Legal aid clinics are playing an important role during Madagascar's current political and economic crisis, especially for poverty-hit rural women who are under-served by the country's ailing judicial system.
In the southeast of Madagascar, women's rights used to be defended in special village councils, called 'anakavy amin-dreny' (the “sisters and mothers”). Although the village chief was always male, he was obliged to discuss issues with the head woman and the “sisters and mothers” had the authority to punish abusive husbands or male relatives who refused to share inherited land.
While these traditional structures still exist, in modern Madagascar they have no real power to protect women from abuses and the official judicial system has done little to address the gap. While the country’s laws put women on an equal status with men, legal institutions lacked resources to implement legislation even before the crisis.
An assessment by the Women’s Legal Rights Initiative, a US Agency for International Development (USAID)-funded programme, described Madagascar's justice sector as plagued by poverty and corruption: "There are not enough personnel, let alone trained personnel, or resources in the judicial system. There is only one forensic laboratory for the entire country; some police stations have neither paper nor typewriters."
The situation has deteriorated further since Andry Rajoelina's ousting of President Marc Ravalomanana in 2009. During two years of political deadlock, the police and the courts have virtually stopped functioning in some provinces due to lack of funding. The country is served by just 35 courts which are difficult for people in rural areas to reach. With illiteracy rates as high as 80 percent among rural women, even those who can make it to a court have difficulty understand the proceedings.
Local chiefs not the answer
Armandine Razanapako, 50, an inhabitant of Mananjary on the south-east coast, is a case in point. After she separated from her husband in 2006, he refused to pay child support for their three children. “I don’t have a job, and I had to pay school fees,” she said.
In Mananjary people usually turn to local chiefs to mediate in disputes, but in Razanapako’s case, they were not very helpful. “These men are good in resolving family quarrels, where everybody attends a meeting and talks. But when it comes to making a husband pay, he will have to take the family of the husband into consideration, so there was no concrete result,” she recalled.
|These institutions have become the road to take for the poor...They contribute to peace in the rural communities and help people to overcome their fear of stepping into an office|
Razanapako and her children tried to survive by walking 11km out of town to cut cloves during the weekends. Razanapako also washed clothes for neighbours and sold charcoal on the street. Finally, the head of her `fokotano' or neighbourhood advised her to go to Trano Arozo, a legal aid clinic housed in a cramped building next to the central market, where groups of women try to make a living selling vegetables.
“I wasn’t afraid to go there, as I was only asking for the rights of my children,” she said. “I went on 17 June and on 20 June I got money.” Now, when neighbours in similar situations ask her what she did to make her husband pay up, she sends them to Trano Arozo.
Set up by local NGO Fiantso in 2007 with funding from the UN Development Programme, the Netherlands-based Inter-church Organization for Development (ICCO), and the Ministry of Justice, Trano Arozo was southeastern Madagascar's first legal aid clinic.
In 2008, Fiantso set up two more such clinics in Manakara and Farafangana and in 2010, three more were opened in the south of the country with funding from the European Union. The clinics are under the supervision of the Ministry of Justice, but managed by Fiantso.
Justice within reach
According to Amélie Razafindrahasy of Fiantso, the purpose of the clinics is to ensure that justice is within reach, especially for women. “Victims are often poor, and don’t have the means to travel far to reach authorities. As they are scared, they often prefer to stay silent. The clinics help them on their way,” she said.
Getting fathers to pay child support is one of the main tasks of the Legal Aid Clinic in Mananjary where about 75 percent of clients are women. “The problem is that the men don’t have a lot of money either. We negotiate with them about how much they can pay; once they agree, they both sign,” Ratsimbaharisoa explained. “If he signs, and doesn’t pay up, we’ll send them on to the real court, but this rarely happens.”
The clinic's legal advisers serve about 50 clients a month and deal with marital problems as well as disputes over land rights and unpaid loans. Staff also do outreach programmes in the local community, organizing meetings at schools and villages and informing people about their legal rights.
"People don't know their rights, but they change when they get the right information, " Ratsimbaharisoa said.
“These institutions have become the road to take for the poor...They contribute to peace in the rural communities and help people to overcome their fear of stepping into an office.”