Africa In Fact (Johannesburg)

1 July 2014

Madagascar: Islands of Safety

With Madagascar's political crisis over, children may finally get more protection

Harivola Rasoananahary, 13, sits on a bunk bed in a shelter in Antananarivo, Madagascar's capital, and stares at her feet. She is small for her age and shy.

"My sister, who lives in Antananarivo and sells things on the street, brought me with her," she says. "She promised my mother I would be able to study in the city," she says.

Once in the capital, however, her sister and brother-in-law forced her to do domestic work for them. Her brother-in-law also started to abuse her sexually. "One day, my sister ... accused me of trying to steal her husband and threw me out," she recalls. This tragic story is all too common on this island nation. Harivola, however, is one of the lucky few.

A passerby found her crying in the streets and took her to the police, who, in turn, handed her over to a shelter run by an NGO based in Antananarivo, known by its French initials as SPDTS (Syndicat des Professionnels des Diplômés en Travail Social). The refuge, on the outskirts of Antananarivo, is a group of colourful houses surrounding a beautifully kept garden.

SPDTS started in 2005 when several groups of social workers united to form an umbrella association. After the number of sexual abuse cases brought to its doors rose from 479 in 2009 to 988 in 2012, SPDTS decided to open the shelter.

The reason for the spike in cases from 2009 is not a mystery. Madagascar's five-year-long political crisis, which began after the 2009 coup d'état, has had a disastrous impact on the country's social fabric and public services.

After the upheaval, the international community halted all government aid, leaving ministries, hospitals, schools and police to function without funds.

While household incomes fell to under $2 a day for 92% of Madagascar's population, according to 2013 World Bank figures, social problems, ranging from alcoholism to domestic abuse, steadily increased.

The deteriorating situation has been particularly hard for Madagascar's under-15 year-olds, who make up 43% of Madagascar's 22m people, according to the World Bank. These children have been increasingly trafficked, exploited and abused, according to SPDTS social worker Olinka Alphonse Beary.

The number of missing minors in Antananarivo rose from 1,016 in 2009 to 1,739 in 2011, according to 2013 police statistics. "And these are just cases that are actually reported to the police," Mr Beary says.

Street children also started committing more crimes, according to SPDTS and police statistics. The SPDTS helped 125 juveniles accused of crimes in 2009, contacting their families when possible, and accompanying them to police stations and courts to make sure their rights were respected. This number increased ten-fold, to 1,336, in 2011.

The failure to enforce child protection laws has exacerbated the breakdown in social services. Two weak spots are laws prohibiting child molestation and child labour. It is complicated to prosecute crimes such as these that are often committed behind the walls of the family structure.

"The stone hackers, for example, will work at the quarry with the whole family, children included, from the very tender age of four and five years old," says Anita Ingabire Bakuramutsa, head of child protection at the UN children's agency (Unicef) office in Antananarivo. "The same happens in the mines.

The whole family will rush to unorganised mining sites. All the children are generally put to work alongside the adults," she says. Economic hardship in Madagascar also means that families push girls and boys into prostitution. Madagascar has about 3,000 child prostitutes, according to a 2012 World Bank report. "Most young prostitutes in Madagascar have no pimps," Ms Bakuramutsa says. "It's either the families who push their daughters and sons to do this or simple peer pressure from friends."

The problem has a related but different face in the country's coastal regions, where traditional practices have turned into modern economic activities.

In Antsohihy, a city in northern Madagascar, an age-old tradition of dowries and early marriage is now pushing girls into outright prostitution. Parents in this area traditionally construct a small house for their daughter at the first physical signs of puberty.

She is then encouraged to receive men, in the hope that she will be able to catch a rich husband, who will pay as much as two zebus (a sought-after breed of cattle, worth about $200 each) for the right to marry the girl.

Nowadays, however, girls go straight to the zebu market, where wealthy men gather, or to Antsohihy's bars to find clients. The Malagasy elections last December, which transferred power to a new president, Hery Rajaonarimampianina, have brought fresh hope to this beleaguered society.

The World Bank's vice president for Africa, Makhtar Diop, visited Madagascar last May and promised $400m in a new, three-year funding cycle to support nutrition, social protection and infrastructure projects.

It was scheduled to start on July 1st, after this magazine went to press. Mr Rajaonarimampianina has made a return to security a national priority and has pledged to improve child protection across the country, particularly for victims of sexual abuse and forced labour. His government has adopted a five-year action plan to reduce trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation.

One of the initiatives is a state-run maternity clinic in the Befelatanana district, in the centre of Antananarivo, where rape and abuse victims receive free treatment and social care. The police plan to open an office in the building.

This will make it easier for social workers at the clinic to take girls through the often daunting procedure of reporting sexual crimes. "Often women are victimised twice, once by their abuser and once by the system," according to Dr Dominique Rabemalala, technical vice-director of the clinic. "We had a mother whose ten-year-old daughter was raped by one of the neighbours, and the police asked her to pay a 40,000 ariary ($20) transportation fee to go and arrest the rapist.

She didn't have this money, so she came here to ask us for help," recalls social worker Telina Rakotonarivo, who works at Befelatanana. The clinic did not have money to help her and the rapist went free.

Very few rapists end up in prison, Ms Rakotonarivo observes. "Sometimes they pay as little as 30,000 ariary ($15) to the parents and propose to marry the girl in a traditional ceremony." From December 2013 to February 2014, 194 rape victims came in to Befelatanana. Of these, 55 were between five and 14 years old, according to the clinic's own records.

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