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Burkina Faso Journalist Gives Voice to Conflict Survivors Telling Difficult Stories

Burkinabe journalist Mariam Ouedraogo, right, is seen during an interview with Salem Solomon at VOA headquarters in Washington.
Burkinabe journalist Mariam Ouedraogo, right, is seen during an interview with Salem Solomon at VOA headquarters in Washington.

In the past two years, Burkina Faso has experienced two coups, a rise in extremist violence and an increasingly hostile environment for media.

Despite those tough conditions, one local reporter has not been deterred from covering the issues affecting the most vulnerable people in her country.

Mariam Ouedraogo, who reports for Burkina Faso’s daily French newspaper Sidwaya, says she sees it as her mission to shed light on often-overlooked social issues. Stories affecting women, children, people with disabilities and coverage on education, health, and insecurity are all regular beats for her.

“It’s because I wanted to change things. I had this desire not to change the social order, but I was looking for a job that would allow me to have more impact, especially on social facts and the subjects that surround us,” Ouedraogo told VOA, speaking through an interpreter.

Ouedraogo has won national recognition for her work, which helped elevate her voice beyond Burkina Faso.

In 2023, the journalist was recognized with the ICFJ Knight International Journalism Award and the Bayeux Calvados-Normandy Award for war correspondents. She is the first African woman to win that award.

In presenting the Knight award, NBC News correspondent Andrea Mitchell paid tribute to how Ouedraogo reports "with great sensitivity and courage," and highlighted the journalist’s work to improve conditions for her peers.

“She now advocates to improve mental health care for media workers, a testament to her own deep commitment to helping people," Mitchell said.

For Ouedraogo, these awards give the people she writes about “more voice.”

Projections for Burkina Faso by the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, a research center focusing on security, estimate that 8,600 people will die due to extremist attacks by the end of this year, more than double the figure from last year. Extremists regularly use rape as a weapon of war.

Ouedraogo says covering that situation, particularly cases related to rape and insecurity, carry an emotional weight.

“It’s as if I was being raped in their place. And I found myself in it without understanding anything,” she told VOA, as she discussed interviewing survivors.

The journalist says she has a diagnosis of “vicarious trauma.”

“It’s unimaginable what suffering they had to endure,” the journalist said, recalling interviews with women raped, sometimes by several people, in front of their children or partners.

“It’s traumatic, and it’s another death. I call it another death,” she said, adding that the horrific accounts she reports on stay in her mind.

Yet, Ouedraogo says she has to keep reporting.

“That’s all I know how to do,” she said.

However, the current journalistic climate in Burkina Faso is far from ideal, with limitations on reporting in certain regions, societal taboos around topics like rape, and potential threats from authorities and the public.

Ouedraogo has to maintain a delicate balance of encouraging women to speak out while respecting the risks they may face by doing so.

“Anything related to sexuality in our country is still taboo,” she told VOA. “We don’t talk about it. This is why the victims remain silent. They don’t like to tell stories because there is the view of society not only are you a victim, and you will also be repudiated, stigmatized.”

Despite the hardships, Ouedraogo encourages more women to join the field of journalism.

“I encourage women, and it’s exciting,” she said. “I think that there is no better subject than social issues. That’s it. That’s change. Everything comes from there. These are aspects on which we must act.”

Ouedraogo says society needs to show compassion and solidarity to women who experience violence. She says survivors shouldn’t suffer in silence, especially because they found themselves in circumstances beyond their control.

“Let us think of these women who unfortunately were at the wrong time and in the wrong place,” she said.

Betty Ayoub of VOA’s Africa Division contributed to this report.