Breaking Taboos

Afou is a smart, yet shy 15-year-old girl who lives with her parents and siblings in a rural Mali village. Her favorite subjects at school are biology, physics, chemistry and English. She enjoys spending time with her friends and she is determined to complete her studies to become a doctor.

Yet adolescent girls like Afou encounter many obstacles as they approach young adulthood. Historically, cultural customs have prevented adequate education in the areas of female hygiene, sexuality and reproductive health during these crucial years. Such basic knowledge is often not passed from mothers to daughters because such subjects are considered taboo. The consequences of this lack of communication are unwanted pregnancies, and sexually transmitted diseases.

Afou in her school yard

In addition, many young girls face the hardship of early or forced marriage — a dire situation that robs them of their childhood. In fact, teenage girls under the age of 16 are often forced by their parents to get married, which means they must leave school and any hopes of achieving a meaningful education are thwarted.

At age 13, Afou’s father wanted her to marry a man that she did not know. She disliked the idea of leaving school and not being able to play with her friends. Afou’s dreams of becoming a doctor were dashed and her future looked bleak.

However, in 2016, Save the Children implemented an Adolescent Development program in Afou’s village to combat these problems, raise awareness and enable adolescents to develop and grow to their full potential. The program provided courses in sexual and reproductive health while at the same time informs the community on the effects of early child marriage.

In addition, the program’s Peer Educators guide teens on how best to manage relationships with peers and parents through various activities and presentations. By 2018, the program reached 13,283 adolescents including 6,875 girls. As a result, the rates of teen pregnancy went down substantially. “Now the program is on track, and the awareness has paid off,” explains a peer educator.

Afou and her Peer Educators

Afou’s outlook brightened, too. She invited her parents to participate with her in various sketches and awareness skits held in the public square of the village and at school. This training gave her confidence to continue the discussions at home, and she soon persuaded her father to give up on the idea of an early marriage.

“No girl from our family will leave school. The mistakes we did in the past, will no longer be repeated; I am proud of the strong girl she has become today,” proclaims Afou’s Uncle Issa.

Afou and her Uncle Issa

Afou now collaborates with peer educators to help and advise other adolescents in her village. She is also preparing for her high school entrance exam. “The Adolescent Development [Program] has positively impacted my life and changed my parents mind. I love this program that helped me to reach grade 9. May God bless the work of Save the Children.”