MADAGASCAR: No welcome for sex tourism

TOLIARA, 7 October 2008 (IRIN) - The warning posters start at the airport in the capital, Antananarivo, informing visitors that Madagascar says "NO to sex tourism" and "Malagasy women are not tourist souvenirs".

Large billboards notifying arrivals that the authorities will also prosecute those caught having sex with children line the route into the city, and at tourist hotels - along with a colourful "Welcome to Madagasikara – the land of the lemurs" - there is likely to be a sign saying the hotel has a right to check the age of anyone accompanying guests to their rooms.

Madagascar, the vast tropical island off the east coast of Africa, is trying to expunge itself from the sex tourism map, and especially to close its doors to paedophiles shopping for minors.

To underline its commitment, the government has adopted a new law against the sexual exploitation of children that includes punishment of the adult exploiters; several foreigners have been convicted as a result.

But a walk after dark through the streets of Toliara, a thriving tourist town in southern Madagascar, shows that much still needs to be done. Sex workers own the streets, blowing kisses and waving at foreigners, trying to cash in on the tourists who are not visiting this impoverished Indian Ocean island for its unique bio-diversity.

"It's a very cheap place, women are beautiful, there are few controls on sex tourism. Nobody says anything about this; you can come here and do whatever you want," said Jose Louis Guirao, who runs projects for Bel Avenir, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) promoting educational, social and health-related initiatives. "The women start when they are 10 to 12; they are very young."

A report by the US State Department this year said Madagascar was a "source country for women and children trafficked within the country for the purposes of sexual exploitation", but praised the government for trying to tackle the problem.

The reality
The reality is that children, mostly from rural areas, are highly vulnerable to exploitation: they are trafficked for domestic servitude, forced labour and sex work; children often enter the labour market with the approval of their mothers, for whom their income may be the only source of living. In Toliara Province, for example, 80 percent of people live in poverty.

Bruno Maes, the UN children's fund (UNICEF) representative for Madagascar and the Comoros, is unequivocal in his condemnation of the sexual exploitation of children. "A child who is a victim of sexual abuse may suffer serious and lifelong consequences; this is a crime that is totally unacceptable in all contexts. UNICEF is concerned about its spread in Madagascar," he told IRIN.

At Bel Avenir's offices, Aline, a sex worker, is attending a meeting with her colleagues, some of whom have brought their children, to find out more about their rights, future opportunities, and protection.

We take on every client that there is - we need money. I don't say no, but the girl who gets the blond client, a French or an American, is the lucky one
Aline makes jokes and plays with the condoms distributed by the NGO, but turns serious when she talks about her trade. "We take on every client that there is - we need money. I don't say no, but the girl who gets the blond client, a French or an American, is the lucky one," she told IRIN. "Many foreigners come to Toliara and get girls. They like Madagascar, they like the young girls very much."

The main source countries for child sex tourists are reportedly France, Italy, Spain, Germany and Switzerland, and the neighbouring islands of Mauritius and Reunion. Victims are usually girls, but reports of foreign male tourists seeking sex with underage boys are becoming more frequent.

Advocacy groups say progress is being made in tackling child sex tourism, but controlling it is very difficult because of corruption, and even protests from the children's parents - prostitution is often an inherited occupation passed down for generations.

Madagascar has so far been much less affected by AIDS than most other countries in continental Africa, but international organisations warn this could change quickly. "The total lack of knowledge about the disease, from what I see here, means that it could soon be much, much worse," said Bel Avenir's Guirao.

An economic boom linked to local mining projects has attracted sex workers from across the island to the flourishing new towns, and an outbreak of syphilis in the southeastern mining town of Fort Dauphin in 2007 rang alarm bells: it pointed to the lack of condom use, and sexually transmitted infections also heighten the risk of HIV transmission.

Asked if she used the condoms given out by Bel Avenir, Aline said: "Many clients don't want that, and they give dollars or euros and I agree no condom. That is my life in Madagascar."

IRINnews.org, Oct 8, 2008; Report can be found online at: http://www.irinnews.org
 

MADAGASCAR: Growing food in the off-season

JOHANNESBURG, 29 August 2008 (IRIN) - A US$500,000 project by the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) is using Madagascar's agricultural off-season to decrease food aid dependency and offset the effects of high food prices.

The FAO launched an emergency Technical Cooperation Project in July to provide rice seed, bean seed and fertilisers to about 6,000 farmers and their families, targeting households hit hard by the recent cyclones that destroyed 80 percent of the last harvest, when people consumed seed supplies as food.

"Every year, Madagascar imports about 200,000 tonnes of rice for consumption; this year, the gap is estimated at 270,000 tonnes, and that will present a challenge," Marco Falcone, FAO's Emergency Coordinator in Madagascar, said in a statement.

Farmers in Madagascar traditionally plant crops in the main rainy season, which starts in November, but by utilising the off-season in July and August, food production could be considerably increased.

"Importing rice at international prices means paying 70 percent more than current local prices, and that isn't expected to change," Falcone said.

Boosting the rice harvest means expanding irrigation schemes and ensuring the regular use of fertilisers to plant unused arable land, allowing cultivation outside of the country's traditional planting timeframes.

Development partners, including the World Bank, are supporting the Malagasy government in its aims to boost annual production by up to 500,000 tonnes of paddy rice per year in three years' time. Current national production is about 3.5 million tonnes of paddy rice annually, and any surplus beyond domestic needs could be sold.

"Madagascar could be more than self-sufficient in rice," Falcone said. "Madagascar stands to benefit as a major exporter to the Indian Ocean islands of Comoros, Seychelles and Mauritius, for example. Countries in eastern and southern Africa could be another major export market."

Diversified diet
Falcone said the FAO recognised that increasing rice production was not the panacea to Madagascar's malnutrition and chronic poverty, where UNAIDS estimates that 85 percent of the country's about 18 million people live on US$2 or less a day.

Malnourishment in Madagascar is aggravated by people's dependence on just one food - rice - which provides calories but not many nutrients or protein
"Malnourishment in Madagascar is aggravated by people's dependence on just one food – rice – which provides calories but not many nutrients or protein," he commented.

To counter the tendency towards a single-food diet, support provided by FAO, USAID and the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) this year has led to the production of sorghum in the island's dry south.

"This is the first significant sorghum harvest the south has had in nearly 20 years," said Tom Osborn, Agricultural Officer for the FAO's Seed and Plant Genetic Resources Service.

"Sorghum disappeared as a main food crop in the mid-1990s, when both crops and seeds were consumed in famine years for survival. Quality sorghum seed was no longer available in southern Madagascar, and then sorghum was largely replaced by maize," Osborn said.

Maize is not viewed as a suitable crop for production in the south because of the arid conditions, so FAO has reintroduced sorghum and short-cycle maize, which, with the shorter growing period, is less vulnerable to dry spells.

IRINnews.org, August 29 2008; Report can be found online at: http://www.irinnews.org
 

MADAGASCAR: Ambitious family planning goals

ANDAVADOAKA, 23 July 2008 (IRIN) - Being an exhausted mother of 10 children by your early thirties is not unusual in rural Madagascar, but a movement is now underway to try and provide women with a contraceptive choice.

"I often get women in the clinic who have had eight or more children and are desperate to stop," said nurse Rebecca Hill, who has been running a family planning clinic in Andavadoaka, a remote village in southwest Madagascar, for the past six months. "They are all too pleased to have a break, and family planning can allow that to happen. But there is a huge unmet need for these facilities here, and that needs to change."

Madagascar, an island renowned for its unique biodiversity, is struggling to balance the demands of conservation with the needs of a rapidly growing population that has doubled in the last 25 years, reaching 19.6 million in 2007, according to UN figures. It is expected to hit 43.5 million by 2050.

Family planning initiatives in the cities have met with some success, but there is still a significant lack of contraceptive services in rural areas. "Reaching isolated communities is the real issue," Andre Damiba, country director for Marie Stopes International (MSI), a reproductive health agency, told IRIN.

According to the government, in some parts of the country 70 percent of 16-year-old girls have already given birth to their first child. In recognition of the problem, the Ministry of Health has taken the unusual step of changing its name to include family planning.

The government has also made family planning one of the eight pillars of the Madagascar Action Plan (MAP), an ambitious economic and social development strategy recently launched by President Marc Ravalomanana.

The MAP sets two ambitious goals for family planning: reducing the average size of the Malagasy family "to improve the wellbeing of each family member, the community and the nation"; and comprehensively meeting the demand for contraceptives and family planning. It plans to do this by making contraceptives more widely available, providing educational programmes and reducing unwanted teenage pregnancies.

But the impact of the government's efforts is yet to be felt in the remote villages of southwest Madagascar. Here, isolated coastal communities - among the poorest in the country - depend on dwindling marine resources that are under direct pressure from population growth in the villages, and health care and family planning services are extremely limited.

"A woman in the village of Andavadoaka who wanted to access contraceptive services faced a 50km journey on foot to Morombe, the nearest town, or would have to pay for passage on a passing ship," explained Dr Vikram Mohan, founder of the clinic in Andavadoaka. "In cities there are good contraceptive services available; in remote areas like ours most organisations can't offer a service."

We are raising awareness not just about women's rights, but about their economic and social interests and about how they can take control of their lives
The Andavadoaka clinic is funded by a British charity, Blue Ventures Conservation (BVC). The link between population growth, the lack of family planning facilities and the increasing pressure on fragile natural resources prompted the organisation to establish the small clinic.

"The work being done by BVC to enable coastal communities to manage their resources sustainably ran the risk of being undermined by the mushrooming population of the community," said Mohan. "In addition, an awareness of sexually transmissible infections and a willingness to take precautions was low."

A recent UNAIDS survey in Madagascar found that only 12 percent of young men aged between 15 and 24 used a condom the last time they had sex with a casual partner. For women, the figure stood at 5 percent.

Empowering women
Damiba believes that intensive awareness raising campaign are needed, especially in rural areas where conservative traditions prevail. "It is only through the sensibilisation of communities that we can get behavioural change," he explained. "As long as people's behaviour doesn't change there is no way of reaching the goals laid out by the government in the Madagascar Action Plan."

For this reason, family planning is about more than just promoting the use of contraception; it is also about empowering women to make fundamental decisions that affect their health and lives. "Society here still lacks some understanding of what women's rights are," said Damiba. "We are raising awareness not just about women's rights, but about their economic and social interests and about how they can take control of their lives."

The women are learning fast. "Family planning is good for us," said Veleriny, a member of the Andavadoaka women's association. "It allows us to control when we give birth. Here some women become pregnant every year."

The government uses the media to promote contraception, and international partners have become more active. "Access to family planning facilities is improving," Lalah Rimboloson, deputy director of US-based Population Services International (PSI) in Madagascar, told IRIN. "Between 2004 and 2006 we saw a significant increase in the use of family planning. The government is encouraging organisations like PSI to increase their work."

But national statistics do not always reflect the situation in remote areas. In 2007 the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) estimated the national fertility rate was 4.94 children per family. At the Andavadoaka clinic, nurse Hill estimates that in the remote coastal villages of the southwest it is as much as 8 to 12 children per family.

"We must have services made available permanently to those people who need them," urged Damiba. "Services must be permanent, not just available once in a while," otherwise real progress risks being limited to urban areas.

But the ambitious goals will be hard to meet. "I think that the targets of the MAP are reachable," said Rimboloson, "but not with the government's efforts alone; it has to be with all partners involved in family planning in Madagascar."

Damiba agreed. "Even a small impact in a remote community can have a ripple effect in terms of helping to spread understanding and raise awareness of the issue. Everything counts. Family planning is really needed here."

IRINnews.org, July 23, 2008 ; Report can be found online at: http://www.irinnews.org
 

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