On 1 February 2009, the Mauritius Truth and Justice Commission (TJC) was established by then President Sir Anerood Jugnauth. Mandated to operate for two years, with the possibility of a six-month extension, the commission was tasked to conduct an inquiry into the legacy of slavery and indentured labour abuses and its impact on contemporary Mauritius. It was expected to cover up to 370 years, from 1638 to 2011, which is longest period covered by any truth commission.

The TJC’s focus was socioeconomic abuses and land dispossession and how these impact on descendants of slaves, ex-slaves and indentured labourers. The commission infrequently mentioned sexual violence experienced by slaves. It documented sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) experienced by slave and indentured labourer descendants in the present. However, it did not cover conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV).

Conflict and Prevalence of Sexual Violence

Prior to the invasion of European colonial powers, Mauritius was an isolated territory used as a port stop in the Indian Ocean for Arab and Asian traders, specifically from India and the Malay peninsula. As a result of the opening of the route around the Cape of Good Hope to the East Coast of Africa and Asia to European markets, Mauritius was considered by the Netherlands, France and Britain as an investment and an opportunity to trade with Asia. Plantation societies were established that were characterised by harsh and violent working and living conditions. The mode of production within the agrarian economic system was heavily, if not solely, reliant on the cheap slave labour of black and brown people who were sourced from East Africa, Madagascar, India and the Malay peninsula (TJC, 2011c).

The first European settlers in Mauritius were the Dutch in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Dutch East India Company used the island as a refreshment port for its ships, as well as territory for the development of the sugar cane industry, production of liquor and other agricultural resources. Despite Dutch ships travelling with native labourers, woodcutters and convicts from Batavia (Dutch East Indies), slave labour was used throughout the Dutch occupation of Mauritius. Some slaves, known as Maroon slaves, managed to escape and formed communities on the outskirts of society. They were known as the Maroon slaves. The development of Maroon communities set the precedent for resistance against colonial occupation in Mauritius (ibid).

In 1710, the Dutch occupation ended and by 1715 the French took over and renamed Mauritius as Ile de France. Much of the trade, industries and use of slave labour continued unchanged. Slavery was legalised and under French rule, slaves were defined as chattel labour and considered the private property of their owners. The 1723 Code Noir guaranteed that enslaved peoples were used for coercive, unpaid underdeveloped labour and that their labour power was reproduced to sustain the slave system. The treatment of slaves was violent and inhumane, with many slaves labouring to their death as a result of the harsh conditions. Female slaves were severely sexually exploited, sexually objectified, raped and otherwise sexually violated (TJC, 2011a, p. 114; TJC, 2011b, p. 101).

After defeat in the Napoleonic Wars, France was forced to give Mauritius to Britain as a condition of the Treaty of Paris of 1814. Like their predecessors, the British profited from both economic and social exploitation that valued coerced, unpaid slave labour. Across these three colonial periods, approximately 75% of the population were slaves and the rest were of European descent (ibid).

Because of the rising demand for cheap labour and the expanding sugar trade, indentured labour was introduced by the British to exhaust all opportunities to expand profits. The abolition of slavery occurred in 1835, which gave rise to the expansion of indentured labour and thus the evolution rather than the end of slavery (TJC, 2011a, p. 388). Indentured labour was supplemented through private recruitment from India, the Malay peninsula and other South Asian countries, which allowed for many undisclosed and unreported abuses. Indentured labour only officially ended in 1916.

Despite the colonial era ending in 1968, the internal dynamics of the system of colonialism cemented a biased and oppressive legal and institutional system that functioned through the ideologies of racism, classism and sexism, which continues to afflict descendants and shape political dynamics to the present day.

Contributing Factors around Sexual Violence

In its final report, the TJC addresses the sexual exploitation, sexual abuse, rape, forced pregnancies and ill-treatment that enslaved women experienced as a consequence of being viewed as sexual objects (TJC, 2011a, pp. 110, 114, 152; TJC, 2011b, p. 101). It establishes that the colonial categorisation of slave women was hyper-focused on the reproductive capacity of women, with Mozambican, Indian and Guinean women targeted by colonists as ‘better breeders’ of child slaves, which reduced slave transportation costs (TJC, 2011a, pp. 103, 110). The colonists established incentive systems which encouraged enslaved couples to birth children to buy their freedom, introduced the practice of ‘selective breeding’ that forced sexual relations between the ‘biggest and strongest’ slaves to encourage slave reproduction for profit, and criminalised abortion.

The commission final report also explores the impact of SGBV on the mental health of slaves and slave descendants. It mentions the breakdown of the ‘black’ female identity under slavery as a result of the denial of their sexual integrity, sexual consent and sexual dignity. Moreover, socially, ‘black’ women were negatively stereotyped as sexually promiscuous and immoral, which was often used to validate the sexual exploitation and violence experienced by slave women. Equally, the ‘black’ male identity breakdown is considered an indirect result of the sexual violence experienced by ‘black’ female slaves. From the report, this is assumed by the commission to be a consequence of the emasculation of ‘black’ male slaves in their failure to protect female slaves from sexual abuse (TJC, 2011b). The commission concludes by stating that the sexual violence experienced by slaves and former slaves has contributed to an intergenerational transfer of trauma and violence.

With reference to indentured labour, the final report documents that, as a result of the disproportionate number of indentured women compared to men, there were clear imbalances of power that disadvantaged immigrant women (TJC, 2011c; Vishwanaden, 2021, p. 92). Exploitation of female immigrants was widespread, as they were expected to service the domestic and sexual needs of both male labourers and male slaves (TJC, 2011a, p. 152). The unregulated and often illegal operation of the indentured system meant that immigrant women were subject to labour exploitation as well as sexual abuse and harassment both during transportation to Mauritius and on the plantations (Mishra, 2009). Equally, the colonial environment normalised violence, thus engendering unstable romantic and sexual relationships among indentured immigrants, wherein the security of female immigrants was threatened in both the private and public sphere, with many experiencing domestic violence that in some cases led to death (TJC, 2011c, p. 217).

Additionally, the bride price or dowry practice influenced the profitability of immigrant women. A consequence was further objectification of women, as the ‘sale’ of women became an opportunity for capital accumulation that led to increased sales of girl children and young women who were transported to Mauritius from Asia (TJC, 2011c, pp. 213-214). Immigrant women were often exposed to abuse by both those they were married off to and plantation owners. While the abuse is not explicitly defined as sexual, several mixed-race offspring, of European and Asian descent, are a product of these relations and make up some of the descendant group considered by the commission (ibid).

Transition and Establishment of the Truth Commission

The idea of a truth commission was first raised by Les Verts Fraternels political party leader Sylvio Michel in 1999. He suggested the establishment of a committee on reparations for slavery to investigate the extent of consequences of colonialism and the impact on slave descendants (TJC, 2011a, p. 7; Croucher et al., 2017). The proposed committee would also be tasked to recommend compensation and outline beneficiaries of such compensation. However, the development of this committee was interrupted by violent ethnic riots (TJC, 2011a, p. 8; Croucher et al., 2017).

Regional calls for reparations by heads of state gained momentum as a result of the 2001 Durban World Conference on racism as well as United Nations Resolution 56/266 in 2002, which acknowledges slavery as a crime against humanity. In 2000 and 2002, further attempts were made to establish a commission to investigate the damages sustained by slaves, indentured labourers and their descendants, but they failed. In 2004 the National Assembly passed a motion to establish a special committee for the investigation of the consequences of slavery, but the committee was never established (Croucher et al., 2017).

In August 2007, a task force was set up to negotiate the terms of reference for a truth commission. It looked at creating institutions that would redress the injustices suffered by descendants of slaves and indentured labourers. In 2008, the Truth and Justice Commission Bill was presented by the government, which expanded the focus of the commission to include land dispossession and land reform (TJC, 2011a, p. 8).  Throughout the process of developing the truth commission, there was no mention of including sexual violence in the mandate.

Mandate and Scope in Respect of CRSV

In August 2008, the Truth and Justice Commission Act was published, taking effect on 1 February 2009, with Robert Shell appointed as chair of the commission (replaced in 2010 by Alex Boraine), Vijayalakshmi Teelock as vice-chair, and three additional commissioners, Benjamin Moutou, Paramaseeven Veerapen and Lindsay Morvan (replaced in 2010 by Jacques David).

The TJC was to operate from 2009 to 2011 to investigate the socioeconomic consequences of colonialism and more specifically slavery and indentured labour on present-day Mauritius. The TJC remains the first and only commission that covers a period of 370 years, with a focus on the economic and social impact of colonialism, the slave trade, slavery and indentured labour during the European colonial occupations by the Netherlands, France and Britain (TJC, 2011a; Croucher et al., 2017).

The primary responsibility of the commission was to determine appropriate reparative measures for the descendants of enslaved peoples and indentured labourers (USIP, 2012). The TJC was to focus on the dispossession of land and analyse land issues and land reform in present-day Mauritius. Additionally, the Truth and Justice Commission Act instructed the commission to directly inquire into complaints made by individuals identified as victims/survivors of dispossession who are interested in reclaiming their land (TJC, 2011a, p. 1). There was no mention of sexual or gender-based violence in the mandate.

Truth Commission Operations

The TJC held 212 public hearings. The large majority were held at the headquarters of the commission in Port Louis, the capital, and few off-site. The research methodology of the commission was applied research, in-depth inquiries and oral testimonies from descendants of enslaved peoples, with all processes informed by themes of colonialism, the slave trade, slavery and indentured labour (TJC, 2011a, pp. 1-2). As a result of the time period covered by the commission, direct victims of slavery and indentured labour are deceased, so the commission took testimonies from their descendants as indirect victims.

The commission’s project teams included Slave Trade and Slavery; the Indentured Experience; Mauritian Economic History; Culture, Ethnicity, Memory and Identity; Health; Education; Towards a Just Society; Rodrigues, Agalega, Chagos and St. Brandon Islands; and Recommendations (p. 9). Additionally, there were workshops with experts from different fields on slavery, education, economics, law and indentured labour, but none on gender or SGBV. The commission recognised that there were outstanding questions, one of them being ethnic and gender divisions that still exist in Mauritian society (p. 10). The three main areas of investigation were: the revision of history (1723-2008); the consequences of slavery and indentured labour on society; and measures to achieve social justice. The commission’s operational parameters did not include the documentation of CRSV.

Arguably, the commission indirectly dealt with sexual violence. For example, the commission conducted an oral history research project aimed at preserving the collective memory of slave descendants (TJC, 2011b, p. 3). Through its research on the heritage of slaves, ex-slaves and indentured labourers, it documented the continuities of female slave sexual exploitation, SGBV, and its impact on both female and male slave descendants. This included a social survey of Cité La Mivoie, a temporary housing project inhabited primarily by slave descendants, wherein oral interviews were conducted with residents to document social conditions and contextualise recommendations that respond to the social problems they experience. Most of the population in the Cité are Creole ‘black’ and identify as descendants of slaves (TJC, 2011b, p. 78).

Truth Commission Final Report

According to the first volume of its final report, the commission recognises that it fell short and was ‘silent’ in acknowledging the circumstances of enslaved woman and including a gendered perspective in its operations (TJC, 2011a, p. 110). zThe definition of slavery offered by the commission does not include sexual slavery; however, the third volume of the report acknowledges that slavery involved kidnapping, assault and battery, and rape (TJC, 2011b, p. 269). The TJC’s analysis on colonial sexual violence is limited and infrequent, with very occasional use of terms such as “sexual exploitation,” “rape,” “sexual objectification” and “sexual abuse” across the volumes of the final report. The report’s focus is more oriented towards establishing the colonial link to ongoing SGBV experienced by descendants.

From research at Cité La Mivoie, the commission found evidence of continuities between the past and the violent and patriarchal underpinnings of many of the communities consisting of slave descendants. The report argues that present social problems are a consequence of the history of slavery and indentured labour. Such issues include domestic violence, gender-based violence, sexual exploitation, child prostitution, child pornography, teenage pregnancy, rape (particularly of minors) and the socialisation of the girl child to be a child-bearer and remain in the domestic domain (TJC, 2011b, pp. 91-93, 100-101, 143, 584).

Truth Commission Recommendations

The TJC did not provide explicit recommendations directed towards CRSV. There are however recommendations for redressing ongoing SGBV that is experienced by slave and indentured labourer descendants.

The report provides recommendations for child protection: “Children, victims of abuse (sexual/physical/gross neglect/ill-treatment) … need for proper assessment and psychological intervention and close follow-up at such cases so that they get the necessary caring and supportive environment to help them grow and deal with their past history. … Children-abused-parents/other family members who ask for these children – need for more guidance with parenting and coping skills” (TJC, 2011a, p. 27).

Under the heading “Family Patterns and Gender Relations,” the commission recommends: “(a) an in-depth study on the impact of slavery on the contemporary family and social problems, especially gender relations and family dysfunction. … (b) Sex education should be mandatory but should also promote the norms that sex should take place in intimate relationships of mutual respect and equal gender relations.” Additionally, with respect to the government’s formal protocol on the provision of assistance to all victims of sexual abuse, including child victims/survivors of commercial sexual exploitation, the commission recommends that the government investigate why victims/survivors do/did not receive support such as adequate medical treatment and psychological support (TJC, 2011b, pp. 144, 146, 193).

Under the heading “Child Prostitution,” the commission recommends that, in line with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Trafficking in Persons Report and per the Child Protection (Amendment) Act of 2008, the state should investigate cases of child trafficking; implementation mechanisms to facilitate improved anti-trafficking communication and coordination among the relevant parties including law enforcement entities, working groups, organisations and protective services available to child victims of commercial sexual exploitation; and provide adequate support for the rehabilitation of these children (pp. 146, 192).

The TJC recommends the adoption of policies for ‘gender mainstreaming’ to make significant progress towards ensuring that equality between men and women is fair and right. In response to teenage pregnancy, the commission suggests a strategy of prevention through the introduction of sexual and reproductive health education (TJC, 2011a, p. 339).

Under the commission’s key recommendations, the prevention strategy against teenage pregnancy includes “(a) Mainstreaming citizenship and responsible thinking and conduct into the educational system, (b) Improved educational and youth counselling programmes regarding managing sexual health and relationships, (c) Improved monitoring of school attendance, (d) Re-orientation of community outreach programmes, tailoring these to the local needs of parents, young boys and young girls separately, (e) Targeted approach of services and programmes reaching the most vulnerable groups for longer-term impact” (p. 337).

Under the heading “Sensitisation Programmes,” the commission recommends the promotion of sensitisation programmes and campaigns to change the mindset of the population. It notes that with the coordination of various partners, including the Catholic Church, the Health Education Unit, the Family Planning Section of the Department of Health, and social partners and organisation like the Mauritius Family Welfare and Planning Association and the Action Familiale, a common purpose for change in economic and social structures can be established (p. 340). The commission also suggests that such programmes can empower young girls to take necessary precautions to protect themselves (TJC, 2011b, p. 183).

More generally, the commission report recommends the immediate proclamation and implementation of the Equal Opportunity Act, as it is meant to guarantee equal rights for all citizens, irrespective of ethnic, political, sex and religion (TJC, 2011a, pp. 11, 24). Moreover, to memorialise slavery, the report recommends an Intercontinental Slavery Museum to be created in Port Louis for greater visibility and to honour the memory of all slaves and their contribution to the development of contemporary Mauritius (pp. 19, 141, 395).

Implementation of the Truth Commission Recommendations

The success of the commission is contested by many locals, who question whether the process was merely a cosmetic exercise (Croucher et al., 2017, p. 15). There is little evidence of the implementation of the recommendations relating to SGBV and impact for SGBV victims/survivors.

However, following the TJC’s recommendations, the Mauritian parliament adopted the Equal Opportunities Act, establishing an Equal Opportunities Commission (OHCHR, 2017). The Equal Opportunities Commission was mandated to address 12 protected grounds under law, which include sex and sexual orientation (SIGI, 2014). In 2017, it conducted sensitisation campaigns at various women’s centres to equip women to understand their rights and develop better tools to address discrimination and sexual harassment issues (EOC, n.d.). It is unclear if this is a direct result of the commission’s recommendation.

Mauritius has also increased its anti-trafficking capacity. Efforts include: identifying more trafficking victims; providing protective services to all identified child victims; conducting nationwide campaigns to raise awareness of trafficking; screening vulnerable populations including migrants traveling alone and victims of crimes; and monitoring trafficking indicators. However, the government has been criticised for lacking standard operating procedures to identify and adopt provisions for adult sex trafficking victims (DoS, 2021). A Child Protection and Care Bill was expected to be introduced in the National Assembly in 2018 (OHCHR, 2017), but there is not much information on its development.

It is unclear if gender mainstreaming has been implemented within policies, but there is an apparent increase in the participation of women in both the public and the private sector. The government establishes a ministerial committee in January 2016 to guarantee better representation of women in the National Assembly (ibid). Again, it is unclear if this is related to the commission’s recommendation.

More generally, the Ministry of Arts and Cultural Heritage opened the Intercontinental Slavery Museum in Port Louis in 2020. The museum is said to “(1) study slavery and the slave trade in the Indian Ocean; (2) gather, collect and preserve documents and oral history on slavery; (3) create and preserve a catalogue of artefacts related to slavery; (4) host a permanent exhibition and organize regular travelling exhibitions; and lastly, promote curricular development and scientific research as well as the production of educational and pedagogical materials” (UNESCO, 2020). It can be seen as  symbolic reparations, as it is meant to help the Mauritian population ‘re-member’ and establish a site for memory sharing and collecting (Carrel, 2021). The museum aims to “fill an immense gap in memorialization of the history of slavery … and promote remembrance” (ICSC, 2019). There is no clear indication whether the museum will engage with the issue of sexual violence during either slavery or the colonial period.


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