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GRAND SUD, Madagascar – “I want to be a health worker when I grow up,” said shy 8-year-old Satiana Hary*, “because I want to be able to treat myself if I fall sick.” She knows about falling sick – and about violence – after being raped by her neighbour, a man in his mid-twenties. Satiana endured endometritis, vaginitis and cystitis as a result.

The little girl lives in Bekily, in the Androy region of Madagascar's Grand Sud. Usually outgoing, she became withdrawn and fearful. Her grandmother, Soazizely Avo*,  52, with whom she has lived since she was a baby, noticed the change in her behaviour and raised the alarm.

There were some physical changes, too, and after checking her, I feared the worst.

She winced with pain at the memory. “There were some physical changes, too, and after checking her, I feared the worst,” she said.  

Cases of gender-based violence, including rape, are common in Madagascar: more than 14 per cent of women have experienced sexual violence at some point in their lifetime, and one in four women have been subjected to physical or sexual violence by their intimate partner.

These grim statistics exacerbate the multitude of social problems faced by people in the Grand Sud area, especially women and girls. Years of successive drought have weakened scarce means of making a living, exposing the most vulnerable to yet more risks. 

Satiana was raped while she was harvesting sugarcane.

Seeking justice and hope for Satiana

Satiana and her grandmother are accompanied
by a social worker and their lawyer at the hearing at Ambovombe
Court. © UNFPA Madagascar/Melvis Kimbi

For months, Ms. Avo travelled from Bekily, one of the furthest districts, to Ambovombe, the main town in Androy. The journey took her a strenuous five hours on dusty roads, but she was determined to seek justice and win back hope for her grandchild. 

UNFPA supports the Listening and Legal Advice Centre in Ambovombe, together with the Ministry of Population, Social Protection and Promotion of Women, bringing survivors’ cases to court and perpetrators to justice. With funding from Norway and the UN Central Emergency Response Fund, the centre is one of 26 across the island, of which half are located in the Grand Sud area, where UNFPA’s humanitarian projects are focused.

The centres offer comprehensive psychosocial and legal support to survivors, as well as medical care through referrals to hospitals and health facilities. UNFPA works with the centre to follow up on cases, train staff, distribute dignity kits to the vulnerable and provide support for vocational training on income-generating activities. This helps survivors reclaim their dignity and be financially independent, so they can better protect themselves and their families.

A harrowing one in three women in Madagascar are reported to have experienced at least one form of violence, of whom three-quarters neither report it nor seek assistance. In 2019, the government passed a law to strengthen the legal framework for preventing and prosecuting those accused of gender-based violence, as well as for compensating and protecting survivors. 

I’ve been waiting for this day. Now we can go home and feel a bit safer.

Ms. Avo reassures her granddaughter before they
enter Ambovombe Court, Madagascar.
© UNFPA Madagascar/Melvis Kimbi 

Justice for Satiana

Early one morning, Ms. Avo squats on her haunches in front of her granddaughter and gazes at her face, as if hoping to draw out the trauma from her young soul. She murmurs words of encouragement and reassures Satiana that the darkest moments are behind her. 

Ambovombe Court imposed a 10-year jail term and a fine of 5 million Ariary (roughly $1,260) on Satiana’s rapist.

“I’ve been waiting for this day. Now we can go home and feel a bit safer,” Ms. Avo says with a smile. She is flanked by a social worker and the only lawyer with the Listening and Legal Advice Centre in Ambovombe, who have been at her side throughout the trial. 

Satiana’s case brings to four the number of sexual violence cases resolved by Ambovombe Court in 2021, with support from the Listening and Legal Advice Centre. Judicial referrals for gender-based violence remain low despite awareness-raising efforts, according to a UNFPA staff member working with the centre.

“Most victims don’t file complaints, either due to their strong attachment to custom and tradition or because the perpetrators are often close family members.” 

In 2020, the centre in Ambovombe supported 381 women and 20 men who had been subjected to gender-based violence. From 2018 to 2020, UNFPA assisted more than 2.5 million survivors of gender-based violence in Madagascar, through essential services packages, including referrals to health centres, training for income-generating activities, distribution of dignity kits and psychosocial and legal support. 

*Names have been changed for privacy and protection purposes.