Safe to learn

Promoting a protective environment for adolescents to learn safely in Mali

Fatou Diagne
18 June 2021

Originally from the village of Konondimini where she lives with her parents, brothers and grandparents, Zahra*, 15, is the eldest of her family and an active member of the children and youth listening group in her village. Every week, she participates in awareness-raising sessions on gender-based violence, harmful practices such as excision and child marriage, the importance of schooling for girls and boys and also in intergenerational discussions.


Zara 15 years, is helping her friend to wash her hands

"One day my mother called me and asked me to prepare to become a 'real' housewife because a young gentleman came to ask my hand in marriage and my grandparents had agreed. I didn't understand and I thought she was joking with me. I rushed into my parents' room and asked my Dad if it was true. Dropping his head, he never replied.”

Knowing of the sessions in which she participates, Zahra went to see the protection focal point who leads the sessions. "Zahra came to see me, all disoriented, and begged me to do something for her. I immediately contacted our community network and we went to see her family.”

© UNICEF/UN0474810/Keïta

To dissuade parents on both sides, we explain the consequences of early marriage and pregnancy on the physical and mental health of the girl to them

The community network is composed of religious and civil leaders, women, men, and school management committee members, and it promotes awareness. “When we are faced with cases like Zahra's, we try to sensitize both parties: the family of the girl who is going to be given in marriage but also the family of the suitor, ” explains Aboubacar Diallo, child protection focal point at NGO Educo. “To dissuade parents on both sides, we explain the consequences of early marriage and pregnancy on the physical and mental health of the girl to them, referring to concrete case examples, " he concludes.

This community mediation highlighted the impact of a girl's marriage and pregnancy on her health, but also the added value education brings to her: autonomy, well-being of her children and that of her parents. Zahra luckily escaped child marriage and continues her education. She's preparing for her primary school diploma in eighth grade and she is keen to prove to her family that she wants to go far in her studies.

Mamadou Koné is the focal point of Local

The project for maintaining adolescent girls and boys in school and strengthening a protective environment in and outside of school was initiated in 2020. It will enable 7,000 children and adolescents to be better informed about the self-protection against violence while allowing 500 of them to be included learning centers to be given a “second chance” at education.

As part of this project supported by Global Affairs Canada, the eight child and youth listening groups in the communities of intervention bring UNICEF, NGO partner Educo and local government together to provide services for the adolescents who constitute a nucleus group that is engaged in sensitizing and advocating for all children in their communities. Each nucleus is made up of groups of 15 girls and boys, a protection assistant from the NGO Educo and a protection focal point appointed by the Local Directorate for the Promotion of Women, Children and Family.

Pascal Togo, child protection officer at UNICEF in Mopti region

For Amadou*, Zahra's father and teacher in a basic primary school, these listening sessions have come to address a problem of intergenerational dialogue. "Our society is patriarchal, so decisions taken by fathers like mine or Zahra's grandfather, are often incontestable”. The idea that my daughter will be married haunted me and kept me awake. I did not dare tell her myself, which is why I asked her mother to do it. When the people from the village community network came to the house to hold discussions with my dad, I felt relieved as this allowed me to express my opposition to my daughter Zahra's marriage; and do so without giving the impression of showing disrespect or disobedience towards my father. "

The suitor, meanwhile, also decided to postpone the marriage, following the community network's visit to his home. “Combating harmful practices such as child marriage and other forms of physical, sexual or gender-based violence requires a certain level of community awareness and understanding; especially when it comes to their impact on the health of girls and women,” explains Pascal Togo, child protection officer at UNICEF in Mopti.

An adolescent holding a COVID19 flyer

Since the implementation of interventions to strengthen the protective environment for adolescents, 149 girls and 110 boys who have suffered physical and sexual violence have been received social, health or legal services through UNICEF’s support. 3,631 children including 2,230 girls in and out of school were sensitized on how to prevent and respond to violence such as fighting, bullying, physical assault, forced sex or unwanted touching of a sexual nature.

In addition to support received for protection 1,900 school kits were distributed to students in 20 target schools, including Zahra’s, to lessen costs and help retain them in school. Through 20 “second chance” learning centers, 435 out-of-school children were identified and trained for nine months before being reintegrated into third or fourth grade in public primary schools. As for Zahra, she wants to go as far as possible with her education and become a gynecologist, one day.

* Adolescent and her father names changed to protect their identity