Mobilizing Communities To Support Girls’ Healthy Development And Education In Senegal

Project location: Senegal, Velingara
Project start date: January 2016 - Project end date: March 2017
Project number: 2015-053
Beneficiary: The Grandmother Project (GMP)

Despite the wide range of development programs in Africa, girls continue to face difficulties such as female genital mutilation (FGM), early and forced marriage, teen pregnancy, corporal punishment and limited formal education. While most programs targeting these issues focus on girls, and sometimes their mothers, in non-Western cultures grandmothers have a lot of influence in family decisions regarding girls. Grandmother Project - Change through Culture (GMP) seeks change by building on this, and other, cultural roles and values. GMP has found that, when grandmothers are shown respect and involved in programs, they are open to new ways of thinking and can lead positive change in harmful practices, like FGM and early marriage, that limit girls' healthy development, education, and success at school.

In the Velingara area in southern Senegal where GMP is working, two major problems that hinder girls' development and education are early/forced marriage and teenage pregnancy. An age-old tradition in this area of Senegal is to marry girls at a very young age; the current average age of marriage for girls is between 15 and 16 years. The fact that girls are now sent to school contributes to maintaining the tradition because parents fear that if they continue to attend school beyond puberty they may become pregnant. Hence, families prefer to take girls out of school and marry them off, rather than risking teen pregnancy - a source of great shame for families, which spoils a girl's chance for a "good marriage" later on.

A second serious problem girls face is teenage pregnancy, which is quite prevalent in the region. One of the consequences of teen pregnancy is that girls usually drop out of school when they become pregnant. The risk for schoolgirls of becoming pregnant is correlated to two primary factors: girls who go to school are far away from family supervision and control; and a high percentage of pregnancies (40%, according to local officials in the Kolda region) are caused by relationships with teachers.

Many programs that address these two problems target girls, and occasionally their mothers. Other key family members who can support girls threatened by early/forced marriage, teenage pregnancy and school drop-out are grandmothers. In spite of the authoritative cultural role of grandmothers in the family in all matters related to child-rearing, they continue to be excluded from involvement in programs concerning girls' well-being. However, since grandmother play a leading role in determining community norms, such as early marriage, they must be involved if such norms are to be changed. Additionally, girls are more comfortable discussing sensitive issues, such as sexuality, with their grandmothers than with their mothers (a cultural pattern in African societies). GMP's experience suggests that these intergenerational ties constitute a critical link in communication on all issues related to girls and women.


The Nando and Elsa Peretti Foundation has awarded a grant to GMP to promote girls' well-being and education through an approach that includes culturally appropriate activities that include grandmothers and that facilitate community-wide dialogue and consensus for positive change for girls. Whereas many development programs seek change by focusing on individuals, GMP's unique approach to change involves facilitating change at the community level. This project will work with communities to position grandmothers as active and vital participants in the support and protection of girls, and to reinforce new attitudes and practices attained in the communities where activities have previously taken place to ensure that these positive changes are strengthened and sustained.

The project will involve 32 communities in the Kolda region of Velingara, in Southern Senegal. GMP has worked extensively in this area of the country and is well respected for its community-driven approach that actively involves grandmothers, and other elders, as well as other community members in the change process.

This project includes four key activities, all of which will be carried out in close collaboration with the District Education Office in Velingara:

Activity 1: Two-day Intergenerational (IG) Forums involve community members in open dialogue on issues related to girls' healthy development and education. IG forums bring together representatives of various community groups, including grandmothers, grandfathers, parents, teachers, adolescent girls and boys. This approach gives everyone a chance to take part in decisions that impact girls. The objectives of the forums are:

• to involve influential community leaders in reflection on issues related to the development, education and well-being of children in general, and specifically of girls;
• to promote mutual respect between elders, adults, and young men and women;
• to help communities to discuss taboo issues related to girls' development;
• to acknowledge and reinforce grandmothers' role as culturally designated teachers and advisors in families and communities.

The IG dialogue process facilitates community-led action by allowing community members to come to their own conclusions about how to deal with various issues related to girls' development and education.

Activity 2: One-day Women and Girls forums bring together adolescent girls, mothers, and grandmothers, as well as female teachers, to discuss topics of importance to girls' well-being and education. These female-only forums promote more open discussion on topics about which some women, and especially girls, may feel less comfortable discussing in a setting that includes men and boys. The objectives of these forums are:

• to facilitate open and in-depth discussion on sensitive issues related to adolescent development, such as early pregnancy and sexuality, between grandmothers, mothers, adolescent girls, and female teachers to build a supportive environment for girls at home and at school and to reduce early/forced marriage and teenage pregnancy;
• to strengthen relationships and improve communication between generations and reinforce grandmothers' role as culturally designated advisors and advocates for girls;
• to build trust and improve communication between mothers and grandmothers, and teachers;
• to establish women's intergenerational social networks that provide support and advocacy for girls' healthy development and education.

Activity 3: Community Days of Solidarity bring together leaders from different communities, including religious leaders, community elders and teachers, to discuss early/forced marriage, female genital mutilation, teen pregnancy and girls' education. These gatherings strengthen solidarity among community leaders so that they can work more effectively together to bring about action to change harmful norms, such as child marriage. The objectives of the Days of Solidarity are:

• to elicit reflection among community elders (traditional leaders, religious leaders and grandmother leaders) on the root causes of the loss of solidarity;
• to involve community members in identifying strategies within the family and community to increase communication and understanding.

Activity 4: A series of community radio programs will be broadcast to discuss the importance of children's/girls' education, including interviews of girls, grandmothers, women and adolescent boys supporting this topic. Given the popularity of radio, it is an effective medium for reaching a broad audience to raise awareness and educate communities on these very important issues.

It is anticipated that project activities will contribute to the following outcomes:

• increased communication and understanding between generations and between various community groups;
• strengthened relationships between adolescent girls, mothers, grandmothers, and teachers;
• greater respect for grandmothers among other community members;
• greater sense of confidence on the part of grandmothers themselves in their roles as advisors in the family and community, and especially as advisors for girls;
• strengthened communication and collaboration between communities and schools;
• development of a strong support system for girls at home and at school that contributes to a sense of empowerment;
• increased knowledge among parents, grandparents, religious leaders and other community leaders about the negative impact of early/forced marriage and limited schooling on girls;
• an increased number of parents and grandparents who favor keeping girls in school, and not marrying them off before they are 18 years old.

GMP believes that the best way to bring about sustained change and protection for girls, including eliminating harmful practices such as early/forced marriage, is to involve influential grandmothers, and to promote dialogue and consensus between all community members about the need to abandon certain harmful traditions and adopt new attitudes that support girls' rights and empowerment. When key community leaders embrace new and improved attitudes toward girls' development, this change can have a multiplier and sustained effect on the attitudes of other community members.


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