Nerina has a beautiful smile although the 15-year-old uses it sparingly, almost embarrassed to be – or appear – happy. Her left arm begins to twitch when I clip the microphone on to her pink sweat shirt. Beside her is her elderly father. His soft expression is comforting but his love and dedication as her protector is not enough to keep her calm. And it was not enough to keep her safe on the night of July 15 this year.
She went to use the communal bathroom when two men covered her head and raped her. One of the men accused of the rape is her neighbour and she sees him every day. But she does have a chance at justice, thanks to the Child Protection Centre which has been open for a year in Madagascar’s capital, Antananarivo. Through it she’s been assigned a lawyer and been given counselling – services that will prove invaluable as the trial approaches and she may be forced to relive that horrible night.
All the mothers I met in Madagascar were afraid for their daughters’ safety. One day we came across three sisters with 11 children between them. As we spoke one of the women was constantly craning her head to look around, repeating a question in earnest. My fixer said she was looking for her daughter, a three-year-old. Why? Because they said more young girls are being raped now than before the country’s political and economic crisis started in 2009. In the car our local producer, who frequently writes on gender issues and is in close contact with aid agencies, explained the issue. She said that although the rape of girls, and even babies, did happen before the coup that triggered the crisis, it was uncommon. But now things are different.
We went to the president of the Syndicate of Social workers for answers. Norotiana Jeannoda is a tough lady. When we arrive she’s yelling at the workmen adding two floors onto her shelter – I get the feeling she doesn’t take a lot of nonsense. Like Nerina’s father she exudes strength, something her line of work demands. I imagine she’s earned herself a few enemies for her criticism of the state. She’s open and passionate about helping society’s most vulnerable and there are more and more of them. She says the crisis has put families under immense strain and among the poorest communities, where many have lost their jobs, that anger and frustration is being taken out on women and children.
More girls are being married off young (child marriage is a Malagasy tradition) because parents can’t feed all their children properly and the dowry of cattle or cash offers a lifeline. Some are being pushed out of the family home early. There’s a tradition of putting teenagers into a specific house in a village – a halfway step between being under the protective folds of the family and full independence. It’s a home teens will share as they figure out what to do next. But Jeannoda says they’re being put there too early and in greater numbers now because parents can’t cope. Seeing their vulnerability, they’re ripe for exploitation – not only as sex workers or rape victims, but as labour, too.
Jeannoda is clearly heartbroken, and very angry. She says “children are considered the country’s richness but because of the crisis and poverty and non-respect of the laws, the childrens’ interests are not being respected.” For her “there’s nothing to justify the exploitation of children, you can’t say that because you’re poor it’s OK.”
As the workmen hammer away – expanding her privately funded shelter because there’s now so much demand, she leaves us with a plea: that “Madagascar’s priority in all policy-making should be to protect kids and implement social structures.”
The apparent degradation of social norms and standards under the pressure of the crisis is something we explored back at the Child Protection Centre. It’s one of two that UNICEF helped establish and provides ongoing support for. Steven Lauwerier, the Representative for Madagascar, says that to understand the plight of women and children you must appreciate some of the statistics. 92 percent of Malagasies live on less than $2 a day – and of the remaining 8 percent many are still struggling to make ends meet. It’s one of the poorest countries on earth.
After the coup international donors severed ties, and that wiped out 40 percent of the government’s budget. Money that used to go to education and healthcare among other vital services was immediately reduced if not completely removed (although President Andry Rajoelina has always found the cash to pay civil servants and the military). So
now, for example, there are half a million more children not going to school, and a total of 1.5 million children aren’t receiving an education. And half of the children under five years old are chronically malnourished. That doesn’t only effect their physical development but their intellectual capacity, too. It is not something you ever recover from. So, Lauwerier says, there’s a gaping hole in a generation of children that will never reach its full potential.
Say Madagascar to most people outside the country and “I like to move it, move it” is the common refrain. People think there are dancing lemurs everywhere. But the cartoon version of Madagascar is like some sort of cruel joke. There may not be a war, people may not be starving to death but it is a country that’s gradually declining on almost every front.
With free and fair elections there is hope, although the political uncertainty is far from resolved. If no candidate gets 50 percent of the vote from the October 25 presidential election there will be a second round on December 20. If everyone accepts the result and Madagascar avoids violence there should be a full return of that vital donor money. But so much damage has been done that it will take years to recover and some losses will never be won back.