Antananarivo — Incomes have slipped to their lowest level in a decade since Madagascar's 2009 coup d'etat, and, in parallel, domestic violence has sharply risen.
The World Bank's October 2012 economic update said the country's average annual income is US$450, when it might have been $100 more in the absence of the political instability. The report also estimates that since 2008, another 4 million people have fallen below the poverty level.
The rising poverty has exacerbated women's vulnerability in this deeply traditional society. Locals report more domestic conflict over family resources, as well as increased alcohol and drug abuse. Impoverished women also have fewer options to escape violence and are less able to advocate for the safety of themselves and their children.
Can't find work
In 2009, twice-elected president Marc Ravalomanana was deposed by Andry Rajoelina. More than three quarters of the country's 20 million people now live on less than $1 a day, according to government figures, up from 68 percent before the coup d'etat. In rural areas, poverty rates are estimated at more than 80 percent.
The neighbourhood of Isotry is one of the poorest suburbs in the capital Antananarivo, with most of its approximately 7,500 residents eking out a living by hawking cheap goods or surviving on odd jobs.
Tendry Razafindrakoto, vice president of the Isotry neighborhod council, or 'fokotany', told IRIN, "Since the crisis, people can't find work. So the men meet in the bars, start to take drugs and drink, and then they go home and become violent. Alcohol is cheap, so what little money the men earn is spent in the bar."
The husband doesn't give money to the wife, so she doesn't have food and the children can't go to school. Then, when the husband comes home drunk, violence breaks out
The fokotany tries to intervene. "We try to mediate, but often it doesn't work, and the husbands don't listen. The women, on the other hand, think they should tolerate all [the men's] selfish behaviour. They don't want to sue the husband, and they don't want to leave either. They often don't have a place to go, and it's a shame to be a divorced woman, so they prefer to stay," Razafindrakoto said.
"Most conflicts here are about money. The husband doesn't give money to the wife, so she doesn't have food and the children can't go to school. Then, when the husband comes home drunk, violence breaks out," she said.
Esther Vololona Razazarivola is in charge of the legal aid clinic Centre d'Ecoute et Conseille Juridique Avenir, in Manjakandriana, about 47km outside Antananarivo. She told IRIN women often feel they have neither the ability nor the right to end abuse. Rather, they come looking for financial support.
"We had a woman who came here black and blue. Her husband was a general in the army, and he beat her daily. But that's not what she came for. She came because she wanted him to give her part of the salary," she said.
Georgette Ralalaharisoa, 39, has been married for 17 years to a stonemason who is often away for work. She works as a teacher in the mornings and as a farm labourer in the afternoons to help support her five children and her husband's parents.
The older children try to make him stop hitting me
But her husband's return home after long periods away often leads to violence. "The older children try to make him stop hitting me," she told IRIN. "I don't want to sue him, as I'm scared he will hit me even more."
The legal clinic's social workers have asked her husband to come for mediation, but he has refused.
Still, the clinic's efforts sometimes work. Negotiations by the clinic between Marie Lucienne Razafindrazaka and her husband Olivier Randrianarivony succeeded in convincing him to hand over part of his salary.
"After I got married, I didn't really change my way of life. I was still living like a bachelor, going out with my friends," Randrianarivony told IRIN. But advice from the clinic has helped him understand his family's needs. "My colleagues say that I have changed a lot."
Programmes by the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) and the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) are helping the police and the fokotany handle domestic violence cases.
Jean Victor Tsaramonina, police commissioner of Antananarivo's eighth arrondissement, told IRIN, "Just a few months ago, we would send women to the fokotany for mediation. We just dealt with theft and robbery around here. But since violence has become such a phenomenon in our society, we now also take on cases of spousal abuse and other kinds of violence."
Even so, victims often feel unable to pursue charges.
"Many women just want to give a statement, and refuse to take the husband to court. Cases of domestic violence are often difficult to prove. It's the wife's word against the husband, and often there are no witnesses. If the woman is badly beaten, we arrest the husband. If not, we try to see if there is another way to break the cycle. But as long as women are not equal to men in society, we are going to have these problems," he said.
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.]