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Burkinabe Women Professionals Tell Girls to Aim High

Among impoverished families in West Africa, parents tend to prioritize education for their sons. But a group of highly educated, successful women in Burkina Faso are trying to change these attitudes by providing female role models for young girls. For VOA, Naomi Schwarz profiles Amina Ouedraogo, one of Burkina Faso's highest-ranking civic leaders, who is trying to encourage girls to break out of traditional female roles.

In a stately office, with leather couches and a wide desk covered in stacks of papers, Amina Ouedraogo answers a phone call.

She is the mediator of Burkina Faso, acting as an arbitrator between the government and regular citizens.

"We help any time a person feels they have been treated unfairly by the government or under the laws," she said. "We investigate the matter and give our recommendation for how to fix the problem."

Ouedraogo is the third to hold the position, which was created in 1994. She is also the first woman in the job. She has held several high-level positions, including vice president of the country's supreme court.

In her downtown Ouagadougou office building, painted flamingo pink by a male predecessor, Ouedraogo is surrounded by female employees.

She says she has not made a special effort to hire women, but nevertheless, women fill many positions from her secretary up to the head of her cabinet and her communications director.

Ouedraogo does not see her own accomplishments as particularly remarkable.

"I never saw my life in the house," she said.

At the time that Ouedraogo finished high school, there was no university in Burkina Faso. She studied in Ivory Coast, Togo, and eventually got a law degree in France.

She says her family has always been very supportive.

"As a kid, everything was equal," she said. "We all did dishes and laundry and helped with cooking."

And once she got married and had her own children, Ouedraogo has two sons, her family continued to help.

She notes that in Africa, it can be easier to balance family and work, because you always have your family around or household staff to help with the children.

But in many respects, Ouedraogo was far luckier than most girls in West Africa, which she readily admits.

Only one quarter of girls in Burkina Faso today complete primary school, and this number is much higher than even 15 years ago. More than 80 percent of girls there never learn to read.

But Ouedraogo is among a growing circle of women in Burkina Faso who are the exception to the rule.

Ouedraogo and the other women, who have held positions including the ministers of primary education and human rights, want to see many more women join their ranks.

Alice Tiendrebeogo, president of the organization behind this role model movement, says many girls in rural villages have never seen, for example, a woman engineer.

Tiendrebeogo's organization, Forum for African Women, has rewritten textbooks to show women in more active roles. And Amina Ouedraogo and other successful women have become mentors to young girls, developing a special relationship that they hope will help the girls reach new heights.

She recounts an experience at a summer science camp for teenage girls, which featured evening talks with women with successful careers in science.

"At the beginning of the camp, we asked the girls what they wanted to be when they grew up, and all their ideas were of traditional female professions, like primary school teachers or typists," she recalled. "By the end of the camp, the girls were more forward-thinking, Tiendrebeogo says. They said they wanted to be engineers, university professors, doctors."