Approximately 10,000 international tourists from countries like France and Italy travel to Madagascar, the world’s fourth-largest island, to explore pristine and vast ecosystems every year. From its enigmatic rows of baobab trees to several species of distinct lemurs, the Indian Ocean island provides travelers with an array of sightseeing options.
But beyond the bountiful and diverse topography that exists throughout the island, there is another side of Madagascar that often falls under the radar. The island is home to a world of endemic child sex trafficking that is entirely removed from the rosy imagery depicted in travel brochures.
Sex trafficking, recent reports show, is a thriving industry throughout Madagascar, with domestic and international networks that draw in thousands of international tourists who partake in a thriving sex-tourism economy managed by local government officials, victims’ families and traffickers alike.
Much of the conversation about sex trafficking in recent years has been generally concentrated in the northern part of the island, in cities like Nosy Be and Diego. However, in the bustling capital of Antananarivo, home to over 4 million people, many of the city’s teenagers continue to be lured into national and international sex trafficking rings, while government reports claim that sex trafficking does not exist in the capital city.
According to a recent study by Ending Child Prostitution (pdf), an Antananarivo-based nongovernmental organization, there are approximately 1,132 underage sex workers in the capital city who were initiated into the industry by criminal organizations.
Another report, this one conducted by the U.S. Embassy (pdf), downgraded Madagascar to the “Tier 2 Watch List” after the country demonstrated what the report called “significant efforts by expanding the child protection network and by working at the regional level to combat child sex trafficking.”
Still, while that may represent progress for some anti-sex-trafficking organizations, the same U.S. Embassy report claims that the Malagasy government has also “decreased efforts to prosecute and convict suspected traffickers,” which, according to come child-sex-trafficking advocates, is a large part of the problem.
For Canadian-born activist Florence Boivin-Rouemestan, who lives in Antananarivo, the sudden spike in child sex trafficking can be attributed to increasing economic disparities and a widespread culture of silence that is deeply embedded into the city’s political infrastructure.
“Human and sex trafficking is almost always related with officials,” she explained to me from the lobby of a hotel where she was accompanied by her colleague and husband, Denis Roumestan. “You cannot have human trafficking if you don’t have complicity with officials and with customs.
“And the police are always their first clients,” she added.
For Boivin-Roumestan—who co-founded the human rights organization Justice & Equity, which is dedicated to providing services for sex and human trafficking victims—creating a system of transparency is one of the ways to ensure that Antananarivo’s children remain out of harm’s way as child sex trafficking continues to rise throughout the country and in other parts of the world.
But for Antananarivo’s youths who, according to her research, have been victims of rape and abuse by family members and police, sex work is often the only form of income available in one of the world’s most impoverished cities.
Aina, a 15-year-old single mother of two, who lives two hours outside the capital city, solely relies on her income as a sex worker to support her children, siblings and aging mother.
The young mother commutes to Antananarivo on a local bus—which takes up to two hours with minimal traffic—to find clients on a daily basis. Her clients, she described to me, are consistent and range from tourists, working-class men, police officers and local officials who prefer girls like Aina over older sex workers.
On an average night, Aina may see one or two clients, but when business is slow, she and her friend, another underage sex worker, have to sleep on a park bench and take the bus back to her home city in the morning.
“Yesterday, for example, I didn’t have any customers,” she said to me and a local journalist from inside one of Antananarivo’s brothels. “When I don’t have customers, I have to sleep in the park because there aren’t any buses at that time of the night.
“We know it’s dangerous, but where else can we go?” she continued.
Aina’s friend Miora quietly looked on as she spoke about the realities that both girls face on a daily basis as a lighted incense stick slowly burned in the corner of the room where we all sat. While we spoke, loud calls often erupted throughout the lightly furnished building, which houses around 10 rooms for local sex workers.
In a country where the median monthly income is 200,000 ariary, which is roughly equal to $63, Aina can take home about 20,000 ariary on a good night. The average price for a “passage,” as sex is referred to in Antananarivo, varies between 10,000 and 30,000 ariary, totaling approximately $3 to $10.
In addition, a room in a local brothel costs approximately 5,000 ariary, which is figured into the price that is given during the initial meeting on one of Antananarivo’s busy street corners.
Like other underage sex workers in the city, Aina fears the possibility of being swept into a sex ring and sent to work in the Arab world as a domestic and sex worker. It is a trend that has grown significantly as young women are lured by recruiters who portray employment opportunities in the Arab world under the guise of domestic work.
“I know two women who never came back to Madagascar,” she said about the dangers of being a sex worker in the Arab world. “I know they are trapped somewhere and they are not ever coming back.”
Like other sex workers, Aina has been using the money she has been making to support her children and the rest of her family. Thus, she has had to develop a keen ability to sense danger in an instant, but is not immune to the risk of sexual violence from customers.
“One time, a man picked me up and drove me to a city about an hour away from here,” she explained to me while the sound of other sex workers and clients in other rooms continued to echo throughout the hotel. “We had sex and then he wanted to kill me, and he didn’t pay me. I had to fight him and eventually got away and had to walk back to Antananarivo, which took a few hours.
“It was the worst night of my life,” she added.
Another underage sex worker who wished to go by “Misa,” 16, spoke of a similar experience.
“I usually work until I have enough money to pay the bills; then I go home and rest for about three days,” she described. “I usually have two customers per night, but some nights I don’t have any.”
For Misa, being involved in sex work is about more than just making a formidable income; it is also about erasing the stigmas that are associated with her line of work throughout the city. “Nobody is forcing us to do this,” she explained. “Some women are forced into doing this, but I wasn’t. I don’t see anything wrong with it,” she continued. “It’s a job just like any other job.”
Misa is not alone in wanting to erase some of the stigmas associated with sex work. Organizations like ECPAT—an international NGO that fights against the sexual exploitation of children—have simultaneously been creating more opportunities for young women while also advancing reintegrative approaches like providing women with safe homes and support groups.
For Tom Brouns, a U.S. diplomat, however, erasing the stigma is only part of the equation. The other part entails identifying the roots of underage sex trafficking, which he attributes to a host of factors.
“The main factor throughout Madagascar is poverty,” he explained. “Just like most countries, in Madagascar, prostitution offers a way out—teen girls can help contribute to household income, which can lead to opportunity.
“There is also the typical teen rebellion. In urban areas, life is busier for parents, and teens are often more independent,” he added.
Sex trafficking may have different roots in the capital city, but for girls like Aina and Misa, poverty and lack of opportunity continue to be the reasons for their involvement in one of Antananarivo’s fastest-growing industries.
It is a growing trend that continues to leave underage teenagers in vulnerable and often dangerous situations. But with anything, there is nuance and contradiction.
“Some of us don’t mind being here and doing this kind of work,” Aina explained as she puffed on a dying cigarette, “but there’s some of us who do, and I hope young women will have more opportunities than I did in the future.”