Madagascar: Traditional practices promote the exploitation of girls

Date: December 4, 2013
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Antananarivo, 5 December: Throughout Southern African there is a wealth of cultural diversity; of tradition, practice and ritual. Many cultural norms and values are positive and contribute to keeping traditions alive. There are however customs in place that contradict women’s human rights.

While some states across the region have enacted legislation to protect women from discriminatory customary practices, the conflict between formal and customary legal systems persists, leaving women vulnerable to harmful traditional and cultural practices. Women’s lack of information, education and access to the formal legal system as a method of redress further exacerbates this situation.

The SADC Protocol on Gender and Development urges member states to ensure that girls enjoy the same rights as boys and are protected from harmful cultural attitudes and practices. These measures include legislation to discourage traditional norms, which legitimise and perpetuate gender based and socio-economic inequality.

For example, in Madagascar, several harmful cultural practices compromise young girls’ lives and rights. According to a UNFPA report on violence in Madagascar, half of all women between the ages 20 and 24 were married before they reached the age 18.

Early marriage is widespread in the country, putting an abrupt end to girls’ childhoods, separating them from their families and hindering their education. The practice locks girls into a life of sexual exploitation and domestic servitude.

In the Masikoro tribe, it is customary that after puberty, girls live in different buildings from their parents. This is a transitional period between childhood and adulthood. A young woman is supposed to be set free to chart her own destiny. However, in practice the custom exposes young women to a range of risks, including early marriage, pregnancy, and preterm delivery and maternal mortality.

Human rights defenders in Madagascar vehemently oppose these practices. Norotiana Jeannoda, President of the Union of Social Workers confirms, “Traditional practices are fueling violence against women and girls. The worst thing is there is nothing being done to punish those involved in the exploitation of children, who are the victims of these traditions.”

The Malagasy government does not seem to be in control of the situation. Nadia Rakotomalala, Head of Judicial Extension Services with the Ministry of Justice, stressed, “It is difficult to penalise offenders, because cases are not often reported to the relevant authorities. The population also lacks information and awareness of the issues. The political crisis in Madagascar has not helped matters. Funds that had been allocated to address these practices have been reduced, if not completely eliminated,” she explained.

Organisations working to promote human rights strongly appeal to the people of Madagascar to eliminate these cultural practices, which go against the wellbeing of children. Nicholas Alipui, Director of UNICEF programmes in Madagascar, said that we have to educated people at the community level. “Nothing has more impact than when a community itself realises the harm it is causing its children, and decides collectively to put a stop to these practices.”

As we approach 2015, the deadline set for the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals, as well as the target date for the implementation of the SADC Protocol on Gender and Development, Madagascar has a lot of work to do to put an end to the traditions that undermine the rights of women and children. Yes we must!

Fanja Razafimahatratra is a freelance reporter in Madagascar. This article is part of the Gender Links News Service, special series on 16 Days of Activism, providing fresh views on everyday news.



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