The northern region of Diana is known for the beautiful beaches of the Nosy-Be district and the scent of fields of ylang-ylang flowers. But the political landscape of Diana is as extraordinary as its geography: the region's administrative head is a woman, Anjara Mantasara.
Madagascar counts three women amongst its 22 regional heads, who are appointed by Cabinet and responsible for local development.
For Manatsara, her appointment two years ago was both the realisation of an ambition and recognition of the passion that she has for her region. It is also an advance in women's participation in decision-making.
"Many women don't dare to take this step and certain people sometimes discourage women from taking power," she told IPS. Presently, there are very few women in Madagascar's civil service, despite efforts by the government to promote them.
"The presence of women in decision-making positions is very weak; it does not exceed 10 percent," explains Ginette Ralimanana, director of gender at the ministry of health, family planning and social protection.
Four of the country's 21 ministers are women, while at municipal level, just 63 women serve as mayors out of a total of 1,547.
In the Senate, there are five female senators compared to 28 men, and eleven of 127 deputies in the National Assembly are women.
Still, this represents progress. The 2007 report of the International Parliamentary Union (IPU), based in Geneva, notes that the number of women in the Madagascan parliament doubled in the last elections in 2007.
The policy guiding development in Madagascar seeks to increase the presence of women in parliament to 30 percent between now and 2012, name six female ministers and triple the number of women occupying positions at local, regional and national levels.
This objective of 30 percent was superceded on Sep. 29, when President Marc Ravalomanana signed the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Gender Protocol. The protocol sets a target of 50/50 representation of men and women in SADC governments by 2015.
"The protocol is a legal instrument in favour of women in all the signatory countries. It encourages women to take over half of the decision-making posts and political positions," explains Angéla Rabozakandraina, in charge of relations with SADC at Madagascar's ministry of external affairs.
The challenge of achieving this 50/50 balance remains.
Children and husbands
Even with electoral mechanisms favouring women, "one finds a certain reluctance on their part to take up political office." says Rabozakandraina.
She explains that some women are not confident of their competence and are afraid to take on a post with major responsibilites. Others prefer to wait until their children are grown up.
An IPU study titled 'Equality in politics' carried out in 2008 among 272 members of parliament in 110 countries found that the principal obstacles to women's participation in politics are linked to family responsibility, prejudice, cultural perceptions of the role of women, and a lack of financial resources.
Manatsara, who has one child, has managed to combine her job as regional head with her family life. "It requires a planning of tasks. When I'm at the office, I'm dedicated to work, but when I get back home, it's my family that is the priority."
A husband's support is necessary for a woman in a decision-making position, declares Andréas Monique Esoavelomandroso, former president of the Indian Ocean Commission. "My husband remains my advisor in all that I do. His support has helped me to succeed in the tasks entrusted to me," she told IPS.
Quotas and merit
Esoavelmandroso feels that women cannot be promoted automatically. "There can't be a quota for women, because above all women have to earn their positions."
This position is supported by Lalao Andriamampionona, president of the civil society platform: "We have to focus on competence because the quota can effectively deprive men. The nation as a whole has to consider the issue."
According to Rabozakandraina, the important thing is not to wait for equal numbers of men and women in official positions, but to eliminate gender inequality at all levels.
"The promotion of equality between girls and boys from birth: that must be the priority," she says.