feels like epochs away. Growing global conservatism has found its way to our shores, which isn’t a surprise, considering the number of supra-wealthy immigrants who ‘fall in love’ with our island and our lenient tax regime. The local anti-vaccine movement is very well-funded; a celebrity French conspiracy theorist, who is anti-vaccine and anti-abortion, has a house on the coast.10
‘There’ll have to be a massive social movement in order for abortion to be decriminalised here, and the Catholic Church would need to stand back,’ Collen said to me the last time we spoke. ‘Growing conservatism, irrationality and conspiracy theories, as well as the overturning of Roe v. Wade may worsen abortion rights across the world. And after COVID-19, people’s ideas of what the state can and can’t do to them has changed in ways that are not clear yet.’
Perhaps one step forward here would be to reprint Getting Rid of It, maybe even with a Kreol translation. ‘I wanted to very gently force people with ideas up in the air about when life begins, to come down to earth and realise what it means for all women, for the whole of society, when abortion is illegal,’ Collen told me. ‘As a whole, the novel is, again I only suppose this, a metaphor for women’s lives, and human life, when all your long term plans are continually challenged by short-term, often practical, matters that absolutely have to be seen to. What could be more urgent than a foetus in a plastic bag, for example?’
I’d like to know what would happen in Mauritius if we could make literature once again a positive, central part of national conversation. When Getting Rid of It was published in 1999, six years after The Rape of Sita, it was warmly received – which gives me hope. ‘People said they cried at the end, when reading it,’ Collen recalled. ‘Students who studied it at the University of Mauritius adored it. People loved the depiction of the women [who live in] Vallée Pitot. And young people of the intellectual elite, once they had read it, felt somewhat freed from their own blinkered lives and rosy lenses – if I can mix an eye metaphor.’
The Women’s Liberation Movement, translated from Kreol into English.
By the mid-1980s, the island would see the prominent rise of women within the governing Militant Socialist Movement (MSM) party – Sarita Boodhoo, Sarojini Jugnauth, Sheila Bappoo – who transformed the idea of the traditional Hindu woman’s place in society. The burgeoning tourism industry would also draw more women out from their homes and into the workforce.
This is quite harrowingly described in Muvman Liberasyon Fam’s book, The Women’s Liberation Movement in Mauritius (1988.
‘Workers Education’ [association], translated from Kreol into English.
‘The Class Struggle’, translated from Kreol to English. ‘Lalit’ is the Kreol word for struggle.
Jean-Claude Alleaume, ‘J’Observe’, La Vie Catholique, January 29, 1982. The whole piece is quoted on p.32 of the MLF’s book, The Women’s Liberation Movement in Mauritius.
The Common Front notably includes the Nursing Association and the Mauritius Family Planning and Welfare Association.
These abortions are often performed using catheters (‘lasonn’ in Kreol) and result in septicaemia.
I’m thinking also of children who are raped by members of their own family, who don’t have the ability to go to the police and who would be unwilling to report their family to the police.
Victor Mottin, ‘La lutte anti-IVG, obsession de la sphère complotiste française’, Usbek & Rica, May 17, 2022. https://usbeketrica.com/fr/article/la-lutte-anti-ivg-obsession-de-la-sphere-complotiste-francaise.