Helping girls in Burkina Faso smile again

By Shiromi Pinto

If you’re a girl in Burkina Faso, chances are your childhood won’t last long. Forced early marriage is common, as is early pregnancy. But Martine Kaboré is giving girls like these a second chance to live the lives they want.  

Martine Kaboré is on a mission. For the past eight years, the 37-year-old psychology graduate has been a social worker at Pan Billa, a shelter for survivors of forced marriage, rape and unwanted pregnancy.

“I chose this profession because it is noble,” she says. “It’s noble to help girls who are in such a difficult situation to find their smile, their hope and their self-esteem again.”

Getting these girls to laugh again takes compassion and determination. On any given day, Martine is ready to go from 7.30am, praying and meditating with the girls who share a broad range of beliefs, from Christianity to animism. She does household chores with the girls, including cooking and cleaning, after which they go to school or literacy classes. Four girls currently at the shelter are now in college.

In the afternoon, Martine organizes debates on issues such as forced marriage. “We also discuss the possibility of the girls returning to their families to see how they feel about this. We do a lot of mediation between the girls and their families to diffuse tension and help them reintegrate.”

At the same time, Martine monitors the health of the girls and their babies, ensuring that everyone is up to date with their vaccines. She organizes classes for the pregnant girls to prepare them for birth. “Finally,” she says, “I visit families to try to convince them to abandon the practice of forced marriage.”

Overcoming obstacles

Located just outside Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou, Pan Billa currently accommodates 20 girls and 11 babies. But with more than half of all girls in Burkina Faso married before they are 18, there are many more girls in need of this kind of support. Shelters often struggle to give them the help they need because of the few resources available to them.

“We have no car,” says Martine. “When a pregnant girl has to go to hospital, we have to take her there by motorcycle! It’s very difficult. The road is chaotic, unpaved, and very risky for pregnant girls.”

For Martine, the biggest challenge, however, is not the meagre resources at her disposal, but the resistance she encounters from parents.

“One day,” she recalls, “a father who forced his daughter to get married threatened me. He said that if I dared enter his home, I’d soon find out who I was dealing with. I was really scared and I didn’t return.”

New lives

For every setback, there are successes which keep Martine determined to carry on. The girls she works with may arrive desperate but with her support go on to build new lives for themselves.

I chose this profession because it is noble... to help girls in such a difficult situation to find their smile, their hope and their self-esteem again.
Martine Kaboré

“Four years ago, a 15-year-old girl arrived at our shelter after refusing a forced marriage and fleeing her family home,” recalls Martine. “She was really broken. She had been banished by her family. She cried for a year.” Martine and her colleagues provided her with psychological treatment and once she was well enough, they sent her to a training centre. 

“Today, I’m proud of the journey she has made. She now has a profession and works at Pan Billa as a cook. Today she has blossomed, she is independent. She has become my colleague.”