By Johanna Medvey, Safidy programme volunteer, Andavadoaka, Madagascar

I’m currently volunteering with the Safidy programme in Andavadoaka, and was offered the opportunity to write this special blog post for International Women’s Day. The 8th of March (“Valo Mars”) is an important social event on the southwest coast of Madagascar; a day when women gather together, have fun, and enjoy a moment outside of their traditional routines.

Before we join the celebrations in the nearby village of Befandefa, let me take a moment to pause and describe how I see the women working in and around the Safidy team. This year’s theme for International Women’s Day, “inspiring change”, provides another good reason to do so, as all seven women described below are inspiring agents of change in Madagascar, and are wholeheartedly dedicated to supporting women to be able to make the best choices for themselves and their families.

Ranging from their mid-twenties to mid-thirties, and coming from diverse backgrounds from four different continents, these women working on community health and gender equality issues within Blue Ventures are all highly motivated and dare to dream big.

IWD 6Caroline was born in New York, United States, and has a brother, a step-sister and a step-brother. She has degrees in social work, and focused on access to healthcare with a strong interest in the social justice aspect. After having worked in the United States for a while, she joined Peace Corps in Madagascar and then in Namibia, and through these experiences discovered the strong connections between the management of natural resources and community health. Caroline has been with Blue Ventures for almost two years as the Safidy programme coordinator in Andavadoaka.

IWD 5Laura Razaka was born in Toliara, Madagascar, to a family of six children. Education was highly valued in her family and her parents strongly encouraged her to study beyond secondary school. After two years in communications and journalism, she decided to follow her heart and become a paramedic/midwife. After finishing her degree she worked in a small clinic outside Antananarivo, and then joined Blue Ventures last year to oversee the family planning and maternal and child health services. Laura is married with a child.

IWD 4Balbine was born in Andavadoaka, Madagascar and is the sixth of twelve children. Her parents didn’t have the financial resources for all of their children to complete secondary education but she attended through until 9th grade. She started working with Blue Ventures as a community-based distributor of contraceptives in 2009 because she believes in providing good health for her family and for her community. Balbine is married with four children.

IWD 1Lison is from the south of France, where she grew up with her two sisters, and studied Health and Social Sciences at the University of Montpellier. She is now a qualified nurse, and worked in Mayotte and Reunion before coming to Madagascar. When she was a student Lison campaigned for the right to access family planning services, and she was therefore very interested in joining the Safidy team to work on these issues in Madagascar. She has been managing the Safidy programme in Belo sur Mer since its launch in June last year, and conducted the reproductive health needs assessment that led to its establishment in this area.

IWD 2Laura Robson was born in the United Kingdom to a family of four children. She spent her childhood in Copenhagen, Denmark, where she attended international school and developed a strong interest in social justice issues from a young age. After graduating from Cambridge university where she studied Geography with a focus on international development and community health, she spent two years living on Madagascar’s southeast coast, working for an NGO on various community health projects. Laura joined the Safidy team a little over a year ago, as the UK-based programme coordinator.

Olivia and Fanja at the International Women's Day celebrations in Befandefa today

Olivia and Fanja at the International Women’s Day celebrations in Befandefa today

Fanja was born in Ambalavao, Madagascar, to a family with seven children. She grew up in several different towns in Madagascar and studied Geography at university in Toliara. She took a temporary position with Marie Stopes Madagascar during her studies, which turned into two full years of work. She then joined Blue Ventures and the Safidy team as the first clinical technician; a position she held for four years. In 2013 she moved across to the sustainable fisheries team, working as a community liaison officer and coordinating between programmes to empower women through Blue Ventures’ integrated Population-Health-Environment (PHE) approach.

Olivia was born in Sydney, Australia, to a small family. She has a degree in agricultural science, and another in environmental science and policy. She has worked on sustainable farming practices, as well as on food security issues and emergency relief in various developing countries. Her work experience inspired her to look at the links between environmental planning, natural resource management and food security. Olivia is Blue Ventures’ sustainable fisheries programme manager since last October and is focused on empowering women to be actively involved in fisheries management, coordinating closely with the Safidy team.

While these seven women are working with their colleagues to address community health needs in the most appropriate ways possible, they dream big about Safidy’s future. They strongly believe that access to health services is a fundamental right, and they long for the programme to deliver full access to family planning services for all communities, with a comprehensive network of community health workers along Madagascar’s coastline.

Over 700 women from throughout the Velondriake area gathered in the village of Befandefa today to celebrate International Women's Day together

Over 700 women from throughout the Velondriake area gathered in the village of Befandefa today to celebrate International Women’s Day together

They dream of a day when all women will have access to the reproductive choices they deserve, with continued strong collaboration with government bodies and health agencies, and clinics where women can give birth in the presence of doctors and trained nurses or midwives. Last but not least, they dream of more women participating in fisheries management, and perhaps even presiding over the Velondriake Committee in the future!

Blue Ventures' tsy manavaky initiative empowers women to play an active role in sustainable fisheries management

Blue Ventures’ tsy manavaky initiative empowers women to play an active role in sustainable fisheries management

I asked them whether they had any special message for International Women’s Day. Here’s what they had to share:

1) Women should continue to take pride in their strength, and to advocate for the health services they want and need.

2) Men and women were created equal, so we should be sure to cooperate and work together. There’s a Malagasy proverb that we should remember – “a woman is to a man like a balance bar is to a pirogue” – we rely on each another. A pirogue would never sail without a balance bar nor vice versa.

3) If a few women start speaking up and changing then they’ll inspire their entire communities and the younger generations to follow.

Men and boys gathered for the International Women's Day celebrations in Befandefa

Men and boys gathered for the International Women’s Day celebrations in Befandefa

I recently read Sheryl Sandberg’s book, “Lean In”, about women in the workplace. Similar to the above messages, it encourages women to have more self-confidence and to speak up instead of quietly holding themselves back. Although set in the corporate sector of the United States, I find that the book’s main message is just as relevant in the villages of rural Madagascar.

Women everywhere should be pursuing what they think is right and believe that their insight is equally valuable. Here, this means making the reproductive choices suited for them, taking care of their own and their families’ health, and participating in natural resource management. The women in and around the Safidy team who I’ve met over the last three weeks are all leaning in and acting as wonderful role models. I find their examples highly inspiring and feel very lucky to be celebrating International Women’s Day in their company!

Posted by Guest author

We regularly invite guest authors, including expedition volunteers, independent researchers, medical elective students and former staff to contribute to the Beyond Conservation blog.