“I have a right to succeed, I can succeed, I will succeed” – Ending School-related Gender-based Violence in West and Central Africa

January 10, 2014

From November 19-21, UNGEI, the French Ministry for Foreign Affairs and UNICEF organized a sub-regional workshop on ending school-related gender based violence. Held in Burkina Faso, this event involved participants from 7 countries (Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, Senegal, Togo and Burundi), including UNICEF Staff, Ministry of Education staff, national and regional civil society organizations and the Global Partnership for Education (GPE). This workshop aimed to highlight good practices in addressing SRGBV across the region, and to facilitate the exchange of knowledge and experience, and build capacity among government and non-government actors.

Back to the wintry cold days and intermittent snow storms in New York, observations and lessons from my recent mission to Burkina Faso have stayed with me, and have enriched both my perspective and work here at the UNGEI Secretariat.

© Marie Devers, Lycée de Zorgho, Burkina Faso

Arriving in Ouagadougou, the sprawling and dynamic capital city of Burkina Faso, on a balmy November evening made me feel both excited and at home. On this occasion, I was there for a three-day workshop on ending school-related gender based violence, co-organized by UNGEI with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of France and UNICEF regional office.

As with most everywhere in the world, gender based violence is a serious problem in Burkina and in the region, having far reaching effects on children’s ability to stay and complete their education, particularly girls. I already knew that literacy rates in Burkina were very low, with only 33% of girls aged 15-24 being able to read and write. I also knew that girls were more likely than boys to be out of school in both their primary school and secondary school years. Given that gender based violence, particularly in a school setting, was such a serious issue in West and Central African countries, this workshop was an important occasion to bring a variety of stakeholders together to discuss strategies to address it.

After three days of discussions with colleagues from Togo, Burundi, Côte d’Ivoire, Mali and others, I was heartened to learn that so many of our fellow participants were doing valuable work in their respective countries, and believed strongly in the right of girls to an education free from fear, and the right to succeed in their life pursuits just as much as boys. On the other hand, discussions during the sessions also made it clear that certain ingrained beliefs about gender, even among those who work on issues of gender equality and empowerment, are difficult to change.

A day after the closing of the workshop, I was lucky enough to take part in a field trip to a school in Zorgho, a small town about 2 hours outside of Ouagadougou.

The Lycée de Zorgho is a rather large school of about 300 students, overcrowded for the number of existing classrooms and teachers. Students were excited to see us arrive, and we were greeted warmly by the Principal of the school. After seating ourselves in the shade, we were graced with a play organized by the theater club on the theme of girls’ continuing their education no matter the challenges. The ‘heroine’ of the story, a girl of about 15, acted the part of a student faced by constant bullying by her peers. Even while bullying her, her peers conceded that she was the smartest student in class, but despite this, or because of it, the harassment continued.

With the support of her friends and her family, our heroine decided to stay in school although she was sorely tempted to give up. During a pivotal moment of the play, her two friends took her hand, calling on her to repeat the words “I have the right to succeed, I can succeed, I will succeed.”

In order to help girls succeed, the Lycée had instituted girls’ clubs for students that were having difficulties with their lessons. A female teacher, the marraine or godmother of the club, oversaw activities such as soap making and the theater club. One of the students demonstrated how the soap was made, explaining that teachers often bought the soap themselves. These activities served to increase their self-confidence, and teach them useful skills at the same time. I also learned that some boys were involved in the clubs, which we agreed was a good way to foster camaraderie and avoid feelings of jealousy.

Our next stop was just 20 minutes away, at a boardinghouse for girls in the town of Namalgue de Koupela. We were welcomed by the Director of the boardinghouse, the President of the Parent-Teacher Association, as well as the 40 girls who live in the boardinghouse. We later learned from the Director that the house welcomes girls from poor families, or girls who live too far away from school. Along with gender based violence, poverty and distance to school are important barriers to girls attending and completing school at all levels, therefore this boardinghouse is an excellent example of how girls’ education funding is being used to remove these barriers.

During our drive back to Ouagadougou, with the setting sun ahead of us casting long shadows and giving a golden red coloring to the passing scenery, I thought back to my experience that day and during the workshop. Specifically, I recalled the words of Ms. Koumba Boly Barry, the Minister of National Education and Literacy of Burkina Faso. During her closing remarks, she proclaimed with pride, that the “gold of Burkina Faso, is its girls and women”.
In order to change the norms and beliefs, as well as the structures that allow violence against girls to continue, collaboration among a host of development actors is critical. I look forward to contributing to this cause as UNGEI’s work moves forward into 2014.

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Alexandra dos Reis Stefanopoulos is Technical and Programme Officer with the UNGEI Secretariat. Prior to joining UNGEI, Alexandra worked both in the US and internationally on issues of gender equal...

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