Girls make up a vulnerable population in Senegal. They marry and get pregnant young, and household chores take up the majority of their days. For a girl to make it out of a village to attend the high school in the district capital is close to impossible. Between 6th and 9th grades, 97% of Nafadji’s girls drop out, and this past year, 13% of the 7th grade girls dropped out due to pregnancy. The last year of junior high (9th grade) had only 1 girl in the class, and she has decided not to continue on to high school. Young girls face strong pressure to get married and start families.
To address these issues, Awa Traore, Peace Corps Senegal’s Cross-Cultural Coordinator did a tour of some of the schools in the Kedougou region to talk about the importance of girls’ education. I arranged for her to speak in Nafadji and went back there with her a couple of weeks ago. 24 girls showed up for the presentation, including the 9 Michele Sylvester Scholarship candidates. Awa engaged the girls and had each of them talk about their dreams and what steps they were going to take to reach them. She talked about what it takes to be successful and stressed the importance of knowing what you want and not stopping until you have achieved it. She inspired confidence in the girls and had a candid conversation with them about early marriage and pregnancy. The girls were honest with her that some of them had gotten pregnant or married young, and it is a hard cycle to break. My 15-year old host niece who just had a baby was in the audience and could really relate to the pressures that Awa talked about, such as boys pressuring girls to become sexually active at a young age without using protection. The cycle of teenage pregnancy is a hard one to break. In my host family, my 30-year old host sister got pregnant at 15, and her daughter followed in her footsteps and also got pregnant at 15. The girls in the audience were enthusiastic about their futures, and I hope that some of them are able to break the cycle and make it out of the village.
After Awa’s presentation, we presented the 3 Michele Sylvester Scholarship winners with backpacks full of school supplies, and all 9 Michele Sylvester Scholarship candidates had their school registration fees paid for this year. Thank you to everyone who donated towards the scholarships! You helped to send 9 girls to school this year, and this is a step in the right direction to fight for girls’ education!
On my new compound in Saraya, my closest friend is my 12-year-old host sister, Maimouna. She is a smart, curious, and determined young woman, and I can tell that she is going to be successful in whatever she chooses to do. Every night, we sit outside in the compound, and she asks me question after question about the world. Her thirst for knowledge is refreshing, and like me, she wants to help women in the future. She has asked me what an OB/GYN does and is interested in women’s health issues. When I talk with her, she absorbs every bit like a sponge and asks me questions that no one else here has ever asked me before. I really enjoy spending time with her. She’s also athletic and loves playing soccer with her female friends. Of course, she rarely has time for soccer since she is cooking, cleaning, or washing clothes during most of her free time, but I would love to form a girls' soccer team with the pennies and soccer balls my dad sent me last year.
Recently my mom sent me Bend it Like Beckham, an inspirational movie for girls. Since Maimouna is interested in soccer, we watched the movie together in French on my laptop a couple of nights ago, and she loved it! She was engaged throughout the entire thing, and she can relate to the family pressures that the main character experienced. Throughout the film, she kept asking if Jess was going to get to play soccer and was so happy at the end when Jess was able to follow her dream. That night, Maimouna asked if we could work on her soccer skills the following evening so that she could be like Jess.
Meeting Maimouna gives me hope for the future of girls in this country. Seeing her determination at such a young age is inspiring, and I hope she never loses that!