In Senegal, 18-year-old Sylvie is a feminist in the back of beyond
Nov. 17, 2016
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In the outlying districts of Kolda, everybody knows her name and her face. Sylvie, the young girl who wears the ‘ibadou’, this West African hijab that she ties around her face and holds in place with a gilded brooch. It’s her trademark, her ‘clothing trump card’, she says with a certain emphasis.

18-year-old Sylvie may only be 5”1’ tall but she is president of an organisation which informs adolescents about the risks of early pregnancy, forced marriage and leaving school early, along with the financial dependence which follows. With her team, she walks the dusty alleyways of Casamance, a town in the south of Senegal. Sylvie organises 'conversations’ in these suburbs of Kolda, characterised by their brick and wattle and daub construction, an urban scrubland built (too quickly) for, somewhat fittingly, new arrivals from the scrubland. She goes from door to door and, in order to be accepted, initially needed to be noticed. “People need to recognise us and know who to talk to when they have questions on SSRAJ,” she says, talking about questions on sexual and reproductive health for young people and adolescents. “It’s our turn then to advise them or direct them towards organisations which will take care of them.”

Sensitive subjects

But what makes Sylvie hurry? “Very early on I understood that in Kolda, there are many very young pregnancies and marriages, and that genital mutilation continues. I asked myself why not be the girl who helps the town reverse this tendency? I know of course that I can't eradicate these plagues on my own, but I have promised myself that I will give my heart and soul to it.”

At 12 years old, she knocked on the door of the young person’s centre in Kolda and there met Babacar Sy, for whom she became his right hand woman. He quickly became attached to this very active and curious young girl, who never stopped questioning him about reproductive health. He took her under his wing, trained her and took her to the various districts. “One day, after a talk, I said to the host that next time I would take the session,” she said. “The next week, he took me at my word. I was 13 years old, I was shaking, but I was convincing enough. Since then, I have organised my awareness activities on my own.”

A conversation takes place thus: in schools or in districts, in the shade of a baobab tree, she invites teenagers and adults (often their parents), serves tea, sometimes projects a film on the subject of the day before engaging in discussion on the merits of child marriage, early pregnancies or female genital mutilation. Sensitive subjects in this region of Senegal, where these practices are still common. In Kolda, one girl in 50 is affected by an early pregnancy. “To begin with, return trips were sometimes hostile,” she remembers. “Some adults did not like that teenagers questioned these traditional practices or tried to give them advice. But we always did it with great respect. This adversity also allowed me to build myself up.”

Only adult men

Last year, Babacar took her with him to the radio so she could see his programme on early marriages. At the end, surprised, she asked him why older men are debating problems which concern female minors. “Why did you not let me take care of this programme? Girls would feel much more able to relate to it.” Babacas is sceptical. “He thought I was too scatterbrained to give me the reins. But the following week, he let me try to see how I handled things.”

Since then, every Saturday from 3pm to 4pm, she hosts the programme which she has renamed ‘Teenager Space’ on Surnafore FM, a community radio station in Kolda. She invites young people to discuss their problems with parents and health specialists, “such as the Schools Medical Inspector”. Other subjects are touched on, such as clothing styles, morals and parental failure to take responsibility.

Since she has been on the radio, young people that she hasn't met before call out to her. “It’s you Sylvie! How are you? Can we come and see your broadcast? Could you organise a street interview near us?” Sylvie manages this activist and presenter life alongside her education. “In Kolda, we go to school from 8am to 2.30pm, after which we are free all afternoon,” she says. But this year is special: she will take her A-Levels. Does she have time to prepare herself? “We manage, we manage,” she replies.

Sylvie, despite her young feminist tendencies, does not respect her parents any less. “My father is always moving around. He works in the communication industry. But, even a long way away, he finds time to encourage me by telephone. I own my motivation to him. My mother is also supportive daily. Every time she goes to a health clinic or a hospital she brings me back books on medicine and health.”

As well as her parents, Sylvie is very close to Babacar and thinks of him as a spiritual father who “taught her everything”. Her dream? To become a journalist, host and produce her own television show on health and sexual education. “What I love is to establish a very personal dialogue with somebody. In a few hours, people confide their most intimate secrets to us.” She wants to move from radio to the small screen because images, she says, “have this force of conviction, this ability to prove to people the existence of these problems that we face.” The result of this work she knows will depend on the daily efforts of thousands of community representatives, doctors, hosts and humanitarian workers. She does her bit, with her motto on a strap: “If you aren't lucky enough to have had the same education as me, I will make sure you have the same information.”


By Matteo Maillard (Kolda, Senegal, special correspondent) LE MONDE, 04/08/2016 at 08:57 • Updated 12/08/2016 at 10:05
Original article in French: