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ANTANANARIVO (Reuters) - A victim of superstition on her Indian Ocean island home, 29-year-old Zaely never knew her twin sister, who was raised by somebody else.
They were born in southeast Madagascar's Mananjary district, where locals believe twins bring bad luck. Unlucky parents are forced to give them up, or be ostracized by their neighbors.
"I have looked for her, but with no result," said Zaely, who makes a living selling handicrafts.
Local taboos, or fady, are a major part of daily life on the giant island nation off Africa's east coast, which has long fascinated anthropologists with its unique mix of cultures.
Some Malagasy people exhume the corpses of long-dead relatives as a sign of reverence, for example. But while most fady appear quite harmless, some can be cruel.
"I had to abandon my twins 10 years ago," said Voahirana Ruphine, a 40-year-old teacher. "I have not seen them since."
Since 1987, two Mananjary orphanages have received 236 abandoned twins, officials say.
But Madagascar may now be cracking down.
First comes a four-year scheme to raise awareness and try to break support for the taboo, including discussions with local leaders, parents and children, combined with media campaigns.
In the longer term, tough new legislation is planned.
"A law is being prepared to reinforce the protection of twins," Laurette Randrianantenaina, director of judicial reform at Madagascar's justice ministry, told Reuters.
She said the new legislation was likely to give more powers to police and judges to intervene on behalf of parents and children under pressure from the local communities.
Some families have chosen to resist the local taboos on their own and suffer the consequences.
Ever since Welsh missionaries brought the Bible to Madagascar in the 19th century, tensions have grown between the island's age-old traditions and Christianity -- the religion of two fifths of its 17 million people.
"It was our faith which gave us the courage to keep our twins," Ralay, a 48-year-old Christian carpenter, said of his and his wife's decision to hold on to their four-year-olds.
"We have been banned from going to the tranobe (local community meetings), and we don't benefit from any social aid despite our difficult situation," he said.
Known for the richness and diversity of its unique wildlife, Madagascar is the subject of a popular animated 2005 film. But while the Dreamworks movie shows only animals, no people, Madagascar has one of the world's fastest growing populations.
About two thirds of its 20 million people live on less than $2 per day and only about half are able to read.
Writing by Ed Harris; Editing by Daniel Wallis