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In Senegal, UNICEF Executive Director sees impact of community empowerment

Rural outreach on health and human rights

© UNICEF/NYHQ2010-0919/Shryock
Children greet UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake as he arrives in Keur Simbara, one of more than 4,000 villages in Senegal that has abandoned female genital mutilation/cutting.

By Rouxanna Lokhat

THIÈS, Senegal, 20 May 2010 – “I came to vaccinate my baby,” said Anta Ndiou. “This way, she will grow up healthy.”

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Yesterday, Ms. Anta brought her four month-old daughter Coumba to the Sampathé Health Centre, in a rural district here in Senegal’s rural Thiès Region, to be vaccinated against polio, diphtheria, tetanus and hepatitis B. The mother and daughter made the visit after community health care workers had come to their home to remind Ms. Anta about the importance of immunization.

UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake also visited the Sampathé Health Centre yesterday. He witnessed the daily efforts of community health workers to deliver medical care – and participated by helping with Coumba’s immunization.

The Sampathé centre provides free or low-cost integrated health services for nearly 16,000 area inhabitants, and health care workers from the outpost regularly go door to door educating their neighbours about disease prevention.

© UNICEF/NYHQ2010-0916/Shryock
Executive Director Anthony Lake holds four-month-old Alioun Tall, who has just received a dose of oral polio vaccine, at the Sampathé community health centre and outpost in a rural district in the Thiès Region of Senegal.

Outreach is vital

While Mr. Lake was in Senegal for a global conference on girl’s education and gender equality in Dakar earlier this week, he also had the chance to visit rural health centres that are beyond the reach of urban services. Health-care disparities between urban and rural areas in Senegal remain high.

“It confirmed for me that we can’t wait for health systems to work their way out from the centre,” said Mr. Lake. “We have to be working in the communities as well. There are strong communities. They just need the services to deliver vaccines.”

Outreach efforts are especially vital to stop the spread of polio. Seventeen reported cases of the disease in this West African country have sparked a nation-wide campaign that aims to vaccinate the 2.2 million Senegalese children under the age of five.

West Africa also suffers the highest child mortality rates in the world. To address this issue at the community level in Senegal, community health workers are delivering a packet of services designed to meet the most pressing child-health needs. As part of this effort, UNICEF supports local health workers who teach mothers about proper nutrition, and who weigh children on a regular basis to monitor their growth.

© UNICEF/NYHQ2010-0917/Shryock
In a rural district in Senegal's Thiès Region, UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake greets women at the Sampathé community health centre, which provides family planning, delivery, nutrition, immunization and other free or low-cost integrated services.

Health as a human right

During his visit to Thiès Region, Mr. Lake was greeted by Chief Demba Diawara, the traditional leader of Keur Simbara, as he entered the dusty village. Under a nearby tree, dozens of girls and boys were singing about human rights. One of those rights, they have learned, is the right to health.

The UNICEF-supported non-governmental organization Tostan has established a Community Empowerment Programme in Senegal to teach villagers about women’s health and human rights in local languages. The programme works to educate local populations so that they can then choose whether to abandon practices such as early forced marriage and female genital mutilation/cutting, or FGM/C.

To date, 4,295 villages in Senegal have declared that they will no longer practice FGM/C. Keur Simbara, which has zero-tolerance for cutting, is one of the most active communities participating in Tostan’s empowerment programme.

© UNICEF/NYHQ2010-0914/Shryock
UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake speaks with children during his visit to Keur Demba Ngoye village in the rural community of Fandène, in Senegal's Thiès Region.

‘The world can be changed’

Chief Diawara spoke to Mr. Lake about the importance of educating people at the community level so that they can make their own health decisions. He expressed particular pride in the work he and local women had done to stop FGM/C.

“I put on my shoes and went village to village to tell people about the dangers,” said the Chief.

A former cutter, Oury Sall, told Mr. Lake about her own process of education through firsthand experience. “When I saw the girls that had to go to the hospital after the procedure, I had to ask myself if it was worth it,” she said. “I decided it was not worth it. It was too dangerous to the girls’ health.”

Mr. Lake congratulated Chief Diawara on the success of the effort to stop cutting. “I can see another reason why you succeeded,” he added. “If you have a group of powerful women behind you, you can’t fail.”

As the village women and children danced in celebration of health and human rights, the UNICEF Executive Director joined in, then warmly said goodbye. “You are proof,” he said, “that the world can be changed by one community.”




19 May 2010: UNICEF's Guy Hubbard reports on Executive Director Anthony Lake's visit to health outreach centres in Senegal.
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