YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – Madagascar’s influential Catholic bishops’ conference – usually loyal to the government – has denounced in very strong terms the recently enacted law authorizing surgical or chemical castration for pedophiles.

The country’s parliament passed the controversial law on February 2 this year. The law requires that perpetrators of rape against children between the ages of 10 and 13 are surgically castrated. Those who rape children between the ages of 14 and 17 will be chemically castrated. Offenders in both cases could face sentences of up to life in prison.

Chemical castration involves injecting convicted sex offenders with chemical treatments designed to quell their sex drive. These treatments aim to lower the testosterone levels of male sex offenders. This could be reversed by stopping the treatments. Surgical castration involves surgically removing one or both testicles with the aim of lowering testosterone production in male sex offenders to decrease their sex drive. Unlike chemical castration, surgical castration is permanent.

The new law has met with stiff resistance from the Catholic Church.

In a May 14 statement, Madagascar’s Catholic Bishops condemned the law saying it goes against every grain of ethics and morality.

“Are we really going to eradicate rape with this law?” the bishops asked.

They described castration as an act of “torture” which is contrary to human rights and the very principles of the Church.

“The human body, as the work of God, is sacred,” the statement said.  “So nothing and no one has authority over it, not even the law.”

The law has also drawn strong criticism from human rights groups. In a February 8 statement, Human Rights Watch (HRW) called for a repeal of the new legislation.

The institution described the law as “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment” and noted that it was “inconsistent with Malagasy constitutional provisions against torture and other ill-treatment, as well as regional and international human rights standards.”

“The Malagasy authorities must instead prioritize a survivor-centered approach, which empowers and enables survivors to report safely without fear of stigmatization and retaliation; effectively holds perpetrator to account and introduces necessary reforms to the criminal justice system to ensure survivors can access timely justice and remedies, and moreover, strengthens prevention efforts to address and eliminate root causes,” HRW said.

The human rights organization however recognized the alarming levels of pedophilia in Madagascar, most of the abuses going unreported, because of the associated stigma.

According to the country’s Justice Minister, Landy Mbolatiana Randriamanantenasoa , 600 cases of the rape of minors were recorded in 2023, and 133 were recorded in January of 2024 alone.

According to a report published in 2023 by the United Nations Children’s Fund, UNICEF, only 19 percent of minors who are victims of sexual violence have reported it. The same report estimates that 81 percent of the perpetrators of rape and acts of barbarism against children are free.

The sheer scale of the problem and the lack of justice for the victims triggered protests across the country. On April 4, some 400 people took part in the 4th edition of what is called “Run and Bike – Stop aux viols” to draw attention to the plight of rape victims in Madagascar.

“It’s not right that at least six children are raped every day in this country; nor is it right that 80 percent of rapists are on the street because they pay the victims’ families in exchange for their silence!” Florentine Razanajafy said. She is the founder of the association Tao and organizer of the event.

“This event is a way for them to understand that there are still people who support them. And above all, it’s a message we’re sending to our children: That we’re ready to change things, and that we’re here to protect them too,” Razanajafy added.

The government has justified the law, with Lova Ranoromaro, the spokesperson for Madagascar President, Andry Rajoelina telling RFI that it is intended to “deter horrific acts committed against young children,” whose protection remains “the absolute priority.”

Some NGOs have welcomed the harsher legislation. According to Jessica Lolonirina Nivoseheno of the Women Break the Silence group which campaigns against rape and supports victims “there really is a rape culture in Madagascar.”

“We are in the process of normalizing certain cases of sexual violence, also minimizing the seriousness of these cases,” she said.

She described the new law as “progress, because it is a deterrent punishment.”

“This could prevent potential attackers from taking action … but only if we, as citizens, are aware of the existence and importance of this new penalty, “she said.

Denis-Alexandre Lahiniriko, a specialist in Church-state relations notes that the criticism by the Catholic bishops against the castration law is “a political setback” for the regime, especially after the government asked the EU Ambassador to Madagascar, Isabelle Delattre Burger to be replaced because she criticized the new legislation.

Lahiniriko said that the state could actually back down on castrating sex offenders after the criticism by the bishops, because “in Madagascar, once the Church has spoken out, the political regimes have always listened.”

Madagascar isn’t the first country to mandate castrating people for raping minors. Chemical castration is practiced in Pakistan, Thailand, Poland, South Korea, Australia, The Czech Republic, and Ukraine, parts of Nigeria, the UK and several states in the United States.