When Diarra (now aged 23) became pregnant, she asked her head teacher – Yaye Kandia – to help her stay in school. This was met by a wave of negative reactions from the community.
Diarra, from Senegal, was initially pressured to marry the father of her child and forget about her education. Through persistence and hard work, she was able to forego the marriage and return to school after giving birth.
“I have always valued my education,” says Diarra. At school she joined a club to organize school sessions and campaigns on education and girls’ rights. “At first, we faced a lot of pushback, but now people listen to us.”
Diarra received support from her head teacher, who began establishing girls’ groups with first-year students. Yaye Kandia tells the girls, “You know the society we live in, take charge of your own life and do not rely entirely on others for support.”
In Kaffrine Region (in Central Senegal), where Diarra lives and works, girls’ access to and retention in school can be a challenge. While girls are often among the best-performing students, they have to fight hard to stay in school until graduation.
In 2017, only one girl in Kaffrine graduated with a science degree, and girls accounted for just 12% of the students who passed their university entrance exams. Only 20% of new mothers in the area return to school after giving birth, says Yaya Kandia.
“I told Diarra’s parents that they should not force her to marry, but let her continue her schooling.”
Diarra now works with the school administration to collect data on how many girls are falling pregnant and how many of those complete their schooling.
This knowledge equips Diarra and the school to tackle the issue.
“One way to support girls to return to school is for the Ministry of Education to award scholarships to girls so that they can personally cover school related fees,” says Yaya Kandia. “This will allow girls to have more freedom to choose their own future.”
“Education is a means to prevent and fight against violence,” says Diarra.
“When a girl becomes educated, she is able to form a different opinion to what is happening in our community. It helps us to see things differently, and push for change.”