Katy Perry sees strides in children’s education, nutrition, sanitation and hygiene in Madagascar
ANTANANARIVO, Madagascar – In a dimly lit room in the heart of a slum, American singer and songwriter Katy Perry listens to the young woman timidly explain her situation.
“He told me that he loved me and he wanted to be with me,” explains Mariana, 17. “But, when I got pregnant, all that changed.”
Child protection centre provides support
Ms. Perry spent hours at the UNICEF-supported Ilaiko Child Protection centre speaking with a group of women and their children, most of whom had experienced abuse, abandonment or neglect, and were struggling to make ends meet. The centre provides legal and social support, as well as training in basic skills, so that a young woman like Mariana can find work to support herself and her baby.
“What strikes me is how universal so many of these core problems are,” said Ms. Perry. “Whether in Madagascar or in the USA, so many women experience the same thing. But here, clearly support can be hard to come by – that’s why it is amazing that centres like this one are here to help.”
UNICEF supports child protection interventions throughout the country, working with national authorities, medical, legal and psychological services.
Playtime for Ms. Perry and the kids
Madagascar has a population of over 20 million people, 68 per cent of whom are considered to be living in poverty.
Over her four-day visit to the tropical island country, Ms. Perry spoke with hundreds of Malagasy children, teachers, community health workers and government social workers at UNICEF programme sites about their challenges, needs and successes.
At the Sahavola preschool, in Analanjirofo on the east coast, more than 50 children from age 3 to 6 greeted the singer with a song.
“We dance high! We dance low! We dance on this side, and we dance on that side!”
After the song, the children and Ms. Perry got down to serious business – with crayons and construction paper.
Ms. Perry commented on their drawings, using a little of the Malagasy language she had picked up: “Tara – that’s beautiful! Tara!”
Strides in education, and hygiene and sanitation
Madagascar has shown important steps toward reaching its goal of primary education for all by 2015 – but challenges remain. Programmes like the one Ms. Perry visited at Sahavola are essential in creating a culture of education.
The preschoolers are also encouraged to practice proper hygiene. To promote proper hygiene and sanitation, UNICEF has constructed latrines and sinks at the school.
“I wanna wash my hands, too!” Ms. Perry told the children, then patiently waited her turn while each child lathered up her or his hands and rinsed at the taps just outside of the classroom.
Access to clean and safe water is one of the biggest challenges in Madagascar. In rural areas, only 34 per cent of families use improved drinking water sources, and only 12 per cent use improved sanitation facilities, with open defecation being the primary practice. The resulting health problems are credited for dramatically reducing retention rates in Malagasy schools.
“It’s pretty encouraging to wash your hands when you know that, afterward, it’s snack time,” said Ms. Perry, with a wink.
Ms. Perry visited a primary school in Ampihaonana that had been rebuilt by UNICEF after a cyclone destroyed it in 2011.
In 2012, UNICEF completed 240 primary and four preschool classrooms with associated latrine blocks. Over 40 per cent of this construction used compressed interlocking earth bricks requiring no mortar, rather than traditional wood-fired bricks that require trees be felled. In addition to reducing impact on the environment, this construction is designed to withstand some of the worst weather.
“Back home, we often take our education for granted,” explained Ms. Perry. “At least, I know I did, until I came here and saw just how much these children appreciate being able to come to school – because not all of the children here are able to.
“A lot of them have to leave school to help out their family at a young age, or they don’t get to go to school for other reasons,” she continued. “The ones that do get the opportunity to go walk 45 minutes to get here – leaving home at 6 am! Here, high up on this hill, I can really see that UNICEF is going the distance.”
Combating chronic malnutrition
In the 8 X 8 foot community health centre in Androranga Vola village hangs a poster dotted with Velcro-backed pictures of foods like rice, spinach and red meat.
“Put up a picture of the oranges – we could also eat oranges on that day,” calls out one of 10 women sitting on a grass mat. These women are learning about food combining for the best nutrition for themselves and their children.
In a country with one of the highest rates of chronic malnutrition in the world for children under 5, this learning is essential.
“For every two children in the country, one is suffering from chronic malnutrition,” explains Programme Coordinator and Deputy Representative for UNICEF in Madagascar Sara Bordas-Eddy. “Chronic malnutrition results in stunting, an underdevelopment of the body, and can also have an impact on the child’s cognitive development.”
Ms. Perry visited the centre, where she learned how children are treated for malnutrition and how women are educated on exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of the baby’s life.
“I learned about new ways these women can include vitamins in their diet,” she said. “And UNICEF provides supplements to help with the child’s immunity.
“There’s really a lot of education going on in this small village,” she added.
Support for victims of abuse
Ms. Perry ended her visit by meeting with child victims of abuse who are receiving psychosocial support through a social welfare programme assisted by UNICEF, followed by a visit to the Tamatave Youth Centre, where teenagers had prepared special performances for her.
The day ended on a high note with a Malagasy version of the ‘electric slide’. Ms. Perry joined in.
“In less than one week here in Madagascar, I went from crowded city slums to the most remote villages – and my eyes were widely opened,” said Ms. Perry. “And I also experienced a genuine joy from the Malagasy people.”
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