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Smith College

Publication Date

Fall 2007

Program Name

Madagascar: Culture and Society


Poverty is an inescapable reality in Madagascar, a force that permeates the lives of many Malagasy people. Approximately 75 % of the population lives below the poverty line, defined as one United States dollar per person per day . This poverty proves to be particularly cruel to women who are often illiterate, unmarried, and have children to support. In cases such as these, often the quickest and most lucrative type of work available is sex work. The proportion of sex workers (called makorelina in Malagasy and travailleuses de sexe in French ) in the city of Mahajanga is quite large—approximately 1500 in a population of 250,000 . Some of these sex workers are high school students interested in earning money to buy material items and others are older single mothers or victims of abuse. Though each of these individuals chose to enter the sex work industry for different reasons and under different circumstances, for many of them leaving the industry is not an option. In this paper I hope to provide a brief but thorough summary and analysis of the existing opportunities for sex workers in Mahajanga, in terms of their professional development and health. I also hope to provide suggestions for further study and development efforts.

I initially intended to examine the intersection of sex work and women’s health because sexual health, especially relating to women in high-risk situations such as prostitution, is of particular interest to me. Though prostitution is a universal social phenomenon, I was struck by the visibility of sex workers in Madagascar, in Mahajanga in particular. One of my foremost goals for the project was to understand sex workers’ conditions from the perspective of medical practitioners, non-governmental organizations, the community at large, and, most importantly, sex workers themselves. Upon starting my research, however, I discovered that I was much more interested in how to help sex workers—what kind of help they seek, if any; what efforts currently exist among Malagasy and foreign organizations; what is the role of healthcare in aiding sex workers; and which elements are lacking.

To investigate aid for sex workers, my goal was first to define as best I could the sex worker population in Mahajanga. Since health is such an important issue for sex workers and much of the available aid comes in the form of healthcare, I evaluated available health services and their effectiveness. I then surveyed what sort of professional development programs exist for sex workers and identified gaps in the system by speaking with sex workers about their visions for the future. The most important part of the project was to listen to the sex workers themselves, women who may not be able to openly express their opinions and perspectives in general society. Though it may not be possible to eradicate prostitution altogether, or even to help every woman who needs help, the first step is to begin listening and understanding.


Gender and Sexuality | Inequality and Stratification


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