Joanne's Story: Tana, Madagascar

Though I’ve seen the animated movie one too many times with my four-year-old son, I had never thought seriously about visiting Madagascar.  But I found myself on my way to visit this African nation and meet Dr. Mathilde Rabary, who is being honored by my organization as part of our 2008 Awards for the Health and Dignity of Women for her program that helps victims of domestic violence.

A big problem in Madagascar is that it costs money to register babies and many of the poorest people save the money, especially if the baby is a girl. An unregistered Malagasy has no right to a legal wedding, therefore no protection from an abusive husband and no recourse if her husband beats her or if he leaves her without economic resources.

Dr. Rabary is a medical doctor by training but she decided at one point that she could help many more women as a legal advocate than as a physician. So while the organization she founded, SOS Victimes Non Droit, deals with legal issues, they are also concerned with the health of Malagasy women.

I was six months pregnant on this trip (and showing every day of it) so this was particularly interesting to me. We toured both a rural health center and a UNFPA-funded hospital in the capital Tana. The difference is night and day. The rural women have to bring their linens. The urban women have access to doctors trained to perform C-sections.  My colleague and I are blown away by the statistics that this hospital has had only one maternal death since 1998.  Of course, that’s of the population of pregnant women that make it to this hospital in Tana. Most never get this far. If the typical woman has complications, she is lucky to get to a village clinic in time.
One woman at the rural clinic stands out for me.  Through our translator, I compliment her on her beautiful baby girl, and she laughs.  She offers me the baby, saying that she can be a very difficult baby at times.  I empathize with her about how hard parenting is (I often want to hand my son to a passing stranger).  It strikes me that this woman and I could become friends if we lived closer.  Motherhood can be a universal bound.

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At the opening ceremony for a new program, what strikes me most is that Malagasy women face the very same challenges regarding the stigma of domestic violence that we do in the United States. Dr. Rabary has made great strides in getting the Justice Department Anti-corruption division to work with her to change the attitudes of the local police departments toward domestic violence.  Several years ago, she and her husband survived a grenade attack on their home. She says this was the point at which she knew for sure that her work was important because it was worth killing her to stop it. 

Dr. Rabary has a powerful presence about her, yet she is extremely humble. In the week that we spent with her, I developed such a regard for her that it was particularly gratifying for me to attend an event where she receiving recognition and support for her programs from various other non-government organizations and elected officials from around Madagascar.  

I’ll never forget my time in Madagascar nor Dr. Rabary’s strength and determination to make a difference in lives of so many women.  I hope you’ll take the time to watch her video below to see some of the many real images from Madagascar.