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Life is too expensive for families living in extreme poverty in Madagascar

By Suzanne Beukes

ANTANANARIVO, Madagascar, 3 March 2015 – All roads leading to the small Malagasy village of Lohanosy have been washed away. Even the main road from the capital, neglected over the years, did not really stand much of a chance against the waters that rose and consumed what had been, at some point, a collection of rice fields.

© UNICEF/NYHQ2015-0281/Matas
On 26 February, UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Nana Mouskouri chats with 7-year-old student Fifaliana Raholinirina in a class at a public primary school in Ampangabe Village in Analamanga Region, Madagascar. Net enrolment in primary school has fallen; the country is no longer on track to achieve universal primary education.

It is cyclone season, and the rains have been heavy. Downpours have displaced farmers like Helene Asoamamatany. She has been staying with her son and his family since her home and crops were destroyed. “I had to move to my son’s house, and I don’t like it because it’s very small, and he has 9 children to feed,” she says. “I don’t like to be dependent on him.”

Eating is not to be taken for granted in this home. Helene’s 12-year-old granddaughter Tiavina feels her hunger when she tries to concentrate in school. “For me, it’s very difficult to follow at school because we don’t eat enough at home, and I often have a stomachache,” she says. “If my parents don’t work, we don’t have enough food.”

Growing up in extreme poverty, when school is not free

Families like Tiavina’s struggle as Madagascar slowly emerges from a protracted and debilitating political crisis, and ensuing economic decline.

The country remains one of the world’s poorest; in 2013, 91 per cent of the population lived on less than US$2 a day. Many of the poorest of the poor are children. Children have borne the brunt of the crisis.

Tiavina’s parents grow rice for the family. Her mother, Sahone, also weaves sisal fabric into rope, which she sells to pay for food and clothes – and the children’s school fees; primary school is not free in Madagascar.

Sahone takes her two youngest children regularly to be screened at the local UNICEF-supported nutrition centre, where she also learns to prepare more nutritious meals. She tries to give her nine children a varied and nutritious diet, but there is not always enough to go around after school fees are paid. “Life is expensive,” she says.

Lack of food is by no means unique to Sahone’s family. “In Madagascar, close to half of children under 5 are stunted in growth – which means they are not getting enough nutritious food for their bodies and brains to grow as they should,” says UNICEF Representative Elke Wisch. “And this is exacerbated by a situation where Madagascar is also ranked as the fourth lowest country in the world in terms of access to safe drinking water.”

As families like Sahone’s struggle to pay for both food and school, Madagascar is not on track to achieve Millennium Development Goal 2 – universal primary education, a consequence of structural poverty; for years, schools have not received support. Net enrolment dropped from 83 per cent in 2005 to 69 per cent in 2012.

Sahone expertly rolls the thin sisal fibres into snake-like rope that coils as it grows. She shakes her head and says, “I am very worried that my children won’t finish school.”

Shining a light on issues facing Malagasy families

International singer Nana Mouskouri recently paid a visit to shine a light on the issues facing communities in Madagascar. The hope was to draw added attention to the considerable challenges and constraints faced by the country’s vulnerable children and families. “Over the years, with UNICEF, I’ve been able to travel to many places in the world to see the situation of children,” she said. “But witnessing the challenges that children experience here in Madagascar has been heartbreaking.”

Madagascar’s communities indeed face a spectrum of challenges. In poverty to start, they may, at any minute, find their meagre livelihoods destroyed by extreme weather, as Helene did. They may have to choose between nutrition and schooling, as Sahone does. They may be grappling with hunger as they try to learn, as Tiavina does.

“We must ensure that their struggles do not remain unheard and that we work towards making sure each and every child can grow up in a safe environment, get a quality education – and has nutritious food,” said Ms. Mouskouri.

The veteran UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador performed a concert in the capital, Antananarivo, in support of UNICEF’s work in education in Madagascar.



UNICEF Photography: UNICEF supporters

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