Things have changed in this region of southeastern Madagascar since Moana Essa Raseta became the first woman governor here in 2005.
“Since I became governor,” she says with a smile, “men have had to listen to me! And I must say that, as a woman, I am fortunate to be able to see both sides of the coin – one as a mother and wife, and the other as a government official appointed by the President of the Republic to manage and direct the development of an entire region.”
Girls' right to education
A vast, underpopulated region known for its cattle, Ihorombe also has a reputation for the low status it affords to women and children. In this context, where few women wield political or economic power, Ms. Raseta's appointment is a chance to create lasting change, a unique opportunity for women and children.
Traditionally, the regional government of Ihorombe focused its attention on cattle and infrastructure. But since Ms. Raseta has been in charge, she has concentrated on the well-being of children and women instead.
“As a wife and woman, I encourage parents to send their girls to school,” she says. “Look at me: I am married, I have a child who is in college and I have completed my studies as an agricultural engineer. I want to make people understand that just because a girl has an education, it does not mean that she will not get married or have children.
“Women and girls should study,” continues Ms. Raseta. “It is their right, and, more importantly, they rely too much on men here. They should be able to rely on themselves.”
Meetings with women
To improve the situation of women, Ms. Raseta employs a creative approach. When she visits a community, for example, she organizes meetings with women as well as working sessions with the local male leaders.
“I have to do this because when I go to a village and make a speech, everybody is there, even the women,” she explains. “But when it is time to discuss the implications of my speech, the women disappear, and only the ‘important' people attend these discussions. So I encourage the women to meet with me separately.”
After a paltry turnout at her first meetings with women, Ms. Resata saw a steady increase in attendance and growing involvement by women in projects designed with their needs in mind.
Just a few months ago, for example, she was able to secure financial assistance that enabled a women's organization to buy sewing machines to make clothing. More recently, she engaged women in projects to increase their social protection and the income they control in their households.
“Normally, any income that a woman may earn goes to the man,” says Ms. Resata. “But now, some of the women that I have visited and helped support are learning how to keep some income for themselves and their children.”
The importance of empowerment
A year after she became governor of Ihorombe, Ms. Resata is especially proud of the fact that when she visits a village where she has engaged women in such efforts, they are the first to come out and greet her.
“I like to be hands-on,” she says. “And I think the women are quite impressed when I plunge into the rice paddies to show them how to plant the rice – and that a governor can do more than just make speeches!”
Ms. Resata argues that if the governor of Ihorombe had been a man, he wouldn't have paid much attention to the needs of women and children.
“Because I am a woman, I can put myself in their place. A man would not necessarily do that or understand the importance of empowering women,” she says. “Just take the issue of polygamy, for instance. There are men who have three or four wives. I have asked myself: If I were one of those wives, how would I feel? Just the thought made me cringe. But it encouraged me to think about the future of these women and their children – especially the children – because the future of this region will depend on them.”