In Madagascar, UNICEF Mother Leaders Are Raising Up Their Community
In Tanandava, a small community in Madagascar's Anosy region, the ravages of climate change and drought are felt particularly hard. Food insecurity is a constant for many. Opportunities for children are often few and far between. And yet, with support from UNICEF and partners like Zonta International, a small but resilient group of mothers are lifting up their community and improving life considerably.
Getting to this remote lakeside town isn't easy. As with most areas in Madagascar's south, the few paved roads haven't been repaired in decades. Though UNICEF's rugged SUVs are up to the task, it's hard to imagine most vehicles being able to traverse the frequently rocky terrain. As we get closer to Tanandava, we see sand dunes in the distance — a picturesque sight, but also a reminder of the creeping desertification here.
We had spent much of that week visiting classrooms and observing lessons, all of which were organized by Let Us Learn, a UNICEF initiative supported by Zonta and other donors that focuses on reaching out-of-school children, particularly girls, with quality education programs. There's a real education crisis in Madagascar: only one out of every three children complete primary school. We're reminded of this as we see children sitting by the welcome sign on the outskirts of town.
The greeting when we arrive is warm and joyous. Our delegation — UNICEF USA staff, our Regional Board members and Zontians from around the world — are invited to dance with the community. After introductions with local leaders, we're ready to meet the Mother Leaders.
More than two dozen mothers across a wide age range lead us closer to the shore, singing joyously along the way. At their meeting area, we're encouraged to wash our hands with ash (since soap isn't widely available), and they invite us into the circle. What we see next is Communications for Development (C4D) in action; at the heart of every song is a lesson, ranging from menstrual hygiene to treating water to spacing out pregnancies.
Families have gathered around to watch and the enthusiasm is palpable. "Songs are important because they help us be more dynamic so that we feel comfortable and won't forget what we are supposed to do," says Zeme, 22, a Mother Leader with three children of her own. She says she's learned much in the role: "I was encouraged by my training and in turn, I can encourage the [other] mothers. I can share what I know about hygiene with [them]."
One of the key messages that Mother Leaders like Zeme — pictured below with her family — drive home is the importance of education. "We encourage mothers to send their children to school since those children can help them once their education is completed," she says. But between school fees and other basic necessities like food and clothes, how are families able to make ends meet?
That's where the other key responsibility of the Mother Leaders comes in. With support from Let Us Learn, households in the community receive cash transfers that can be used to purchase food, medicine and water supplies, freeing up income that can be used to enroll children in school. The amount is small at about $3.40 per child every two months, but the impact is life-changing. "Before, we had no peace at home. We didn't have much for living," says Zeme. "We used to have dirty, torn clothes. Once we knew about [the cash transfer program], our quality of life improved considerably."
Each Mother Leader — like Mampra, above — is responsible for coaching up to 25 other women who also benefit from the program. "I teach them how to manage their money so that they can handle it wisely and stay in good health," says Zeme. For mothers who have faced desperate times for so long, the cash transfers are liberating, allowing them to give their children a means of breaking the cycle of poverty. "Our children are very happy because they have notebooks, pens and uniforms. They are eager to go to school and have hope for the future."
In Madagascar, one of the poorest countries in the world, the daily challenges can often feel daunting, but as we wrap up this visit, it's hard not to feel hopeful for the future of this community. With UNICEF's support, the Mother Leaders have taken this program and made it their own, creating a model that's sustainable and empowering. As we say goodbye, Zeme shares one last wish: "That my children would become teachers or medical doctors. It would be an honor." That has never felt more possible.
Top photo: UNICEF-trained Mother Leaders sing an educational song during a celebration in Tanandava, Madagascar in 2019. Photos © UNICEF Madagascar/Abela Ralaivita