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Picturing Hope: Helping girls in Madagascar see life through a different lens

Girls dancing and celebrating

CARE Madagascar/Nofy Nandrianina Noelisoa Rajernerson

CARE Madagascar/Nofy Nandrianina Noelisoa Rajernerson

Glimpses of Madagascar life through the eyes of young women

Trigger warning

In Madagascar, CARE recently worked with a professional photographer who teaches at Akany Avoko Faravohitra, a residential rehabilitation center that provides young girls with second chances, life skills, and a safe space and support to deal with past traumas.

In Madagascar, like many other developing countries, the effects of both crises and systemic injustices fall disproportionately upon girls and young women. When difficulties strike, Malagasy girls suffer fewer educational opportunities, gender-based violence, forced marriage, and hunger.

The world’s second-largest island nation, just off the east coast of Africa in the Indian Ocean, Madagascar is uniquely exposed to the effects of climate change. The country experiences recurrent, protracted droughts, and an average of 1.5 cyclones per year – the highest rate in Africa. An estimated 20 percent of Malagasy people – around five million – are directly affected by recurring natural disasters, including cyclones, floods, and droughts.

In the country’s social welfare system, there is no distinction between juvenile justice and child welfare – all are processed through the same courts and judges. Some of the girls who pass through this system end up at Avoko Center in Antananarivo, the capital city.

Ivelohanta Razafindrasoa, 40, is the Center’s director, and is known universally to the girls as “Aunty Hanta.” A former resident herself, she was orphaned at age seven and separated from her siblings. Thanks to the Center she was able to study, gain qualifications, and go on to inspire future generations of girls.

Ivelohanta Razafindrasoa, or "Aunty Hanta"
Nofy Nandrianina Noelisoa Rajernerson

Nofy Nandrianina Noelisoa Rajernerson, the professional photographer, asked three of her students* to document life in the Center while telling their own stories.

(*All names have been changed.)

CARE Madgascar
CARE Madagascar

Soa’s story: from trauma to training

“I was living with my parents and two siblings in extreme poverty in Antananarivo. Both of my parents dropped out of school at a young age, so they relied on farming to be able to feed the family. When this wasn’t enough my father would also go to the forest to collect wood to make charcoal and my mother would do laundry for other families. After school my brother and I would help carry the wood for charcoal and my little sister was left to sleep under a tree while we all worked.

“When I was 10, we moved to Tamatave where my father was offered a farming job and our life started to improve; we got a TV, I got my first certificate from elementary school and my father bought me a bicycle.

“I don’t really like to talk about this next part of my life as it awakens the past… but when I was 14 my mother’s younger brother came to live with us. We got on well and eventually he started hitting on me. At first I resisted, but then he coaxed me into a relationship. After about a month my younger brother started noticing and then both my mother and father found out. They were all very angry and eventually my uncle was sent away.

“Now my dream is to become an agricultural engineer, to build a home in Tamatave and make my parents happy.”

“After that I became sick and delirious and couldn’t face staying at home. I stayed this way for three months and people began to say that I was bewitched. Finally, they convinced me to go to the Avoko Center, which I accepted as I was no longer comfortable staying at home.

“I was not comfortable when I first arrived at the Center – I was not used to living with lots of children. For the first month there I acted out (throwing shoes, not sleeping) and people said I was possessed.

“Aunty Hanta told me, ‘Girl, you have to get comfortable because it is good for you here, you can study, you can have a brighter future, we are here to advise you.’ And another of the staff said: ‘if you’re not saying anything good then shut your mouth.’ These words had a real impact on me. The people at the Center took care of me and guided me.

“Since then my behavior has changed and Aunty Hanta says that now I am wise. I am focused on my studies and I always pass my exams. I have been living in the Center for two years now and I have benefitted from training such as English, handicrafts, computer training, and now this photography training – these days I am one of the best students here!

“When I think back, I know my life would never have turned out like this if I had stayed in the countryside. I wouldn’t have such hope that I could achieve my dreams, and I probably would have stopped my studies.

“Now my dream is to become an agricultural engineer, to build a home in Tamatave and make my parents happy. Many agronomic engineers have visited the Center and I want to be like them because I love animals and growing plants.“ 

CARE Madagascar
CARE Madagascar

Aina’s story: family strife then, flying dreams now

“I am 14 years old. My mother died when I was five and I remember being very sad and then my father died when I was 10 – just as I was completing my final elementary school exams.

“When my parents were alive I was one of the best students in school, but when my mother died I fell behind, and to make matters worse my classmates began to tease me because my mother was dead, and because they said my dad was disabled because he had had a stroke that left his arm twisted.

“After my father died my grandparents raised me and my younger brother. We lived together with my aunt and uncle and their children, and this was when the problems began.

“I was so happy, and so was my family, when I told them how I was getting good at photography.”

“I loved my grandparents very much, but my uncle was always arguing with my brother and I. He accused us of damaging his belongings, or when something was lost we were blamed. We were frequently beaten and verbally abused. He even kicked my brother out of the house three times and I found him sleeping out on the streets.

“At one point I was even hospitalized because I was always crying, and the doctor said I must have some sort of heart disease. It continued like this for three years… the third time my uncle kicked me out I decided to finally leave. I thought about sleeping in the streets, but that same day a boy I knew invited me to live with him and his family. While I was staying there I ended up having a romance with the boy and from then onwards I didn’t study any more, instead I was doing the cooking and cleaning.

“Eventually we argued, and I went to stay with another friend, and I ended up meeting another 17-year-old boy who then became my boyfriend. Two weeks after that I bumped into my cousin who tried to force me to go home. When I refused she called the police and we were all taken to the police station. From there I was transferred to the Avoko Center.

“When I first arrived I had to be carried in as I refused to enter. I only finally entered when Aunty Hanta asked me gently. In the beginning I was often planning to try and escape. But now I have no more thoughts of escaping and I am comfortable here. Here my life is better – we learn lots of different things like cooking, singing and handicrafts. We eat our fill and we even get snacks. My grandparents and my younger brother visit me often and they are always happy when they hear about my progress at the Center.

“I get on well with Aunty Hanta, she is a nice person and easy to talk to. I am always happy every time I see her so well-dressed.  She is like my mother, there was a time I told her I would follow in her footsteps when I grow up and would like to create a Center to help people.

“This photography training has been my favorite so far. I was so happy, and so was my family, when I told them how I was getting good at photography. Since the training Aunty Hanta encourages us to take pictures of everything we do at the Center.

“I have so many desires… I would like to be a flight attendant when I grow up because I love travelling. The photography training also made me think that I would like to be a professional photographer and take pictures of the places I visit and people I meet.

CARE Madagascar
CARE Madagascar

Lalaina’s story: big-city crime, injustice, then an enriched life

“I arrived at the Center last year. I am 16 years old and have six siblings. I was living in a place called Mandoto in central Madagascar. Myself, my siblings, and my mother were all working in rice farming. My father abandoned us when I was born, and we have not seen him since. So, it was my mother who was responsible for feeding and looking after us. She did the best she could with the small amount she earned, but we still weren’t able to eat three meals a day.

“When we got older we also had to work to help support the family. I used to earn about 2,000 Ariary (around $0.50) by carrying rice and gardening. But this was not enough and at one point our mother was in real financial trouble; we had no food to eat, we had no land to cultivate, we had no more food. So, my mother ended up sending me to work in Antananarivo to help earn money to feed the family.

“It was the first time I had been to Antananarivo. I was working in a family home, helping with household chores and after two months I was able to do all the housework alone, and things were going well.

“One day the rest of the family left on a trip and I was left alone with the son. He asked me to sleep with him in his bed, but I said no and slept on the floor as usual. The next day, while I was cutting spinach in the kitchen, he came and tied my hands and gagged me with a cloth – so I couldn’t scream or call for help – and then he carried me to his bed and raped me. He was pressing hard on my head and I passed out and I don’t remember what happened.

“When I regained consciousness he had gone. I immediately went to the neighbors to tell them I had been raped and she sent me to the police to report it. They took me to the doctor for a medical exam who confirmed I had been raped. But when I tried to take the complaint to court the judge told me I couldn’t file a complaint as I was underage, and my mother could not afford to travel to Antananarivo to file the complaint on my behalf.  So instead the police brought me to the Avoko Center.

“I would like to be like Aunty Hanta, to be tolerant like her, even when she is angry she always smiles at you. She says: ‘Even if you start small, you will end up successful.’”

“I like the life at the Center because many good things have happened to me here. I have learnt to take photos, how to cook and for the first time I am able to study, and I hope to pass my exams and go as far as possible.

“I gained a lot of life experience in the Center. Here I got educated and I can grow. I can even see the difference in my physical appearance – because I have grown morally, I have also become more mature.

“I also get on really well with the other children at the Center. I really like Aunty’s teachings when she teaches tolerance and how to save money. She gives us good advice and teaches us how to behave well, for example, not to steal, and also about how our futures and lives could be outside of the Center.

“I would like to be like Aunty Hanta, to be tolerant like her, even when she is angry she always smiles at you. She says: ‘Even if you start small, you will end up successful.’

“When I am older I would like to be a photographer. I also want to have a big restaurant. I would sell pizza, bread and ice cream. I love to cook all foods whether sweet or salty.

“I now believe that if I study hard and save money, I will reach my goals quickly. I would like to pass my exam this school year and go to school like any other child. I would like to continue my studies here so that my life can improve and so that I can reach my goal.

“I never thought I would know what a camera is, or that I would have access to one in my life, but now I know how to take photos! Being at this Center has really enriched my life.”

Nofy Nandrianina Noelisoa Rajernerson/CARE Madagascar
Nofy Nandrianina Noelisoa Rajernerson/CARE Madagascar

The professional photographer’s story:
Nofy Nandrianina Noelisoa Rajernerson

 “I have been working as a professional photographer since 2017. I am a sociologist by training and I am interested in all human and social areas. I have a passion for music and dance, but also training others in photography, culture, and the arts.

“As a self-taught photographer, I have perfected my skills in the world of photography through training, learning from and sharing experiences with other photographers, so I was happy to also share my knowledge and experience with these young girls. I am the co-founder (alongside my husband) of Mim’SARY photo agency in Antananarivo.

“I have been lucky enough to meet some special people during my career, but the CARE-sponsored women photography project has especially touched my heart and soul. The welcome from the director and the girls of Akany Avoko Faravohitra Center was so warm, from the beginning to the end of the project. Even now, I know that we will keep a strong relationship going into the future.

“Unacceptable social situations and delicate cases affect the majority of Malagasy families, and young girls are often the victims. The girls I trained are a source of pride for me in that they are now so motivated to tell their stories through photographs.”

“I had often asked myself why we don’t have an initiative like this for our young people in Madagascar, and I am so happy now to be part of this project, which will allow these young people to express themselves and to tell their experiences through photography. The project has been rich in emotion and experience.

“Unacceptable social situations and delicate cases affect the majority of Malagasy families, and young girls are often the victims. The girls I trained are a source of pride for me in that they are now so motivated to tell their stories through photographs; they were involved and ready to pass on the message so that all the bad things they have experienced would not happen again to others. It’s just emotional and breathtaking.  They are the keys to making their situations and those of others better.

“During the training, I was moved by the testimonies of these three girls. And even more so, the strong female leadership of the director: Aunty Hanta. Her background and her attention to the girls, is a concrete and inspirational example of the strength of women. I am convinced that women can go beyond what they think, and that despite the society they live in, they have the perseverance to follow their dreams.

“Despite the reality in Madagascar, I am optimistic. Through my images I aim to tell stories that carry positive messages. The training of the young girls of the center and other female beneficiaries has given me the opportunity to transmit this vision.”

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