Aminata Diallo is pioneering support and prevention services for teenage pregnancy in southwest Burkina Faso, encouraging young pregnant girls to remain in school despite long-standing cultural traditions that exclude them from educational opportunities. Her work persuades school, village and government leaders to abandon historical prejudices and offers young girls access to mentorship, health services, and job opportunities.
The New Idea
Aminata has designed a support network for young pregnant girls that provides services to aid and prevent unwanted pregnancy and ultimately ensures these girls can continue their education. In an environment that remains intolerant of premarital sex, an absence of formal sex education and unreported sexual harassment, rape and violence, girls are often pressured to leave school when they become pregnant. While some organizations in West Africa have taken a service-provider approach to this problem, Aminata is the first to promote community responsibility for pregnant girls, engaging people from all sectors in her outreach. Aminata first needed to connect with female students who often kept silent on issues of sex and violence due to stigma and social pressure. She began with groupes de parole (“listening posts”) in schools as a social space for girls to make crafts and to talk about taboo subjects, such as pre-marital sex and rape. An informal atmosphere coupled with informative conversation was an ideal backdrop to reach out to those most in need of help. Aminata followed with other support and fundraising services involving young girls to both expand her reach and to support her growing project. The popularity of the “listening posts” and other programs necessitated their spread to other schools and then to villages in the region, leading to the creation of Aminata’s organization Maïa. By recruiting individuals close to young girls and students—mothers, teachers, school administrators and nurses—Aminata identified community members that could be discretely approached if a young girl was faced with pregnancy or sexual violence. Training for “listening post” discussions and mentorship to young girls was systematized as Aminata’s project encompassed an increasing number of people. Addressing a growing acknowledgement of teenage pregnancy as a problem, Aminata’s low cost, culturally appropriate and replicable model has proven extremely popular with school and government officials looking to improve the situation. Full support from the Ministry of Education will enable Aminata to propel her idea to schools across Burkina Faso and to villages in other regions where dialogue around youth pregnancy is taboo.
Stigma regarding teenage pregnancy has a long history in Burkina Faso, well-established in both the citizen and government sectors. Past legislation mandated that a girl discontinue school if she became pregnant before marriage and has only recently been overturned. Even so, widespread discrimination against young pregnant girls is manifested in religious and cultural views of female sexuality and premarital sex and an unwillingness to talk about sex in both social and educational environments. This leaves sexual harassment, rape, incest and violence uncomfortable and publically unspoken subjects and thus not prosecuted. Poverty and unequal power structures between men and women that favor the former offer both girls and women little recourse in avoiding and dealing with sexual violence or unwanted pregnancy.The education system is central to the problem of the abandonment of young pregnant girls. Formal sex education does not exist and is instead replaced by a biology-focused class covering human anatomy at the end of middle school. Discussion of sex and related matters is not permitted within this primary learning space nor is it common with teachers or others close to students. Without available information or a confidant, young girls are particularly at risk of sexual violence and/or unprotected sex. If they become pregnant, they are forced to leave school and are not able to return, leaving them to struggle with unemployment and poverty.Movements over the past twenty years have created a big push to increase the enrollment of girls in school, gaining momentum in the past decade with various gender empowerment initiatives by government and civil society organizations. This has increased the number of girls in school dramatically, up from 10 to 50 percent in some areas. When teenage pregnancy forces these girls to leave their education permanently, it reverses decades of work aimed at engaging women in all levels of society. As this is increasingly acknowledged as a problem in Burkina Faso, viable solutions are needed.
Aminata focuses her work on two areas: First, to provide assistance to girls before, during and after pregnancy so they can remain in school, and second to create employment opportunities for girls while simultaneously creating a profit stream to sustain her initiative. The groups de parole or “listening posts” are her primary vehicle for reaching out to girls and have been established at both the school and village levels. Serving as a social space for young girls, the groups engage in local crafts activities—sewing and painting, for example—while a recruited volunteer fosters discussion around taboo sexual and reproductive health topics. The friendly and informal environment is not meant to target any one girl in particular, but rather to introduce the subjects in a non-judgmental and thus non-threatening way. This encourages girls suffering from these predicaments to discretely confide in others who can then provide the appropriate support services. During these sessions, “tickets” are also distributed to the girls which can be “redeemed” for free, confidential sexual and reproductive health services at local clinics, ranging from STD testing to pregnancy prevention to pre-and post-natal care. Other services include food carts and mentorship opportunities. After observing that poverty and hunger can drive young pregnant girls to drop out of school and resort to sex work to support themselves and their child, Aminata began to provide free meals via food carts based at school. Local volunteers are also recruited and trained as mentors for these girls, providing them with job advice, funding for school materials and food and other necessary support.To fund her outreach programs, Aminata provides a variety of services, staffed by young girls, to raise money. Her postcard vendors and food-selling canteens are simple and easily replicable businesses in both rural and urban areas that serve local interests and needs. Using foundation grant support, Aminata created a guest house for visitors to her village and plans to create more in the future. Not only do these services make her work sustainable, they also provide job opportunities and economic stability to young girls that further encourages them to remain in school while they raise their children.Replicating her strategy requires recruitment and training in both schools and villages. Her model is demand-driven through social networks, often from school director to school director and village head to village head. Addressing a growing concern about youth pregnancy and infanticide and child abandonment in a culturally appropriate and inexpensive way, Aminata’s approach is particularly appealing to those in a position of responsibility for the well being of young girls and boys. The growing success and popularity of her idea have caught the attention of the Ministry of Education, which issued Aminata the permission to adapt her approach to all school curriculums in Burkina Faso. This has proven key to her spread strategy as government support in Burkina Faso is required for access to and success within the education system.
As an adolescent, Aminata was shocked by the humiliating treatment and unjust punishment inflicted on pregnant young girls at her schools. Faced with the drop out of several girls close to her throughout these years, the trauma and sadness of losing friends stayed with her as she got older. After her university studies in Dakar from 1979 to 1982, Aminata became a philosophy teacher at two high schools in Bobo Dioulasso, Burkina Faso, where she again experienced the loss of her students who were forced to leave school due to pregnancy. Entering a period of sociocultural and political disturbances in her country, she began to dream of a better world of justice and equality for these young girls.Alongside her teaching, Aminata began to work with the Burkinabe Human Rights Movement (MBDHP) and the National Union of Education and Research Employees. She also began personal research on the treatment of sexuality in schools, particularly on attitudes towards teen pregnancy. Via countless questionnaires and interviews with students, Aminata formed an understanding of the problems faced by young pregnant girls. She recognized how closely related the fight against widespread educational abandonment of young girls was to the fights against poverty, maltreatment by families, forced marriages, unwanted pregnancies, and HIV/AIDS. Within this framework, she began to explore possible strategies to provide support and encouragement to keep girls in school. Aminata’s philosophy and ensuing initiatives such as the “listening posts” shaped the foundation for her organization, Maïa, created in 1998. Her support services have become popular within the government administration, education system and village leadership due to their cultural applicability and success in addressing this problem on multiple levels. Maïa’s services are spreading throughout southwest Burkina Faso and are poised for larger regional and national scale in coming years. Aminata was asked to serve as Coordinator of the Women and Children Division of the MBDHP from 1998 to 2002 and since 2003 she has served as the Coordinator of the French Movement for Family Planning.