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Training program brightens future for young Senegalese women

By Shannon A. HorstStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 10, 1987


Times are changing in Dakar, Senegal. For many village girls, a job in the city - once a rite of passage from youth to womanhood - has become the only means of survival for them and their families.

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They are streaming into the city from the thirsty, unproductive fields of rural Senegal. They come looking for work - promising to send money and goods to those they leave behind.

The city was once a relatively safe place, where a girl - sometimes accompanied by her mother - would come to work after the harvest season.

It is now crawling with people eager to exploit young girls who arrive alone. The destitution of their villages has left these girls hungering, not only for food, but also for clothes, shelter, and things - pretty things.

But the city, already overflowing with unskilled workers, has few jobs to give them, and there is no family protection amid this teeming, licentious landscape.

Throughout the nations of the developing world this scene is painted over and over again, faster and in greater numbers than ever before. It is particularly bleak in many African countries where the disastrous drought of 1983-85 has left the people without the resources to replenish their lives.

``Since the last drought, the rains do not come, the crops do not grow, and there is nothing to do in the villages,'' said Fatou Diakhete, a Senegalese development worker from Dakar who was in Boston recently.

Parents have no choice but to allow the older children to go to the cities in search of work. The boys, she says, often travel abroad, but the girls are more likely to end up in Dakar, the capital.

The future for many of these girls - some of whom are as young as 12 years old - holds greater poverty than they have already known, prostitution, and unwanted pregnancy. For the most desperate, says Ms. Diakhete, ``it includes infanticide.''

In 1984, however, a program was launched in Dakar that provides these girls with an alternative.

Under the auspices of the Federation of the Senegalese Women's Association (FAFS), Diakhete directs Le Foyer (home or hearth) - a shelter and job-skills training program in the heart of Dakar. Among many projects in the developing world designed to ease the burdens of rapid urbanization, Le Foyer is of great significance.

Besides meeting the immediate needs of its charges, it offers them a road back to their villages: skills to help their communities begin producing once again.

FAFS, a nine-year-old association that promotes consciousness-raising and solidarity among some 80 women's groups throughout Senegal, started the project in 1982, working with the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC), a social action agency with more than 40 years' experience in development projects.

After about two years of refining the plans, the two groups launched Le Foyer.

Within a safe, residential atmosphere, the project offers its trainees ``life skills'' - among them family planning, nutrition, and child care; employment skills - literacy, cooking, dressmaking; and development project skills - needs assessment, basic marketing and cost analysis, and cooperative management.

There are now 20 resident trainees and 80 nonresident trainees from the vicinity of Le Foyer and some 60 trainees in another quarter of Dakar.

Le Foyer was originally conceived as a program to give the girls basic skills with which to work and survive in the city.