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FEATURE STORY September 16, 2019

“Safe Spaces” Give Out-of-School Ivorian Girls New Confidence for the Future


“At first, the girls were intimidated, even when I asked them to sing, their faces would shut down,” explained Koné Awa, a mentor in a northern neighborhood of Abidjan

Photo: Ollivier Girard/UNFPA


  • The school dropout rate in Côte d’Ivoire is approximately 64%; young girls living in precarious conditions are more likely to drop out of school
  • The World Bank- financed Sahel Women’s Empowerment and Demographic Dividend (SWEDD) project offers easily accessible training to girls and young women in 50 safe spaces located throughout the Abidjan region
  • The commitment of many mentors has made the project possible, with the goal of helping more than 19,040 girls, from ages eight to 24, take control of their lives

ABIDJAN, September 16, 2019-– It looks like an ordinary scene: Behind the teacher’s back, carefree young girls fidget, make faces and laugh, acting out a comic scene in their classroom for the fun of it during a break. But there is nothing ordinary about these schoolgirls, wearing the same pink blouses tucked into pleated blue skirts. They are gathered in a “safe space,” a classroom at the Yopougon women’s training and education institute (IFEF) in Abidjan and they all have one thing in common: a hard life.

Learning skills that will serve them throughout their lives

These girls have faced difficult situations from a very young age and often come from troubled families or are sometimes orphans. They have dropped out of school or were never even enrolled.

“I dropped out of primary school very early, after my mother died,” said Christelle Balla, who participates in the program. « But, now I have decided to give myself another chance by coming here to learn how to read and write so that I can follow my dreams.”  

Like nearly 20,000 other girls across the city, teenage girls and young women, ranging in age from 8 to 24, Christelle refuses to accept the future that her current circumstances seem to impose.  Twice a week, girls spend about two hours patiently rebuilding their lives under the watchful and enthusiastic eyes of their mentors. The program includes courses on reading and writing, law, sexual and reproductive health, preventing gender-based violence and communication between parents and their children. But there are also leisure activities, sharing experiences and advice. The purpose is to give these young girls life skills and values, such as diligence, truthfulness, forgiveness, tolerance, respect and self-confidence.



Alice's Story: From Out of School Teenager to Aspiring Pastry Chef

Alice was only 10 years old when she had to leave her parents' house. She moved to the city of Abidjan in Côte d'Ivoire where she lived with an aunt and started a series of odd jobs. Today, aged 21, Alice is working as a housekeeper for an Abidjan family. But she has other ideas for her future. She wants to run her own business. Open her own pastry store and be her own boss. Alice Adja is among thousands of young women who have a new outlook on life thanks to the Sahel Women’s Empowerment and Demographic Dividend Project (SWEDD). The SWEDD has created safe spaces to give out-of-school adolescents like Alice a second chance. Every week, some 102,600 girls acquire basic knowledge and meet with a mentor to discuss issues like reproductive health and gender roles. Through these safe spaces, the girls also acquire the confidence needed to take their destiny into their own hands.

 “At first, the girls were intimidated, even when I asked them to sing, their faces would shut down,” explained Koné Awa, a mentor in a northern neighborhood of Abidjan. “But now, it is very interesting to see the impact that education has had on these girls. For example, when we did the workshop on I know myself, I love myself and I trust myself, in which they are gradually taught to accept themselves as they are and to be proud of their skin color, their figure and their size, one girl told me that before the workshop, she planned to lighten her skin, but after listening to me, she changed her mind and she will now use the money she planned to spend on buying a lightening cream to buy a chicken and have a good meal.” 

Mentors are recommended by local authorities, or by the participating teenage girls themselves in some cases. Mentors must be women and are subject to rigorous selection based on criteria defined by the project. They must be between the ages of 25 and 45, able to read, write and speak the local language and available three days a week throughout the project period.

Some 50 safe spaces located in several community centers have already been created in Côte d’Ivoire. Ultimately, the country will have 952 safe spaces.  The concept has been implemented by International Rescue Committee and is part of the Sahel Women’s Empowerment and Demographic Dividend project (SWEDD). It has been deployed by the Ministry for Planning and Development with the support of the United Nations Population Fund and a $5 million in financing from the International Development Association (IDA), the part of the World Bank that helps the world’s poorest countries.

Photo: Ollivier Girard/UNFPA


Believing in themselves

The values workshop gets under way. Christelle and four of her classmates perform an improvised sketch. This type of exercise helps build her self-confidence and enables her to consider her future with firm self-assurance.

“Even though I don’t have everything, with just a few resources, I know that I will achieve my goal.” Her dream: becoming “a great stylist and fashion designer.”

Christelle and her classmates perform an improvised sketch to break the ice at the start of a values workshop. Photo: Ollivier Girard/UNFPA


She has also learned forgiveness and tolerance. “I was not raised by my mother, who left this world too soon. And I experienced some horrible abuse, which made me resentful. But here, I’ve learned to forgive and I have forgiven. I have rid myself of the burden of my past.”

Christelle is delighted to have overcome “a mountain” of shame and shyness through this activity, which enabled her to build her self-confidence. “Before, I wasn’t even able to write my own name, and I was too ashamed to speak in front of other people. But now, I have no problem with speaking in public. I’ve also learned math and I can do calculations correctly now.” 

Most importantly, the mentors tirelessly repeat the phrases “you are the future of this country,” “we believe in you,” “your destiny is in your hands.” These phrases get through to these troubled children, bringing a message of hope.  

“By helping girls develop income-generating activities or apply for jobs, we enable them to stand on their own feet,” said Sy Savanneh Syrah, who manages the gender component of the SWEDD project for the government of Côte d’Ivoire. “We think that women’s empowerment is not only beneficial for girls; it benefits their families, the community as a whole, and our country’s economy.”

Christelle is one of 19,000 girls to voluntarily sign up for the safe spaces after attending open houses organized by local IRC agents in communities and villages to present the project. More than 3,000 safe spaces have been created and more than 100,000 vulnerable girls benefited from them in all SWEDD countries (Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, Mauritania, Niger et Chad).

Like nearly 20,000 other vulnerable girls, teenage girls and young women, Christelle (second from top left) refuses to accept the future that her current circumstances seem to impose. Photo: Ollivier Girard/UNFPA