Training program brightens future for young Senegalese women

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.

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.

But ``from the very start it has been modified to meet the needs of the girls - as they see them,'' says Diakhete. During the project's design stage, FAFS members surveyed some potential participants to find out what they felt they needed and wanted.

``The overwhelming majority wanted to go back to their village and take what they had learned,'' says Diakhete.

``We asked them, `What must be done for you to be able to go home and help other girls from getting involved in the trek to the city?' And they told us, `Teach us to create activities and training that we can use at home.'''

The project is now preparing to graduate its first young charges - by sending them back to their villages.

One group of young women from the program, all from the same rural region, has already met with their villages and devised a project to raise chickens.

FAFS offered to provide the seed money without requiring that it be repaid in full.

But, according to Diakhete, ``The villagers have insisted that they be required to repay 100 percent of the loan.'' Until the loan is paid, a small portion of the profits from the project will go to FAFS; the rest will be reinvested in the community.

FAFS and UUSC intend for the project to be self-sufficient someday.

A chicken-raising project set up just outside Dakar provides the girls with hands-on training and has already begun bringing in a small income.

And a promising feasibility study for a dairy project has been carried out, says Louise Witherite, a UUSC official who has worked closely with Le Foyer.

But perhaps most important, as far as Diakhete is concerned, is that Le Foyer be able to teach the girls agroforestry - a highly successful method of mixing reforestation with crop production. FAFS has already purchased some land and hopes to set up an agricultural training center linked to Le Foyer.

Armed with agroforestry skills, the girls would be better able to help their villages begin producing food again; and teen-age boys and girls would be needed at home to work the fields.

At least for the time being, both the government and the Senegalese people have accepted the fate of the villages and the plight of the young people who seek refuge in the city, says Diakhete.

She says FAFS and UUSC hope ``that now that we have our first experiences, we can take them to the government and help it see success at the village level.''

Much of Le Foyer's current and future success, as well as the success of four other development projects in Dakar and the surrounding area, depends on Diakhete.

Beside running development projects, Diakhete, who is married and has one child, is a medical secretary and the treasurer of FAFS.

She works not only with FAFS, but also with OEF (formerly the Overseas Education Fund), a Washington-based group that focuses on the needs of women in the developing world.

``She has excellent management skills - most importantly the ability to delegate responsibility. And she is blessed with a boss who encourages her to get as much experience in the development field as she can,'' says Ms. Witherite, the UUSC official.

That experience includes trips to other countries for seminars and training, such as her recent trip to the United States.

``We often tease her around the office,'' says Witherite, ``about being a woman with eight different hats.''

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