Between December 7th and December 11th, 88 girls from all twenty-two regions in Madagascar gathered in Antananarivo for Youth First’s annual National Girls Leadership Summit. I attended as an advisor for the students. Words cannot express the way I felt and how grateful I was to be present with all Malagasy cultures mixed colorfully while collaborating together. I felt overjoyed, heartbroken, outraged and proud all at once. You’ll understand why after you read this. Hopefully you’ll feel the same way too.
Three of Nofy i Androy's students were selected to attend and represent Androy plus one more representative from Ambovombe. These young Malagasy women were given a rare opportunity to become leaders and advocates for the communities from which they come. The summit focused heavily on the unique social issues in each region.
On day one, the Youth First participants were separated by region to brainstorm issues they're facing in their communities. This is what Androy’s problems were:
Early age or under aged marriage being a quick fix for parents’ financial problems;
Early pregnancy; and
Lack of education.
All three issues are tied together and most other regions mentioned early pregnancy, marriage and education as major issues in their communities. Many NGOs and successful individuals came to elaborate and present solutions. Some of the speakers came from Marie Stopes, who presented birth control options and emphasized jaw-dropping facts about early pregnancy, early marriage, and the damage it does to their underdeveloped bodies; and Electoral Institute for sustainable democracy in Africa (EISA), who helped us realize Madagascar's lack of women leaders in office. During their presentation Marie Stopes stated that 70% of the Malagasy population gets married before the age of eighteen. In Androy, a man can claim a child as his wife from as early as it is planted in the mother’s womb. A girl as young as twelve years old can be sent to marry a man as old as sixty—or even older, this despite the major generational difference and established law that no one under the age of eighteen can get married. Isn't marriage a commitment between two people in love to live the rest of their lives together?
When young girls are sent to marry much older men, they are more at risk of shorter life expectancy and being subjected to bodily injury due to their still adolescent bodies forcefully carrying a baby. At twelve or even fifteen years of age, an adolescent girl’s body is not fully developed yet. Therefore, it cannot handle the stresses of pregnancy and birth. In Madagascar, according to Dr. Feline, who also represented Marie Stopes at the summit, only 24 out of 100 pregnant women are fully-grown and ready to have a baby.
Another issue with early marriage and early pregnancy is that girls aren’t able to attend school anymore due to marriage making them constantly pregnant. In some parts of Madagascar, such as Faritra Atsimo Atsinanana (South West Region) men are usually and undoubtedly sent to school but education for women almost seems irrelevant and unnecessary. Why aren’t boys also sent to marry to a rich woman? That question itself sounds absurd, so why is it fine the other way? Young women are taught from an early age that they are basically objects and have no value without men. According to a film from journeymn.tv: Mothers Encourage Children into Sex Trade in Madagascar, some parents are happier with a new born girl than a boy because they can become prostitutes and bring home money. It also claims that aside from the brothel contacting the sex tourists, parents call and advertise their daughters and say “she is beautiful and good.”
All of these problem really start with parents. Parents barely think about a future for their daughters. As long as sending her off to get married to not only a man but a “rich” man or prostitution brings them money and fortune. All parents need to know that there could be more than marriage in their daughters’ futures. They can get money and solve their financial problems elsewhere. Women are still struggling for the respect they deserve in Madagascar. Parents also tell their daughters to never have sex when they are growing up but they contradict those values when money is presented to trade her no matter the age.
Ultimately, the conference consisted of step-by-step guidance on how to have your voice heard and successfully make the change you want. There were presentations by successful women and men leaders, and leadership tips from everyone. During their presentations, speakers talked about the issues we confront in Madagascar, what they do to combat them and how we can change our country for the better. During this conference the young leaders attending the training were given the option to create a project for when they traveled back to their communities in order to continue making changes.
Androy representatives came up with a way to reach out to low-income families and those who dropped out to set up a solution to make education possible for everyone no matter what obstacles they or their families face. They also want to teach their friends and families ways to prevent pregnancy. They are ready to use their leadership skills they learned from the presenters and their workshops to create change in their communities. However the Androy girls are afraid of the (mostly or almost all, male) leaders in their communities. They must approach for permission and help to begin their projects, but won’t take them seriously because first, they are women and second, they are too young to be taken seriously.
I believe Madagascar’s old tradition can be changed not to lose the value of culture but to create justice, more freedom and success for women. It starts with all of us individuals to realize this is problematic and it is time to change. We must act now, especially young women need to have the freedom to demand what they deserve. We need more organizations like Youth First and Nofy i Androy who allow girls to stand up for themselves, speak for themselves, and strive to succeed just like men because they can. They just haven’t recieved the opportunity to reach their full potentials yet.
To learn more and help our students succeed with their projects to change this, please visit the websites from the texts I underlined.