You are a girl born in Madagascar. By the time you are about five years old you are deemed mature enough to begin helping your mother with household chores – washing dishes, washing clothes, preparing meals, fetching water, sweeping the house, and so on. This is your mother’s work and it will be your work too. Mother belongs in the house and father belongs in the fields. That’s just the way it is. By your seventh birthday your mother has given birth twice more. Your mother breastfeeds the shrieking newborn and you carry the older baby on your back as you go about your usual chores. A good harvest one year means you finally get to attend school. You are thrilled but nervous. You do well and progress from the elementary to the middle and finally the high school. You begin to secretly dream of impossible things – moving to the capital, attending the university, becoming a nurse. Then you meet a boy at school and begin dating him. He pressures you to have sex. You don’t know what to do. Your mother and teachers have never told you much about sex – it’s taboo. You have heard of AIDS but aren’t really sure what it is or how you get it. You like this boy and you want him to like you. You want to say no but you don’t know how – no one has ever taught you to be assertive. So you say yes instead. Four months later you find out you are pregnant. You are forced to drop out of school. You will never move to the capital, you will never attend the university, you will never become a nurse. You give birth to a girl.
The purpose of that little narrative is to illustrate the reality that so many young girls in Madagascar face – the endless self-reinforcing cycle which continues to oppress Malagasy women. Many girls never even make it to school at all. If a family is under financial pressure and only one child can be allowed to study it will more often than not be a son. From the moment they can speak girls are taught to fill traditional gender roles – the woman cares for the home and children, the father tends to the fields and animals. They are taught that men are always the decision makers and moreover that is their natural role. The few girls who beat the odds and succeed at their studies, even dare to secretly dream of life outside their village, are often tragically hindered by the education of their upbringing and prevalence of traditional gender roles. They enter into relationships in which they have absolutely no negotiating power. After all, what more could a woman want than to find a husband, care for the house, and raise children? That was the life her mother, grandmother, and great grandmother led. Who is she to have other aspirations? She gets pregnant, drops out of school, and the tireless cycle makes another turn.
Of course this is by no means a phenomenon limited to the island of Madagascar. Although it features most prominently in developing countries, the issue can still be found in developed countries including the US, particularly among the lowest socioeconomic groups. So what is the solution? There is no single solution but rather a multitude of interventions which together create the effort to arrest the cycle and open opportunities for young women. These interventions include increasing access to education for girls, implementing reproductive health education in schools for all students, ensuring availability of contraceptives, offering scholarships for university study, and encouraging women’s small enterprise development. Human Rights Organizations, government programs, and various NGOs are already knee deep in this effort across the globe, but as someone who currently finds themselves near the front lines of this battle I can tell you the progress is sometimes infuriatingly slow going. With sufficient backing, increasing educational access and opportunities for women can be achieved relatively quickly even in a place like Madagascar, but changing a cultural mindset – that can take decades of effort, and even then the goal may not be realized.
To better illustrate the power of a cultural attitude I’ll share an anecdote. I have spoken many times before of my Malagasy “family” and my particularly my “mom” Hanta. Not long after I was installed at my site I noticed that most people in Andramasina don’t call Hanta by her given name but rather they refer to her by the word meaning “toothless”. That wouldn’t be an unusual nickname for quite a few of my Malagasy friends who don’t exactly enjoy an abundance of teeth but I thought it an odd nickname for Hanta since she has the majority of her teeth. I recall asking her about it several times during my first few months at site and her response was always the same; she simply laughed and shrugged her shoulders. Very recently however, I finally heard the story behind her strange nickname. Hanta’s husband has been dead for a number of years but when he was alive they used to attend church as a family. One Sunday, Hanta got ready for church and put on a new skirt she had bought. As soon as her husband caught sight of her he was outraged. He claimed the skirt was entirely too short and demanded that she change immediately. She refused, denying that the skirt was too short and reminding him she had just bought it so she would have something nice to wear to church. His response was to punch her in the mouth, knocking out four of her front teeth. Were her friends and family outraged? Did others rush to her aid? Was the husband condemned for physically abusing her? No. Most claimed that she was in the wrong for brazenly defying her husband’s wishes and insisting on wearing “provocative” clothing. She had willfully denied her role as the subordinate woman. The children in town started calling her “toothless” because of her missing front teeth. She got false teeth years later but the nickname remained. Building schools is relatively easy; changing a cultural mindset is excruciatingly difficult.
So why in the world am I choosing to write about this now? What set me off on this particular diatribe instead of sharing the latest amusing antics of Lolo? I am writing about this now because leading the group Tovovavy Tena Mendrika (Exemplary Young Women) or TOTEM has brought these issues to the forefront for me. TOTEM is a group I created for high school aged girls in Andramasina. We meet twice a week with two primary objectives 1) learn to play basketball and 2) talk about essential life skills and reproductive health. Through learning to play basketball the girls not only get a viable alternative to household chores but they can show others and themselves that they are capable, skilled, and powerful. Through the guided discussions of life skills and health they get to explore topics that their teachers and parents likely never introduce – goal setting, healthy decision making, being assertive, relationship skills, contraceptive use, sexually transmitted infections, etc. Since these are largely novel topics for the girls in TOTEM progress is slow – but it’s still progress. Of course, I have no grand illusions of radically changing social norms in Madagascar with this one small group. I fully understand that TOTEM is only a handful of girls from a single tiny town in the center of the huge expanse of island that is Madagascar. But if even one of my girls is aided in making healthy life decisions, if even one of them follows her dreams and studies at the university and becomes a doctor or an accountant or a bank manager, well…then that’s a start, isn’t it? And maybe, just maybe, when she is older and decides to start a family of her own she’ll teach her daughter the same.