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Far from Families, Girls Vulnerable to Abuse in West Africa

Policies throughout Africa have improved access to education for young women and girls. But with a shortage of classrooms and teachers in many villages, the result has been an increase in the number of girls sent away from their villages to school, and also an increase in reported cases of violence against girls in schools. Child protection organizations say the solution starts with the family. Reporter Phuong Tran has more on the issue in this third report in a five-part series on the changing African family.

The U.N. children's organization, UNICEF, has reported a steady increase in violence against girls in West Africa in recent years.

Its regional Child Protection Director in West Africa, Jean-Claude Legrand, says girls are put at risk when families do not live under the same roof.

"There is a pattern of violation of girls' rights, which means as soon as girls are deprived of the protection of their families, they are entering a world of abuse," Legrand says.

Young women in West Africa have long been sent to cities to work as domestic workers. There, Legrand says, they have often been victims of abuse by their employers.

Legrand says this violence is spreading to the classroom.

Within the past 10 years, Senegal's Ministry of Education has made keeping girls in school one of its priorities. It has created a nationwide network of tutors and mentors for girls, and convinced parents to send their daughters to school rather than using them as labor at home.

The result has been a dramatic increase in the number of young female students, who often face abusive teachers.

"Poverty is a dynamic. Teachers do not get paid [much] so the government does not want to upset teachers by putting some kind of control or constraints over them," Legrand says. "Poverty leads families to depend on the teachers, so the girls are caught in a system where they have to find a way to survive."

He says the violence is not only from teachers but also from male students not used to seeing so many female classmates.

The U.N. child protection officer says the problem requires working first with the family to change how their daughters are treated at home before leaving for school.

"Because girls are seen with lower status in this region, this is one of the trigger points to abuse, violence and exploitation of girls," Legrand says. "[We must] do everything possible to change the perception of girls because this is really the foundation of possible change."

In this rural community of Fatick, Babacar Samb says he remembers when a group of village female elders visited him to talk to him about his 19-year-old daughter, Soda.

Samb says the women told him that because Soda was smart and wanted to be a lawyer, he should not keep her at home to sew in his business. He says they also told him he should not hit her as much as he did the other children so she could focus on her studies.

Samb says the women helped enroll Soda in a scholarship program where she received free school and monthly classes in leadership.

Sociologist Djiby Diakhate says these types of leadership programs, also called girls' empowerment, are important in decreasing violence against young women, both in families and in the schools.

"The belief about girls' inferiority is dangerous because it leads to violent behavior like daughter beating," Diakhate says. "The campaign to empower girls of today is a campaign to empower women of tomorrow."

Soda Samb, the 19-year-old daughter, finished her classes in Fatick and is preparing to go to Dakar for university.

Soda says her parents support her studies. She adds she has learned about women's emancipation through her scholarship program and classroom lectures.

Samb concludes girls are as good and smart as boys, if not more.