Totally committed to keeping girls in school, no matter what
Through the creation of a youth club, the issue of reproductive health is no longer a barrier to girls' education
Mariam Diakité, 15, is in Grade 7 at the Kalabanbougou school group in Commune IV of the District of Bamako. She is the spokesperson for a group of eleven young people (six girls and five boys), all trained by the NGO Plan Mali with the support of UNICEF.
As the youth club’s spokesperson, she has been able to reach out to all the students in her school, girls and boys alike, during the monthly meetings that are held in the school yard.
Her goal? To ensure that from now on no girl drops out of school due to a lack of knowledge about reproductive health.
On a personal level, Mariam was fortunate to learn a great deal from her mother about reproductive health and how to manage her menses. At home they discussed a wide range of topics, such as pregnancy, managing menstruation and the shame some girls feel because of their soiled or stained clothes. Mariam decided she wanted to share her knowledge with her peers.
With her parents' consent and backed by the members of her group, Mariam is not shy about leading awareness-raising sessions in front of a large crowd of students at her school. The sessions are held once a month under the supervision of Maimouna Mariko, a Plan Mali facilitator. "Because girls’ futures depend on it, I keep spreading the message about these best practices," she explains.
Mr. Daniel Coulibaly, the principal of the school, acknowledges that in the past, girls missed school during the first days of menstruation due to the school's lack of adequate facilities for good menstrual management.
Other girls have become pregnant at a young age because they did not have enough information about reproductive health and were too embarrassed to ask about it. One of the members of the youth club, a young girl, has already alerted her teachers to her father’s intention to take her out of school as soon as she has her first period. The parents' fear that their children will become pregnant outside of marriage is in fact one of the main causes of child marriage.
In Mali, more girls than boys drop out of school. Fewer girls than boys finish primary school (74% compared to 86%), often for reasons relating to child marriage or early pregnancy. School-based reproductive health management, as well as the availability of adequate facilities, can be a significant factor in keeping girls in school and ensuring their scholastic success.
“No girl should ever again have to drop out of school because she doesn't know enough about her own health.”
With the launch of UNICEF's project for the 2017/18 school year, implemented in Mali thanks to the support of the Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA), Mariam volunteered to take up the challenge of keeping adolescent girls in school through sharing essential information about adolescent reproductive health.
Because it is rare for families to discuss the onset of puberty and the beginning of menstruation openly, the first critical step is to overcome the taboos that surround these topics. Mariam's awareness-raising sessions with the youth club cover all aspects of reproductive health, including subjects that used to be seen as taboo.
Some of the things she covers include:
- The menstrual cycle and menstrual hygiene management at home and at school
- Early pregnancy
- Understanding your body and how to protect yourself
- How important it is for every girl and boy to finish school
Today, all the girls have a better understanding of how to be prepared, even before the onset of their menstrual cycles and the beginning of their fertile years. The boys too have become more aware of their responsibility in the girls' well-being and are now better informed about their own puberty.
Thanks to her energy and determination, Mariam Diakité has been able to fulfill her role as dialogue facilitator and source of essential information while at the same time keeping up with her schoolwork. She is one of the brightest students in her class.
Outside of her own school, Mariam takes her message to friends in the neighborhood as well as to girls in other schools. She believes that all girls her age face the same risks.
"One day, I hope to see that every girl the world over is able to take charge of her health and her menses," Mariam says.
The school administration, the parents' association and the students themselves are all very pleased to report that this school year, unlike previous years, no girl has been absent.
What does Mariam recommend? "I ask every mother to please put a kit into her daughter's school bag with everything she needs to ensure good menstrual hygiene.”
In addition to knowledge about menstruation, girls need to learn more about their bodies and how to protect themselves to ensure that nothing will prevent them from continuing their education.
The youth group at Kalabanbougou Primary School is ready to go out and share this information wherever it is needed.
Mariam's own personal dream mirrors her commitment to girls' education and to starting a family only once she has finished school.
"Before I get married and have a child," she says, "I’d like to finish my studies and graduate with a diploma."