Marie Léa Zongo

Ashoka Fellow
Burkina Faso
Fellow since 1995
Association Pugsada
This description of Marie Léa Zongo's work was prepared when Marie Léa Zongo was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1995 .


Lea Zongo's (Burkina Faso 1995) organization is the first to target the promotion of the rights of young girls in Burkina Faso. By concentrating on runaway girls fleeing forced early marriages, Lea is raising consciousness among girls and among parents about the rights of girls and women. By doing so, she is helping to reconcile the differences that often arise between girls and their families, and is promoting an increased level of respect for female children.

The New Idea

Girls born into traditional rural households in Burkina Faso face many disadvantages and traditionally receive far less support and attention than their brothers. Many girls assume heavy workloads from the time they are five years old and rarely, if ever, enjoy the liberties or educational opportunities accorded to their male siblings. One of the significant ways in which girls are denied basic rights is through the practice of early, forced marriage.Marie Léa Zongo is tackling the deep-seated discrimination faced by women in Burkinabe society in two ways that are fundamentally new. Whereas prior efforts have been directed toward adult women, hers is the first to focus on young girls. Marie believes in the importance of educating young girls to understand their situation and recognize their potential before their wills are broken by the weight of tradition and the drudgery of the lives that have been predetermined for them.Marie's work is also pathbreaking in its willingness to confront the deeply ingrained gender-biased attitudes and customs that the majority of her fellow citizens see as irreversible. Working with great sensitivity to the traditional norms and institutions that still define Burkinabe society, Marie has created a new mechanism through which to deliver a "girls' rights" message into the most conservative settings. Her village "Committees for Conciliation and Intercession" are composed of religious and community leaders who educate parents about their daughters' legal and human rights and provide mediation between runaway daughters and their families. Marie believes this rights-based approach toward reconciliation is a powerful new way to simultaneously reform and reaffirm traditional parental and village authority.

The Problem

Legal texts regulating social relations in Burkina Faso formally entitle women to enjoy the same liberties and advantages as men. In reality, however, many socio-cultural, economic or religious practices and attitudes compel women's submission to the authority of their fathers, husbands or brothers. Family members often do not know, or pretend not to know, the rights conferred on minors-especially girls-by Burkina law. The Mossi ethnic group constitutes approximately 60 percent of the Burkina population, and Mossi social organization is known to be highly traditional, hierarchical and authoritarian. In Mossi villages, girls have few educational opportunities. Many families do not want to invest in a girl's schooling, arguing that another family-the daughter's future in-laws-would profit from their investment. Girls are valued more for the family labor they provide, and investments in education are reserved for boys. A girl's day may begin as early as 5:30 a.m. with domestic chores, a search for firewood and water or grinding millet for household meals. Girls also represent a source of family revenue through the traditional dowry system, and this gains added importance as the economic crisis in Burkina Faso deepens. Community relations are of major importance in village life, and girls are often given as child brides in arranged marriages between families. These arrangements are negotiated without the child's consent, sometimes even before the child is born. It is not uncommon for an adolescent girl to find herself forced into becoming the second or third wife of an elderly man. Faced with this situation, a young women has three options: submit and accept her fate; run away from home before the marriage takes place; or run away from her post-nuptial marital home.In desperation, many girls run away to escape these dire circumstances, some going to Ouagadougou or other urban areas where they are lured into prostitution. Others take sanctuary in Catholic missions, whose nuns have for decades provided shelter to girls fleeing unwanted marriages.The sanctuary and refuge provided by the nuns, however, is stretched to capacity. One center built for twenty now accommodates 100 girls, and the nuns receive a new runaway every two days. The nuns provide basic humanitarian assistance such as food and shelter, but most missions lack the means to provide other types of support, including schooling or training opportunities.Parents are likely to use all kinds of methods to recover their daughters from the nuns, and their stay at the missions is fraught with tension. The lack of mediating bodies to turn to often leads to breakdowns in relations that might otherwise have been reconcilable.

The Strategy

Marie began her work in the two most densely populated provinces of the Mossi plateau, Oubritenga and Bazga. With the help of two local village facilitators, she counsels the runaway girls at the two religious establishments in the villages of Donsé and Pabré. These girls have displayed enormous courage in running away and risking a permanent rupture with their families, so Marie starts by reinforcing their confidence and affirming their rights. At the request of the girls, she developed a special module for literacy training with the help of the staff at the National Institute for Literacy. This new module is based on the rights and duties of girls and women and will help the girls develop the knowledge and techniques necessary to eradicate socio-cultural barriers that hold them back. The module translation of the "Code of the Person" into Mooré will be a supplementary teaching tool to help build confidence as the girls learn they have the rights to express their opinions, to receive an education, to choose their own spouse.Other features of the program include training in and the provision of credit for small commercial ventures such as cloth dyeing and weaving and the construction of cereal banks. All these are designed to help the girls achieve financial independence. Marie recognizes that out of necessity, the majority of the Burkina rural population must focus on feeding themselves and their families and have a desperate need for resources and income. She points out, "We can organize as many meetings as we want, but no one will listen if parents or their children are hungry. If, on the other hand, a girl is suddenly bringing income and food to the family, she commands a new kind of respect." "[The African family] the root of African society," Marie says, "and, in this instance, the root of the problem." With this in mind, she is organizing and training village committees to help develop materials and disseminate information about the rights of girls and women, and to take on the key task of helping to reconcile families with runaway girls. The "Committees for Conciliation and Intercession" are composed of influential Catholic, Muslim and Protestant religious leaders, the local teacher, a government agent from the Department of Social Action, and all parents from the community. Through informal meetings and discussions, the committees will take the lead in helping the entire community play a role in addressing the problems faced by young girls. The committees also act to intercede, re-establish a dialogue and wherever possible, help to reconcile the runaway girls with their parents-without compromising the rights of the girls concerned.To safeguard and promote the interests and rights of the girls at every point is Marie's own organization, the Association for Supporting and Awakening Pugsada (Pugsada means "young girl" in the Mooré language).

The Person

Born to a Mossi family of ten children in Ouagadougou, Marie's commitment to the emancipation of women is rooted in her relationship with her mother. Although from a royal family, her mother was taken out of school to be sent away to marry a man she had never seen before, given away, her mother says, "like a sack of groundnuts." Her mother's resentment and sense of injustice clearly left a deep and early impression on Marie, who demonstrated unusual determination to get ahead. When she was six, Marie left her chores without permission and followed her older brother to school, determined to have a chance to study. Although unregistered and thrown out of class by the teacher, Marie remained at the window, following the class for the whole day...and the next. Impressed by Marie's resolve, the teacher relented and admitted her to class. As a result, Marie was allowed to go to school a year earlier than normal, even for boys! In later years she organized the girls in her school into an association to discuss their problems and solicit the support of teachers when parent-daughter problems arose, as well as to organize recreational activities such as volleyball and theater pieces.Fortunately for Marie, her father broke with tradition and encouraged both his daughters to study and become independent. Marie was studying to become a lawyer and was a vocal student activist when the political upheavals that occurred during the Thomas Sankara regime interrupted the university for years on end and prevented her from completing her training. She has since been involved with women's organizations, working mostly in rural villages. She is also an ardent and active member of the Women and Children's Section of the Burkina Movement for Human and Peoples' Rights, representing them in many meetings in the Sahel sub-region.