Poverty is everywhere. It's evident as soon as you set foot out of the airport. I'm in Madagascar. Little kids in filthy clothing run to you to beg for a few coins as you struggle to lift your bag into the taxi. As you exit the airport in Antananarivo mud lined streets are filled with small makeshift stalls and women desperately trying to sell something. Gangs of young men in torn clothing roam the streets, the homeless lie on the sides of the road and small children, no older than 4 years old are left alone to beg for money. The poverty is startling.
What so often comes alongside poverty, as I have learned, is abuse. I travelled to Madagascar as part of my work with my foundation Project Monma to raise awareness about the different forms of violence and discrimination against women around the world. I was there to explore the horror of human trafficking. What I learned, sickened me.
I decided to first travel north, to Nose Be, a small island off the north coast of Madagascar, known for its sleaze and old European men looking for young girls to buy. At first glance, Nose Be is beautiful. Turquoise and green waters wash against the white sand beaches. Palm trees sway gently in the breeze and colourful women wander down the beach with baskets of fruit on their head. However, what I discovered behind the beauty is a sleazy horror show. Groups of old men, predominantly French, saunter down the beach with girls young enough to be their granddaughters. Sleazy bars are filled with old men looking for women to buy. They leer at women passing by with an entirely unjustified arrogance and entitlement that would make an observer cringe with disgust.
I stayed in a hotel in the center of the sleaze. One of the first things I noticed was a sign on my bathroom door warning me to not bring children into the room for sex. A sign that I guessed had no effect as each day I watched old men coming in and out of the hotel with girls who barely looked 18.
In an effort to learn more about what was happening in the area I struck up a conversation Fernidand who was working in the hotel and asked him if there was a problem with child prostitution. He didn't directly answer but said, 'they're not allowed to bring children into the hotel. They must show ID. Yet it's so easy for the girls to go and buy a fake ID, everything here is corrupt'.
'The problem here is the poverty,' he says.
One evening I ventured into one of the bars. As a white, western woman I felt distinctly uncomfortable. Not just because I felt my presence wasn't wanted but because of the sleazy, aggression of the European men. Their lecherous stares made me feel uncomfortable and unsafe. Speaking with Roxy, a Madagasy man playing music in the bar he says, 'families give away their young girls to white men. They all think that they're going to get a house and a car but the reality is that most of them don't get that.' I glance around the bar at the old men with the young girls, none of who look like they want to be there.
On returning to Antananarivo I decided to investigate further. I met with Soloarivelo Anntsa working for the Ministry of Population and Women's Protection. 'The foreigners who come here prefer children over women,' she told me. 'We know that there are girls being forced into prostitution.'
However, it is not just the European men driving the problem. A study by UNICEF showed that three quarter of the Madagasy men who are clients of prostitutes go with underage girls.
In an interview with Daniel Silva from the IOM he said, 'it's happening all around the country. In Tamatave for example, you find a lot of sexual exploitation of young girls by local men because culturally this is what they prefer.'
It seems that little is being done to curb the problem. Prostitution is a big business and everybody can benefit from it, including the police. I met with Jeannie Berthina at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Antananarivo and asked her what the police are doing about the issue and she too shakes her head and says, 'it's a shame, because of this corruption.'
'The problem is the poverty, if you want to stop it you have to give them an alternative. There are cases that as soon as the girls turn 12 or 13 the parents put them in Italian or French classes so that they are able to work as prostitutes and speak with clients. It's shocking because it's not hidden. It's a big business for everyone, the hotel owners, the police. There's no punishment of these men at the moment, its absolutely unacceptable,' says Silva.
Unacceptable it is.
With poverty being a major driver of the problem, it is difficult to find a way to counter the problem of exploitation. There appears to be no shortage of men in Madagascar, both local and foreign, that are more than happy to take advantage of the poverty of women and children for their own sexual gratification. I have witnessed the horror of that. But what is encouraging is that there is something that all of us can do. These 'men' who fuel this industry are our brothers, they are our fathers and our sons. There is no more powerful tool than shame. We must teach our men that under no circumstances is it ever okay to take advantage of vulnerable women and children. We must teach them that such behaviour is a disgrace. We can all be powerful in stopping the more powerful abuse the vulnerable and it is imperative that we start doing that today.