Arranged Marriages in Madagascar Coastal Areas
Madagascar, harboring more than seven ethnic groups and at least as many dialects, is an isolated area that contains a large amount of diversity. In the cities, getting as close to “modern” as an American citizen might be accustomed to, arranged marriages have been on a steady decline. Though they are now almost an anachronism, in lieu of church and civil ceremonies, the traditional ceremonies and arranged marriages of Madagascar’s coastal villages remain the undefeated norm. Pastor Rakotomalala - referred to here by her nickname Mamisoa [MAH-mee-SUE] of the FJKM (Fiangonan'i Jesoa Kristy eto Madagasikara, or ‘The Church of Jesus Christ in Madagascar’) church works closely with northern coastal village, Tanandava, to test out a program that will help end arranged marriages (and all the dangers they entail) while doing the community more good by combatting malnutrition and further developing the resources of the community.
Coastal Norms & Geographical Misfortunes
Mamisoa observes that the patriarchal society of Madagascar (even in the cities) help to enforce this accepted norm. Marriages in coastal areas function more like business partnerships. The couple will work together in the field all day. Upon returning home, the wife will begin her ‘second shift,’ cleaning, cooking and rearing the children. The husband provides the wife with a type of allowance with which to buy food - generally meat to supplement meals that otherwise consist largely of rice - and he always eats before the rest of the household. Interestingly enough, a valid case for a divorce arises (for the wife) comes if her husband does not give her enough money - or if the husband’s malnourished wife can’t get pregnant. Needless to say, in a country where “over half of [the] children are chronically malnourished,” this issue falls into a considerably grey area (2016, http://www.worldbank.org/en/programs/sief-trust-fund/brief/addressing-chronic-malnutrition-in-madagascar).
Culturally, the man’s “virility,” says Mamisoa, is decided by how many children he has fathered. For this reason, polygamy is not uncommon in many coastal tribes. An estimated 40% of what Mamisoa’s seen of married men in Madagascar have more than one wife. In a country known to be one of the most poverty stricken areas globally - where over 90 percent of the population survives on under $2 a day - excessive reproduction continues to stress the island’s resources and capabilities to feed its growing population (https://www.presbyterianmission.org/ministries/missionconnections/jan-heckler/). One example that comes to Mamisoa’s mind is one of the church families, in which a husband under 50 years of age has three wives and a grand total of 15 children, all of which are severely malnourished.
The man (or his family) has all the say in the initial “proposal” of marriage. He can essentially point out an unwed woman to his kinsman and request a “fiantranoana,” or meeting of the households. During this meeting, representatives of the families - “mpikabary’s” help this process along by advocating for the groom-to-be to the bride’s family, and further arranging a suitable dowry to be exchanged. In this way, a wedding ceremony in a coastal village like Tanandava, a wife/business partner can be sold for the US equivalent of $70, never going higher than $100.
Age differences represent another dangerous example of the way the woman’s choice never enters the picture when marriages are concerned. The pastor has seen age differences as staggering as a 25 year old husband and a 13 year old girl. Once the woman is of age to give birth, she is considered fair game. Oppositely, if a woman is past puberty, and yet unwed, she is heavily stigmatized by her tribe - one of the complexes Mamisoa’s program battles with regular instructional meetings, where she teaches self esteem (that they don’t need to endure cultural traditions in order o find value in this society) alongside the dangers of giving birth at a young age.
Mamisoa’s program, though welcome to all women in the community, targets mothers whose daughters are close to marrying age. This program, funded by A Project of Hope; an offshoot of the Presbyterian Church’s influence in Madagascar, provides annual loans to families for each year that they do not arrange a marriage for their daughter(s). These loans are expected to be repaid by the year’s end, but in a massively starving country, this simply isn’t always possible. The program includes these regular courses & meetings, in which Mamisoa provides guidance for how to use the money to turn a profit (thereby eventually eliminating the need to “sell” their daughters off in these dangerous marriages). Mamisoa has toiled & negotiated with her church to bring in specialists to teach animal husbandry and the need for integrating more diverse vegetables into Malagasy fields and diets, to provide rapidly developing infants with the nutrients they need to overcome stunting.
Madagascar has one of the world’s highest rates of childhood stunting, due in part to the extreme poverty much of the nation lives in (2016, http://www.worldbank.org/en/programs/sief-trust-fund/brief/addressing-chronic-malnutrition-in-madagascar). However, observes Missionary Janice Heckler, the effects of stunting can be observed almost as commonly in city scapes as in coastal regions, because rice and meat are the mainstay of the population’s diet. “We are trying to introduce more variety” Mamisoa comments. Even those that can afford to enrich their plate won’t necessarily when rice fills the belly just as easily. However, in the coastal regions where flooding and droughts are common, famine is never far behind. As a result, the young suffer even greater than the adults. Their growing bodies become so hungry that protein deficiencies flourish, causing the body to ‘eat’ its own organs and tissues. This leaves a wake of cognitive stunting throughout the ever-growing population. Edema is commonly seen in children and adults alike, their faces, bellies and feet swollen from their undernourished bodies holding water. As dire of an existence this sets up for undernourished children, the mothers that bare them have just as huge of a crisis looming overhead.
The Fistula Foundation says this about Madagascar’s birth conditions: “In Madagascar, one in 60 women will die in childbirth during their lifetime. The fertility rate is high, and there is also a high rate of teenage pregnancy—more than one-third of girls ages 15-19 have had children or are currently pregnant. When these factors are combined with the prevalence of grinding poverty, it is likely that obstetric fistula is a serious issue in Madagascar.” (https://www.fistulafoundation.org/countries-we-help/madagascar/). An obstetric fistula is a hole that forms between a woman’s vagina and either her rectum, bladder or both (causing incontinence) from prolonged labor due to obstruction. If a woman’s undernourished body cannot push the baby out (or, her labor becomes obstructed), it’s possible that she’ll remain in labor for up to six or seven days, after which she’ll give birth to a dead fetus, and is left with holes in her body where the baby’s skull sustained pressure for long enough to kill the fragile tissues. In this scenario, not only does the woman have holes in her body, from which her urine and fecal matter can freely fall from, causing infections and for her to be heavily stigmatized and often shunned from the community, but she oftentimes loses the child that caused it all (https://www.fistulafoundation.org/what-is-fistula/). Infant mortality rates in Madagascar are understandably almost eight times as high as that of the United States’ - 42.4 infant deaths [per 1,000 births] to the US’ meager 5.8 deaths (2016, http://world.bymap.org/InfantMortality.html). Medical resources in these remote coastal regions are horrifically scarce, so the chances of an operation being done to fix such a traumatic wound, much less the chances of giving birth in a hospital, are few and far between. Unless the village is consistently receiving some type aid from city, church or international organizations, medical aid is non existent.
Fighting a Cultural Patriarchy
Mamisoa struggles with male patriarchy in Tanadava’s church. She is one of two women in power. Oftentimes the men will simply “not show” when she calls meetings. “All men catechists” means that when Mamisoa must inevitably go elsewhere - to assist other communities - there’s the possibility that all her work might be lost the second she leaves. Though she gives significant aid to the community, it is not respected, because it comes from a woman. The pastor comments, “Well, I did require from the president of the synod that it would be preferred if a woman can replace me, but we will see. A[ female] pastor is like 1 to 5 men in my church.”
How Can I Help?
How to contribute to Tanandava Parish development. Make check payable to: A Project of Hope
On memo line write: Tanandava Parish
Send check to:
Treasurer, A Project of Hope
363 Relative Trail
McDonough, GA 30253