“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