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Fighting a rising tide of sex tourism

A poster in the fishing village of Ambatozavay, about 16 kilometres from Hellville, the capital of Nosy Be, warns against child prostitution
Une affiche de campagne mettant en garde contre le travail du sexe des enfants (Guy Oliver/IRIN)

Community-based resistance to sex tourism on Nosy Be, an island off the northwest coast of Madagascar and its busiest resort, is holding the line against child sex work, but the country’s declining economic fortunes are making a tough fight even tougher.

Officially, the population of Nosy Be is 109,000, of which 12 people are HIV positive; unofficially, no one really knows to what extent migrating sex workers have increased the numbers.

"Girls from all 22 regions [of Madagascar] come here because of tourism and the opportunity to have a white husband," Jean Claude de Bikiny, the island's deputy administrator, told IRIN. "We have been fighting this problem [sex tourism] since 1990."

He thought about eight percent of people on Nosy Be could be sex workers, but this probably ebbed and flowed in synch with the high and low tourism seasons. There are frequent and direct flights from Europe to the 300 sq km island, and regular ferries cover the 8km distance from Madagascar.

According to UNAIDS about 0.2 percent of the sexually active population are infected with HIV/AIDS, in a country with about 20 million people.

"Twenty years ago it was unimaginable that women would become prostitutes," Antoinette Djaotoly, an educator at Foyer Social, a community-based training centre in the Nosy Be capital Andoany - formerly Hellville - told IRIN. The centre provides training in life skills and a variety of trades, from manicurist to car mechanic, enabling sex workers to seek alternative employment.

What went wrong?

Two events in 1990 laid the foundations for sex tourism: the effects of a structural adjustment programme were beginning to be felt, resulting in large-scale retrenchments in pursuit of economic growth; and the government awarded a tuna fishing contract to a Japanese company, bringing more than 20 trawlers to the rich waters off the island.

"In Nosy Be a lot of women had come to work in a shrimp factory, and when the factory started shedding labour, the unemployed became prostitutes. The Japanese fishermen had money and that's when big prostitution started," Jocelyn Gabriel, a member of the protection network that discourages sex work, told IRIN.

The economy was based on small-scale fishing, ylang-ylang (Cananga odorata, also known as the perfume tree), coffee and sugar cane, which has suffered since the island's largest employer, a rum distillery, closed its doors in 2008.

"About 1,300 people lost their jobs [when the distillery closed] and if you estimate that each worker has five or more dependents, you can see the effect," Gabriel said.

A slowing economy - even in the tourism sector, which Bikiny said had been damaged by the island's reputation for sex tourism - lowered average wages for hotel workers from US$40 a month to $30, for instance.

Sex workers are regarded as opportunists from elsewhere. "Girls from Nosy Be don't work as prostitutes, as everyone knows each other and there is a shame for being known as a prostitute ... Without prostitution, Nosy Be would grow [economically], because there are a lot of other things to do," Lawrence Velonkasise, an administrator at Madagascar's education department on Nosy Be, told IRIN

Sex worker "success"

Schools in Andoany have life skills classes warning against sex work, but "if it takes the line that girls should not go with whites, it can be seen as racism," Velonkasise said.

Fixing nets in the Nosy Be village of Ambatozavavy in Madagascar

Fishermen fixing nets in the Nosy Be village of Ambatozavavy, Madagascar
Guy Oliver/IRIN
Fixing nets in the Nosy Be village of Ambatozavavy in Madagascar
Tuesday, November 16, 2010
Lutter contre la montée du tourisme sexuel
Fixing nets in the Nosy Be village of Ambatozavavy in Madagascar

Photo: Guy Oliver/IRIN
Fixing nets in the Nosy Be village of Ambatozavavy in Madagascar

The "success" of some sex workers, whose liaisons with foreign nationals had turned them into "role models" owning a house, a car or both, Gabriel said, made it difficult to oppose the sex trade in one of the world's poorest countries. Migrant sex workers returning home relatively flushed with money also acted as a recruitment advert for others to come to the island.

They came to Nosy Be from as far south as Toliara, capital of Toliara Province, but Gabriel believed that about 80 percent came from the Antsohihy district of the Sofia Region in Mahajanga Province, an area of onion, bean and rice farmers nearest Nosy Be on mainland Madagascar.

There were about 8,000 long-term foreign nationals resident in Nosy Be, mainly French and Italian, Gabriel said. Property laws required foreign investors to have local partners, and Malagasy women were often partners in property purchases, with the usual place of business a bar.

"There may be some who think a 55-year-old man having a relationship with a young Malagasy woman is not right. But then, what if after a lifetime of work, the man's wife leaves him?" a French national, who declined to be named, told IRIN.

"His children have already left the home. Should he sit alone in [France]? Why cannot he come here and meet beautiful women? The man has a new life, and the women and their family benefit from it too."

Oriel, 26, a sex worker from the port city of Mahajanga, told IRIN she had become a sex worker after the father of her two young children moved to Nosy Be to establish a business, which failed. He then went to Mayotte, a French island in the Mozambique Channel, and she was left to fend for herself and the children.

She cruises a beach-front strip with numerous bars and restaurants in Ambatoloaka, a fishing village with an official population of 4,461 about 7km from Andoany, which at night teems with sex workers offering their services.

Chatian Andriamahasolo, a municipal councillor in Ambatoloaka, started monitoring sex workers in 2008, "as I have a daughter and I do not want her to become like [those] other girls."

Madagascan citizens are required to carry identity cards and a group of about eight volunteers patrol the streets; if a girl is found to be under 18 years of age, or without identification, she is escorted to the police station.

Community initiatives

"In 2008/09, in one night we used to find about 10 to 15 girls without IDs [identity documents] and some of them were under-age. These days it is one or two [without IDs] - people know they are obliged to carry ID cards," he told IRIN.

Many hotels in Ambatoloaka and other parts of Nosy Be allowed patrons to bring sex workers to their rooms at no extra cost, but Andriamahasolo said management were obliged to check their IDs to ensure the women were over 18 years old, and community patrols were permitted to check hotel rooms if it was suspected there were under-age girls inside.

"Foreigners give a bad image to Nosy Be, but we need foreigners to bring in money [to the island]," he said.

Community attempts to close bars at midnight have been thwarted by the owners. When applications to extend bar hours to 3 a.m. were refused, owners got special dispensation from Antananarivo, capital of Madagascar. "It's a big problem, I won't lie to you," Andriamahasolo said.

Tourists making their way to the national park on Nosy Be in search of lemurs rather than sex workers, does not mean that sex tourism has left Ambatozavavy, a small fishing community of 1,000 people about 18km from Andoany, untouched.

The 50-year-old village school used to cater for children only up to the age of 13 years, after which they would have to finish their schooling in Andoany. "There is psychological abuse in Hellville [Andoany] for the children - they see nice women, nice cars and money. Boys look for jobs, and girls for easy money, especially prostitution," school director Edouard Rasolofo told IRIN.

The impoverished community have expanded the classes at their own expense, and donors pay seven of the 10 teachers, allowing villagers to delay sending their children to Andoany until they are 16 years old, which has had a remarkable effect on pass rates despite the size of classes increasing.

Previously, of the 30 students from Ambatozavavy going to Andoany when they were 13 years old, 10 would pass the year. Of those 10, four would pass the grade at 14 years old, two of those would pass the next year, and finally, one would pass at 16. Since building the extra classes, 56 of the 60 students aged 13 at school in the community passed, 52 of those passed the next year, and 50 of the 15-year-old students passed the following year.

''There is psychological abuse in Hellville [Andoany] for the children - they see nice women, nice cars and money. Boys look for jobs, and girls for easy money, especially prostitution''

The community have laid the foundations for another classroom, but require US$3,000 for the materials, which will allow them to delay sending their children to Andoany until they are 17 years old.

"Those from the village who become prostitutes don't come back after they drop out of school. They send money back to the village with other people, as they are ashamed to be here in person," Rasolofo said.

In response to sex tourism, a social protection network has been set up. It includes representatives from the police, judiciary, NGOs, doctors, schools and the tourist industry, and meets at least once a month to review and devise strategies.

Djaotoly, a trainer at Foyer Social - a skills centre established in 1972, but which has mainly focused on providing sex workers with a second chance since 1990 - told IRIN that apart from the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), all other international donors had stopped funding since a coup-style change in government in March 2008.

During 2010 about 60 former sex workers, some as young as 16 years, received training. The tourist industry recruits receptionists, secretaries and other personnel from Foyer Social.

"It's not a question of less money - we don't have money," Djaotoly said. "It is very difficult to work in this type of environment."


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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