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Keeping Senegalese Girls Healthy By Keeping Them in School

Last month, in Teaching Health Workers to Treat Survivors of GBV in Rwanda, I wrote about IntraHealth’s work in Rwanda to make health services more sensitive to the needs of patients who have experienced abuse. In Senegal, we are approaching the same problem—violence against women and girls—from a different angle. We’ve teamed up with the Ministries of Education, Health, and Youth; the Forum of African Women Educationalists; and local organizations, including parent-teacher associations, to stop gender-based violence in schools.

With guidance from ministry partners, IntraHealth is working to make youth-friendly reproductive health services more widely available and adapting the Safe Schools Doorways life skills manuals for middle school students and teachers. This program teaches students about the importance of setting boundaries, communicating with peers and adults, and other strategies for forming healthy relationships based on rights, respect, and responsibility, and protecting themselves from abuse and coercion. Students also learn how to recognize types of violence and abuse and where they can seek help. The teachers learn what is expected of them in the teachers’ professional code of conduct, and they learn how to create welcoming and safe classrooms. Senegal’s Ministry of Education is also working on stronger zero-tolerance policies in schools to make clear that abuse will not be tolerated.

Why Do We Do This Work?

Violence against girls and women is a human rights violation. When a girl is not safe in her classroom—or when she is not safe walking to school in her dormitory, or home, or elsewhere—she is denied her rights to education, bodily integrity, and gender equality.  These basic rights  have been enshrined and reinforced in a number of international agreements. [1]

The U.S. Agency for International Development’s Office of Women in Development has also recognized the importance of keeping girls safe in school, and the United States’ Global Health Initiative has renewed focus on women’s and girls’ health and welfare by pushing for programs that remedy the economic and social conditions that affect women’s health. The authors of Start with a Girl: A New Agenda for Global Health assert that “girls’ ill health is shaped more by social forces than biological ones. Public health and clinical perspectives tend to dominate our approach to health, distracting from the social forces that actually have the greatest influence on health outcomes. Understanding girls’ health must begin by shining a light on the social factors that shape their lives.” [2] The report goes on to identify key determinants of girls’ health:

  • Educational attainment
  • Marriage and childbearing at a young age
  • Exploitive work.

All of the above result from gender norms of inequality, which disproportionately disadvantage girls.

The authors of New Lessons: The Power Of Educating Adolescent Girls, a publication from the Girls Count series, draw further connections between these factors and suggest that when adolescent girls stay in school, they are more likely to become sexually active, marry, and have children later, be less likely to contract HIV, spend less time on domestic work and/or labor, and experience more gender equality.

Just keeping girls in school, however, is not enough; it also matters how girls are treated when they are in school. Barbara S. Mensch, et al., found in Premarital Sex, Schoolgirl Pregnancy, and School Quality in Rural Kenya that “girls are less likely to engage in premarital sex if they have attended schools where female students feel they are being treated equitably.” [3] In another study, the same authors suggest that “girls are discouraged from remaining in schools where boys are provided with a more supportive environment in terms of advisors, where teachers believe that demanding subjects such as math are less important for girls than for boys, and in which boys harass girls and do not recognize that girls are treated inequitably.” [4]  This is why IntraHealth is leading programs that work to stop gender-based violence in schools in an effort to encourage girls to stay in school, delay sex, avoid pregnancy, and reap the benefits from having done so.

[1] The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, The Convention on the Rights of the Child, Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development, the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights  

[2]Temin, M., and R. Levine.  2009. Start with a girl: a new agenda for global health. Washington, D.C.: Center for Global Development. p. 2   

[3]Mensch B.S., W.H. Clark, C.B. Lloyd, A.S. Erulkar. 2001.Premarital sex, schoolgirl pregnancy, and school quality in rural Kenya. Studies in Family Planning 32(4): 285–30.

[4] Lloyd C.B., B.S. Mensch, W.H. Clark. 2000. The effects of primary school quality on school dropout among Kenyan girls and boys. Comparative Education Review  44( 2): 113-147.