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Madagascar: “Poverty and impunity have increased contemporary forms of slavery,” warns UN Expert

Slavery situation in Madagascar

19 December 2012

GENEVA (19 December 2012) – The United Nations Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, Gulnara Shahinian, today called on the Government of Madagascar to take urgent measures to fight poverty in the country. Combating poverty is at the heart of combating slavery in Madagascar.

“Human rights cannot thrive in an environment of extreme poverty,” said Ms. Shahinian at the end of her first fact-finding mission to the country, from 10 to 19 December. “Madagascar’s experience has shown the extent to which men, women and children suffering from extreme poverty end up living in conditions of contemporary forms of slavery such as domestic servitude; child slavery in mines and quarries; bonded labour; and servile marriages,” the independent human rights expert warned.

The Special Rapporteur stressed that the lack of robust action and commitment from the authorities to tackle extreme poverty has left large sections of societies completely abandoned and in despair. There has been scarcely any investment in services such as health care and education- many of which have closed down due to lack of funds. “This endangers the future human potential of the country and is a major setback to Madagascar which was on its way to achieving the UN Millennium Development Goals on reducing the inequity between boys and girls attending school,” she said.

“I met with women, boys and girls who had been victims of physical, verbal and sexual violence as a result of working respectively as migrant domestic workers abroad and child domestic workers in Madagascar,” Ms. Shahinian said. “I learnt that parents send their children to be domestic workers so as to either pay off a debt or earn money to feed the family.”

The expert noted that parents are desperately poor, have little alternatives for their employment and are unable to send their children to school, and that children suffer from chronic hunger which affects their development physically and mentally as their brains do not develop. “Those carrying heavy loads as a result of their work on mines, quarries, brick making and the provision of water for private and commercial use also experience stunted growth due to pressure on their spinal cords and experience a great amount of physical pain in their neck, shoulders and back,” she explained.

The Special Rapporteur stressed the need for the authorities to ensure that existing national legislation is applied with a particular focus on fighting impunity and holding those responsible accountable. “The country has sufficient legislation to combat slavery but the laws are not implemented or monitored which accounts for the impunity and corruption,” she underscored.

Children are illegally working in the artisanal mining and quarrying sector. Often living in remote areas in communities characterized by violence and lawlessness, these children are also exposed to rape, prostitution, respiratory diseases and other illnesses leading to early deaths.

Regarding servile marriages, Ms. Shahinian noted that despite the national legislation which sets the minimum age for marriage in Madagascar to 18 years, numerous girls and boys are being forced to marry against their will as young as 10 years old. The Special Rapporteur heard that, in some cases, girls marry men who are significantly older and sometimes elderly men and when widowed they face discrimination and social exclusion.

“Victims of such arrangements are likely to be also victim of domestic servitude and sexual slavery. They are equally denied their right to health, education, non-discrimination and freedom from physical psychological and sexual violence,” she warned. “Such servile marriages do not tend to last for more than ten years.”

In addition, the Special Rapporteur was informed of the deeply rooted discrimination based on caste. In a country where over 70 percent are poor and over 50 percent are extremely poor, the slave descendants are the most vulnerable as they suffer from social, economic and political discrimination.

“The Government, as well as civil society and international organisations cannot continue to ignore this issue. All actors must work with local communities in order to eradicate the stigma that slave descends experience,” she stressed. “The country cannot effectively move forward until these old wounds are recognised and addressed. The government must work at all levels -particularly through community leaders such as the fokotany and lunaka in order to tackle such discrimination.”

The independent expert also urged the authorities to prioritise and devote sufficient resources to address the phenomena. “During my field visits, I met with local authorities and civil society organisations who were working to combat slavery with limited resources,” she said. “Amongst my other recommendations, I urge the government to develop urgent measures and fully resourced programmes with local authorities and work closely with civil society and international organisations in order secure funding and combat contemporary forms of slavery.”

“Education has also proved to be an effective deterrent to early marriages. “Focusing on providing free education and literacy for children and adults is crucial in guaranteeing the economic future of the country. Free vocational training backed up with employment opportunities are also crucial in providing teenagers and adults with viable economic alternatives to slavery like practices.”

During her first mission to Madagascar, Ms. Shahinian visited Antananarivo, Antsirabe, Ambositra, Fianaransoa, Ihosy, Sakaraha, where she met with government representatives, law enforcement agencies, NGOs, victims and community members.

Ms. Shahinian will present a comprehensive report on the visit’s findings at the Human Rights Council in September 2013.

(*) Check the 2011 report on child slavery in the artisanal mining and quarrying sector:


Gulnara Shahinian was appointed as the first Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, its causes and consequences in May 2008. She is a lawyer with extensive experience as an expert consultant for various UN, EU, Council of Europe, OSCE and government bodies on children’s rights, gender, migration and trafficking. Ms Shahinian is also a former trustee of the UN Voluntary Trust Fund on Contemporary forms of Slavery. Learn more, log on to:

UN Human Rights, country page – Madagascar:

For more information and media request, please contact:
In Geneva (before the mission): Ms. Elizabeth Wabuge (+ 41 22 917 9138 / [email protected]) or write to [email protected].
In Antananarivo (during the visit): Ms. Solange Nyamulisa (+261 34 48 816 31/ [email protected]) or Ms. Nanou Fiankinana (+261 34 48 809 60 / [email protected]) or Ms. Zoé Rasoaniaina (+261 34 48 008 56/ [email protected])

For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts:
Cécile Pouilly, UN Human Rights – Media Unit (+ 41 22 917 93 10 / [email protected])

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