Cowan Fellows Identify Human Rights Problems in Madagascar

Human Rights Study Project

Cowan Fellows (from left, bottom row) Esther Cantor, Julia Lacovara, Laura Smith, Caroline McInerney, Sabrina Talukder and (from left, top row) Dustin Elliott, Jesse Wallin, Jacob Kozaczuk.

March 29, 2013

Eight University of Virginia law students recently spent three weeks in Madagascar, an island nation off the southeastern coast of Africa, to study the status of human rights in the wake of a 2009 coup d'etat that toppled the democratically elected government and sparked a massive withdrawal of foreign aid and investment.

The students, who are Cowan Fellows in the student-led Human Rights Study Project, will report their findings on Monday, April 1, at 11:30 a.m. in Caplin Pavilion.

Each year, fellows in the Human Rights Study Project travel to countries with troubling records on human rights to gather information — primarily through first-person interviews — and report their findings. Past teams have traveled to Sri Lanka, Egypt, China, Cuba, Cambodia, Syria, Sierra Leone and elsewhere.

"We're all really grateful for this as an opportunity to gain field research experience in human rights. We're grateful for it from an academic and a career standpoint," said Julia Lacovara, a Cowan Fellow and second-year law student. "But really our goal was to bring stories back and bring things about Madagascar to light."

Human Rights sign
Sabrina Talukder (center) interviews a hotel owner about her personal experience with sex trafficking.

The students decided to study the situation in Madagascar because little had been published about human rights in the country since the coup, said second-year law student and Cowan Fellow Caroline McInerney.

"We wanted to be able to contribute to the discussion," she said. "We felt that Madagascar was somewhere we could go and really add something to the literature that wasn't already out there. There wasn't a lot being discussed about Madagascar, particularly in Western settings."

Laura Smith worked with an interpreter to conduct interviews on attitudes towards homosexuality.

Each Cowan Fellow picks a specific research topic to study during the trip. Lacovara, for example, studied how prison conditions and pretrial detention affect prisoners' physical and mental health, as well as that of their families.

The withdrawal of aid and foreign investment from Madagascar has led to a sizable increase in the country's prison population, as economic opportunities dwindled and crime began to rise, she found. Additionally, she said, roughly 70 percent of the prison population is incarcerated under pretrial detention, which can last for years, and frequently does.

A street in Antananarivo, the Malagasy capital.

She visited four prisons, and found the conditions were "terrible — really terrible," with prisoners dealing with hunger and a lack of sufficient nutrition, as well as significant overcrowding issues.

"[One prison] was built in the colonial era for 500 prisoners and now there are 3,000 prisoners in there. The infrastructure is crumbling."

McInerney studied the difficulties related to becoming a citizen of Madagascar, particularly for the country's Indian population.

"A lot of the Indian community there, who are called the Karana, are not able to access Malagasy citizenship, even though they've been in the country for four or five generations and have never lived anywhere else," she said.

She interviewed government officials, leaders in the Karana community, leaders in the Muslim community, and a number of Karana citizens, notably including local business owners in the capital city Antananarivo.

Madagascar's citizenship laws, she found, are "fairly xenophobic," and a wide racial divide exists between the Malagasy people and the Karana community. At the same time, the Karana community holds the majority of the nation's wealth.

"Going forward, this [lack of access to citizenship for the Karana community] is going to be an issue for the country because the people with the majority of the wealth aren't being integrated into society and they don't have Malagasy citizenship," she said. "They don't have the same connection to Madagascar or incentive to invest in Madagascar."

Second-year law student Sabrina Talukder studied the connections between child sex workers and the mining industry in Madagascar, which has brought a massive influx of workers and fueled the sex trade.

"Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in the world," she said. "So this presents an unparalleled economic opportunity to families who are just devastated in terms of poverty. So an already booming sex trade becomes even more prosperous."

Talukder interviewed between 60 and 70 people, including numerous sex workers, with some as young as 6 years old to as old as 50.

"I divided my research between going to brothels and bars and informal mining sites, to talking to people who were engaged in that trade and also with officials in any capacity, from NGOs to government," she said.

Talukder concluded that Madagascar's problem with child sex workers will continue unless foreign investment returns to again create viable economic opportunities.

"I would encourage foreign direct investment to return to Madagascar," she said. "To give just one small example, so many girls in the capital city used to work in the garment industry and about 10,000 girls were laid off after the 2009 coup because foreign companies pulled out. There's no record, but those girls don't have jobs anymore. And between 2008 to 2010, there was the biggest increase in sex work among young girls between the ages of 13 to 16 that the capital had ever seen."

Second-year law student Jesse Wallin focused his research on the effects of the withdrawal of all international aid — with the exception of basic humanitarian assistance — following the 2009 coup.

One effect of the withdrawal of aid, he found, has been that many development projects have essentially ground to a halt.

"Operationally, a lot of NGOS, in order to implement their projects, worked with local government. But since foreign aid largely dried up and the government's budget dried up, local government wasn't able to partner with NGOs. So local ceremonies that would, say, sanction a water development project couldn't happen," he said. "Sustainable development is generally viewed as a partnership, but if the NGO doesn't have anyone to partner with, how does development get done?"

Third-year law student Esther Cantor studied government accountability for the right to primary education.

She found that the country faces a severe deficit of trained teachers and that the government is not able to pay teachers on time and at reasonable salaries.

"Since the coup, education has not been a priority for the government," she said. "Also, a lot of the international aid [that helped fund education] has left the country since the coup."

Despite the challenges, she said, some local communities are coming up with workarounds to keep educating children. For example, schools might have only two government-funded teachers, but parents will pool their meager resources to hire a few additional, albeit less-qualified teachers.

"They're at least having someone who's finished high school in the classroom going over the curriculum," Cantor said. "It's obviously not ideal, but it was interesting to see how people who are not wealthy [and] do not have extra money lying around to pay these additional teachers are coming together and finding solutions, given that their government is currently unable to provide them with what they need and what they deserve under human rights law."

Third-year law student Laura Smith focused her research on the challenges faced by Madagascar's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

She spoke with members of the LGBT community and nongovernmental organizations that work with the community, primarily those focused on AIDS prevention among the "MSM" (men having sex with men) population.

Smith said the LGBT community appears to be divided into two disparate groups based on wealth; the low-income members of the community are often sex workers.

"The levels and the experience of discrimination [they face] seems very different," she said. "Among the more affluent population, very few of the individuals I interviewed experienced or had other LGBT friends who were victims of physical violence. Physical violence is occasional and sporadic but not the norm. Instances of verbal abuse are more common, but even those [cases] seem to be relatively infrequent."

NGO staff told her that the MSM sex workers experience a higher level of physical violence, and that discrimination, both physical and verbal, is much more prevalent in rural areas.

"But even in Antananarivo, the capital city, physical violence is a problem, especially among MSM and transgender sex workers," Smith said.

She said she was surprised about how open the Malagasy people are to talking about the LGBT community there.

"Prior to arriving, I expected that almost no one would be willing to speak with me about the issue. However, everyone I spoke with, even those I stopped on the street, were open and forthcoming about their opinions," she said. "While most expressed their disapproval, sometimes in vehement terms, I learned that there is room for conversation. And maybe those conversations will begin to lead to more openness and acceptance."

Additionally, third-year law student Jacob Kozaczuk studied the environmental and developmental impact of population growth in Madagascar.

And second-year law student Dustin Elliott researched the tension between conservation efforts and the taboo, yet prevalent phenomenon of lemur-eating by the nation's impoverished citizens.


Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

News Highlights