News & Politics

Sheltering Girls in Senegal

In Senegal, independent living isn't an option for young women. Polygamy, combined with a strong emphasis on having children keep most Senegalese women tied to men from a very young age. The country's first women's shelter provides a haven to pregnant, abused and unmarried girls, and reunites them with the families that once shunned them.
When "Khady" -- a 14-year-old girl living in Dakar, the capital of Senegal -- was arrested for picking pockets on a bus, she didn't think she had anywhere to turn. The daughter of a mentally disabled rape victim, Khady was sifting through strangers' wallets because she needed money for school fees.But getting arrested turned out to be her lucky break. Because Khady was so young at the time of her arrest, police officers took her to Ker Yaakaaru Jigeen Ni ("House of Hope for Girls"), Senegal's first ever women's shelter. There, says Judy Smith, a founder of the shelter, Khady decided that stealing was never going to get her through school.Instead, the shelter now finances Khady's education and helps out her family. On the weekends, Khady joins other girls in the shelter making beaded jewelry that is sold in Dakar and may even show up at the Smithsonian Museum in the United States before long.The shelter is a "safe place where [girls] can get themselves together and examine their lives and their possibilities for the future," says Smith.With eight beds for unmarried girls who are the victims of problems that range from unwanted pregnancy to incest, the shelter has housed more than 29 young women since it opened on August 17, 1998 -- and it runs on the equivalent of just $1,600 per month.But although the shelter's founders say they've met with cooperation from most government officials, they argue that their work still encounters resistance from a culture that doesn't necessarily recognize women's rights -- and that partially creates most of the problems the shelter works to counteract.Changing the CultureWith a population that has tripled in 25 years and an unemployment rate of 40 percent in urban centers, Senegal has undergone big societal changes in recent years, changes that have resulted in some women falling through the cracks. Currently, 33 percent of women aged 15 to 49 are at risk of an unintended pregnancy, while only 13 percent of Senegalese women practice regular contraception. Combine that with an illiteracy rate of 66 percent and a high school drop-out rate due to early marriage and pregnancy -- Senegalese women "remain a particularly vulnerable group," according to World Bank.Jan Sinck, who works in Senegal for Africa Consultants International, says that young women often come to Dakar from the interior to find work during the dry season. "It's one less mouth to feed back home," she says.But many of these women then fall prey to men who impregnate them, and the father refuses to support the woman and threatens to tell her family she's a prostitute. Women find themselves stuck in a city with no where to turn. And for Senegal's 90 percent Muslim population, an out-of-wedlock pregnancy brings shame to the entire family and is just cause for kicking a woman out of the house.Mavis Streyffeler, a United Methodist missionary in Senegal and one of the founding members of Ker Yaakaaru Jigeen Ni (KYJ), says she realized the need for a girls' shelter through her weekly visits to the women's prison. "After the girls would serve their time they would go right back into the place of harm," explains Streyffeler. "These girls would be fleeing violence, incest, or were kicked out of their house because they were pregnant.""In this society, it's not possible for a young girl to live outside of her home," Streyffeler adds.Streyffeler joined forces with Smith, wife of the former U.S. Ambassador to Senegal. "Senegalese women are in a difficult position in their society because polygamy combined with the very strong emphasis on children hinder women from living independently," says Smith.The two had trouble finding sponsors for the shelter at first. "Most people recognize the need for help for people who are mistreated, and most honest people realize that some women are mistreated," says Smith. "But some men would think the shelter is encouraging women to rebel."Smith and Streyffeler finally teamed up with Espoir Sans Frontiere (ESF), a local pan-Africa non-profit group, to form the shelter.Aida Sylla, a doctor at KYJ, says even to this day some fellow Senegalese say they are unaware of the problems that force girls onto the streets. But, she adds, "Our shelter is always full, proving that people in Senegal either refuse or do not want to accept the fact that there is a problem with young women in this changing society."Reuniting Families, or Returning Girls to the Source of Their Troubles?Unlike some U.S. shelters, which focus on helping young women become completely independent, KYJ's major goal is to reintegrate girls into their family household.Although KYJ does provide temporary shelter to girls in distress and works to strengthen girls' self-esteem, training them in activities that may help them achieve financial independence, Streyffeler says the shelter's main goal is to reinsert girls into some part of their family, after giving them tools to be more mature and to cope with whatever situation they find themselves in. But the shelter's social worker, Mame Anna Lo, says reintegrating young women with their immediate or extended families is the hardest part of her job. "Sometimes the girls have created such problems in the house, the parents have completely lost contact and even excommunicated her to a certain extent," says Lo. "Most of the girls come here because they are pregnant, so the family environment has becomes very hostile because parents won't accept pregnancies out of wedlock."The integration process takes three steps: identifying the problems the young woman is facing and notifying her parents about her whereabouts, locating a family member that will take her into their home, and following her progress with regular check-ups for two years after she leaves the center.Follow-up proves a difficult final step. "We have all kinds of problems locating some of the girls after reintegration," says Lo. "She might go to another family member's house or move without telling us."Women usually stay at the shelter for about six months, but some cases require longer stays. One current resident, who was brought to Senegal from Sierra Leone by her Senegalese boyfriend, was abandoned after living with him for two years and having a child with him.But when the woman returned to Sierra Leone, not only was she confronted with a civil war, she could find no trace of her family. She returned to Senegal only to be rejected by her ex-boyfriend's family. She has been at KYJ for more than a year waiting for the Senegalese government to grant her residency.In another case, KYJ mediated between a recent resident and her family. The young woman was kicked out of her house once her boyfriend got her pregnant, but KYJ located the young man, convinced him of his responsibility, and persuaded him to ask for her father's forgiveness. Then the KYJ staff appealed to the local religious leader to convince the young woman's father that his daughter and future grandchild needed to be in his house.Streyffeler admits that family reconciliation can be difficult -- Khandy, for example, has been returned to a household that Streyffeler recognizes is still very destructive. But, Streyffeler says, the shelter welcomes Khandy back ever weekend, when she is fed, monitored, and given a safe haven for a few days.Staying AfloatTucked away into a suburb in Dakar, KYJ is able to stay alive with numerous donations from private individuals to local businesses. Every month KYJ receives gifts of rice and cooking oil from local merchants, but also recently received a gift of $13,000 from United Nations Development Fund for Women.KYJ's expenses are $16,000 a year, and the jewelry and other crafts the young women make is not enough to cover all the expenses. KYJ depends on gifts such as the $1,000 that Mobil Oil gave this year, along with the gift of $500 from Ford Motor Company."We could not exist without the contribution of local businesses," says Streyffeler. She asks that concerned individuals send any donations or micro-enterprise ideas to KYJ, BP 16981, Dakar-Fann, Senegal.This article originally appeared on Chickclick's news channel, Eileen Parks and H.N. Blonkenfeld contributed to this story.

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