By Gaby Razafindrakoto
In Madagascar, both government and civil society are confronting women’s rights issues more than ever before. Yet much remains to be done, especially to overcome deeply ingrained practices and customs that hinder women’s empowerment.
Article 6 of Madagascar’s constitution recognizes that “all individuals have equal rights and enjoy the same fundamental freedoms, protected by law without any discrimination based on sex, education, wealth, origin, religious belief or opinion.” The article calls for equal participation of women and men in public, economic, and social life. The country has also ratified or signed many international and regional conventions or protocols regarding women’s rights and gender equity, namely the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Beijing Declaration, and the Southern African Development Community Protocol on Gender and Development. Technical and financial partners, like the U.N. Population Fund, UNICEF, African Union, and UNESCO, have accompanied and supported the country in the implementation of those agreements. Yet, can we say that the majority of Malagasy women have gained anything in the process? In the past few years, the Ministry of the Population, Social Protection and Promotion of Women has taken initiatives such as developing the National Gender and Development Action Plan in an attempt to coordinate projects carried out by various actors, be they from civil society, public, or private institutions. However, much work remains to be done to achieve full gender equity.
The situation that many Malagasy girls and women face seems stagnant, especially in areas where no public administration is available. In some areas, traditional customs and stereotypes still prevail and regulate women’s everyday lives. The Moletry, a custom that requires a very young girl to be married to an elder man in return for a gift of oxen or money offered to her parents, is perhaps one of the most pervasive. When it comes to these traditional practices, transgression is forbidden, and refusal to participate could even result in the woman’s expulsion from her community. This is a situation many women are not ready to face, as they lack the resources to survive on their own, especially if they have toddlers or infants to fend for. If a woman does speak up, she is denigrated as “Akoho vavy maneno’,” literally “a hen that cackles.”
Women’s economic empowerment is still limited, but efforts are being made to change that. Some nongovernmental organizations provide training programs for women that focus on income-generating activities, but these are still only available in a few regions. The state, in the form of projects undertaken by first lady Vohangy Rajaonarimampianina, has established vocational centers for women in Madagascar’s main cities. The Federation pour la Promotion Feminine et Enfantine (The Federation for Women and Children) has been working with Gender Links, a South African NGO, to popularize the SADC protocol at a local level. Awareness sessions held in village communities include the explanation and discussion of basic gender concepts.
Efforts have also been made to give support to female victims of gender-based violence. Both NGOs and the government have set up various Centres d’Ecoute et de Conseil Juridique (Centers for Listening and Legal Advice) or Trano Aro Zo, centers where victims of violence can appeal for emergency care and legal advice. The Ministry of the Population has incited women to speak out with the slogan “Vakio bantsilana ny herisetra,” or “I break the silence.”
The Malagasy government, with the support of the African Union, has included more women in the Technical Committee for Security Sector Reform, a prominent government body tasked with improving Madagascar’s security sector at both local and national levels. The armies and the police are also recruiting more women.
Access to land in Madagascar has historically been unfairly withheld from women. In certain regions women are completely denied the right to inherit land, with the idea that they will marry men from other regions or tribes. Avenir, a gender activist association, is combatting this problem by helping women to officially document their land inheritance with the assistance of lawyers.
Lastly, and perhaps most significantly, the participation of women in national decision-making bodies is increasing. Political parties have been asked to include gender equity in their plans for national development. Some women’s associations, like Vondrona Miralenta ho an ny Fampandrosoana (Gender Group for Development) or the Conseil National Des Femmes Malgaches (National Council of Malagasy Women), have offered training and coaching for potential female political candidates, teaching skills like public speaking and project drafting. The percentage of women in state institutions has grown, with 31 (20.53 percent) female deputies in the National Assembly, and 12 female Senate members (19.05 percent of the total). The number of female representatives in local councils is also rising.
It’s clear that several paths are being taken with the aim of achieving gender equity in Madagascar. Civil society, state institutions, and various national and international stakeholders are striving to achieve a more just society that respects women and men’s human rights alike. Strong coordination and synergy between all of these actors is still required to achieve that goal.
Gaby Razafindrakoto is Secretary for the Federation of Women and Children, an SADC Protocol Alliance Focal Point in Madagascar. She also participated in the Global Media Monitoring Project with GEMSA.
[Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]