Madagascar: Being bold for gender equality

Date: March 9, 2017
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Madagascar, 8 March:  Be bold for change is the slogan of International Women’s Day this year. It is one thing to be bold, another is to bring about lasting change.

At Gender Links we have tried to be bold by insisting against the many pressures to deliver instant results that there are no short cuts to gender equality.  At the regional level, we have coordinated the civil society campaign for a SADC Protocol on Gender and Development and its recent realignment to the Sustainable Development Goals. We work to integrate the targets of this Protocol – the only legally binding sub-regional instrument in the world to bring together all commitments to gender equality under one umbrella – into our core governance, media and justice work.

A decade ago, our research showed us that local government is a glaring gap in gender and governance work. We conducted research in ten SADC countries and worked with gender ministries to develop national action plans for gender responsive local governance. When we found those policies not reaching the ground, we devised a ten stage model for working council by council, community by community to bring about change.

We now work with over 400 Centres of Excellence for Gender in Local Government that have voluntarily joined this programme. They conduct a situation analysis, develop costed action plans (recently updated and aligned to the Post-2015 SADC Gender Protocol), run campaigns, and present good practices at annual SADC Protocol@Work summits, where judges rate performance. Councils get different colour COE certificates – from blue, to green, to silver, to gold to platinum depending on how they do.  The theory is that working through gender drivers of change, monitoring gender action plans, peer competition, learning and sharing, these councils can change the communities around them for good.

Does this work? I spent the days leading up to International Women’s Day on a listening and learning mission in Madagascar, the sprawling Indian Ocean island where many parts can only be reached by sea; per capita GDP is one of the lowest in the world; women comprise a mere 8% of councillors; and patriarchal practices mean that at many village meetings women do not speak at all. We began our work here with a wing and a prayer in 2008; now we have worked with 67 councils, some of which can only be reached by motor cycle.

We begin the day at Andramasina, where a stone plaque carries the COE slogan:  La Paix Commence a la Maison – Peace begins at Home. Of the three pictures on the wall in the mayor’s office, two are the national and regional certificates won by the council in 2014 for best rural council at national and regional level. Mayor Rakotomanga Ralaiari shares the signed and stamped statement of commitment made by the council. Deputy mayor and gender champion Blondine Ravaozanany, who got a passport and travelled overseas for the first time ever to go to the summit, led the updating of the council action plan after GL’s Training of Trainer workshop in 2016.

Representation of women in the council is determined by elections: there is still only one out of eight women councillors. But the council has a gender committee in which women and men are equally represented. The mayor says that unusually for Madagascar, women constitute 70% of those in public meetings, where decisions are made about local taxes and expenditures: a powerful platform for change. For example, although women don’t own land, they have voted to increase taxes on land, and to use the revenue for provision of market stands. The council also made a provision in its modest budget for 100 women to go to the 8 March International Women’s day march in the capital city 40 km away – something that would never have happened in the past.  The mayor’s goal is to double agricultural productivity and make energy accessible to every home. Presently only 15% of homes have electricity and 20% have renewable energy. 65% of homes have no energy at all. These measures, says the mayor, will greatly enhance women’s agency.

Still radiant over the experience of travelling to Johannesburg three years ago (her whole family and the council went to the airport to see her off) Ravaozanany describes how, when three youth gang raped a young woman recently, the entire community rose up and made sure they were put behind bars. She describes the two room council offices with three desks, a few chairs and a computer, as a “safe space” for all those experiencing GBV. The council is testimony to a core principle of the COE model – that community by community, the war on GBV can be won.

In neighbouring Ambalavao, we learn that Bongatsara (also a COE) has been leading GBV awareness campaigns in the area. Peer learning and sharing is an important component of the COE model. Bongatsara is one of the few councils in Madagascar with a woman mayor Rabearisoa Lancelot Annick, who has been to two regional summits. Her special gift is working with youth community theatre groups in making the case for changing attitudes towards gender equality.

While walking through Ambalavao, we are accosted by a private college head teacher who reminds us that he won two awards at summits (for HIV, education and economic empowerment). Alphonse Rasdolopoarinivo, a former councillor who has his certificates proudly displayed in his office, has carried his passion for gender equality to his technical training school, where out of 279 pupils, 175 are girls. In a country where boys outnumber girls in schools at every level, he charges lower fees for girls as “my small contribution to gender equality.”

The council is keen to share how it has gone from a paper gender action plan to action. We are taken to an all- woman pineapple co-operative started by the council with local donor funds as part of its gender action plan. The women sell pineapples, but also process then into fruit juice and jam. Georgette Ranovoroarisoa, the president of the co-operative, knows about International Women’s day: “it is important that women work, that they use their minds, think for themselves, act independently and help their families,” she says.

Down the road, there is an eight member plant nursery co-operative, led by a man but with active participation by the four women members. In the past, we are told, such a venture would have been run by men only. Thanks to the council’s gender policy, at least half the members will always be women.  Against the vast challenges that Madagascar faces these may appear as baby steps. But for this community, they are bold. And they are real.

Colleen Lowe Morna is CEO of Gender Links


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