It's been a full first two weeks in Madagascar. Now that I've been here for a while, I've had time to acquaint myself with the various children's centers I'm working with. The center where I'm living has a grant from the EU to put together a human rights education program for the children and staff at the various centers, all of which are closely tied to the family or criminal courts. The idea is to teach the children about their procedural rights in the courts (and, in some cases, prisons), and the laws governing their employment. The other part of the program will hopefully at least cut back a bit on some of the abuses that take place at some of the worse centers by making sure the staff know the law (and its attendant consequences) governing their conduct. I've had time to visit each of the centers at least once, and to meet the children and staff.
The first two centers are Akany Avoko, where I'm living, and Centre St. Jean. Both are well-run centers that take in children separated from their parents by the courts, because their parents have either abused them, abandoned them, or are themselves in prison. There are a few orphans as well, but they're exceptional.
Another center included in the EU grant is in Faravohitro, a neighborhood in Antananarivo. It was founded at around the same time as Akany Avoko and is considered a sister center, but the two are completely separate. Faravohitro houses about 30 girls, all of whom have been either accused or convicted of delinquency. The courts send the girls there either to await trial, or, if convicted, to serve out their sentences. Before coming to Faravohitro, most of the girls worked as domestic servants, or femmes de ménage, for wealthy Malagasies in Antananarivo. In reality, femmes de ménage are little better than slaves, sent to the city by their parents, who collect their wages. They often end up at Faravohitro on charges of petty theft, while their employers, or patrons, suffer no consequences at all for trafficking in child laborers. More about that in a later post.
By far the worst of the centers is Akany Fanabeazana, the center for boys. It houses about 80 boys, also accused or convicted of delinquency, or in a few cases of more serious crimes, including murder and rape. The fact that they are being held in a children's center rather than a jail is a step in the right direction, but I've quickly learned some disturbing things about the conditions there. The staff there use corporal punishment against the boys, and have been known to steal from them. Although some of the boys have committed violent crimes, they aren't supervised properly; there are cases of boys being badly beaten or even raped in the dorms by other boys, and, in at least one case, by a staff member. I'll post more about that as well.
My next task is to survey the children and staff at the various centers, to find out what they know about their legal rights. This is necessary because the teacher who will ultimately deliver this curriculum at the various centers will be paid by the EU, which won't give us any more money unless we show progress with measurable indicators. Beyond satisfying the EU (hopefully), the survey will give me a useful baseline measure of what people do or do not know. It will also give me a chance to ask the kids about their experiences in the courts, to find out which legal protections (like representation by a lawyer) are or are not actually enforced. I'll be doing that all next week.