From action research to sustainable social transformation: Senegalese adolescent girls at the heart of innovation for better reproductive health
Many Senegalese adolescents still struggle to access essential reproductive health information and services.
Faatimata, 16, exemplifies this predicament. As she makes her way through a busy alley in Guédiawaye, a Dakar suburb, her serious face expresses both determination and concern. Although surrounded by a caring community, she struggles to find reliable information to satisfy her reproductive health needs. The fear of being judged or excluded prevents her from confiding in her mother or other adults around her. The health resources within her reach are few in number, and they are often distant and not suitable.
Unfortunately, Faatimata is not an isolated case.
Senegal, despite its progress in development, including policy development such as the Strategic Plan for Adolescent/Youth Sexual and Reproductive Health (2014-2018) [available in French only], faces multiple challenges related to the rights of adolescents, particularly regarding gender-based violence (GBV) and adolescent reproductive health (ARH).
Too often, young Senegalese people, and especially girls, because of lack of reliable and trusted sources of information about changes in their bodies, as well as reproductive and psychological health, are deprived of the opportunity to realize their full potential, not only as individuals, but also as catalysts for change in their communities. “[...] We live in a society in social crisis, of values, but also economic. This crisis has fundamentally weakened rites, myths and social organization, making adolescents more and more vulnerable [...]. It is therefore in this context that we work on prevention, with a view to reducing risk factors as well as situations of violence and mistreatment," explains Professor Serigne Mor Mbaye, clinical psychologist and director of the Center for Child and Family Guidance of Dakar.
In 2022, reports from the UNFPA and the WHO highlighted alarming statistics: 12% of young Senegalese girls and women have been victims of sexual or physical violence, and 27% of women aged 15 to 49 have experienced physical violence. Furthermore, according to UNICEF, one in three young women in Senegal was married during childhood. These figures, associated with those of the ANSD, reveal that, in 2018, only 16% of women aged 15 to 49 in Senegal used modern contraception, illustrate an information deficit and limited access to health services. Added to this is a blatant lack of interest from researchers and decision-makers in the link between ARH and GBV.
These systemic gaps help keep many adolescent girls in a vicious cycle of sexual violence and health risks, exacerbated by restrictive socio-cultural norms and conservative religious beliefs.
In this complex landscape, the role of IDRC and Global Affairs Canada (GAC) is crucial through the provision of technical and financial support for participatory action research (PAR). This made it possible to support the “Better Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights for Adolescent Girls in Senegal (ADOS)” program initiated in 2020.
The goal is to make evidence available on the links between ARH and GBV with the aim of strengthening and inspiring the implementation of policies and laws such as those of 2020 criminalizing rape and pedophilia. The generated data and its accessibility to decision-makers allows them to take part in the prevention, protection and care of adolescent victims of violence.
ADOS’ programming takes place in several regions of Senegal (Dakar, Thiès, Ziguinchor, Kaolack, Kolda, Matam, Tambacounda and Saint-Louis) and aims to reach around 400,000 adolescent girls and 100,000 boys, with interventions specifically adapted to the challenges they encounter.
From participatory action research to concrete transformations
In its implementation, ADOS stands out for its PAR method centred on adolescent girls, gender equality and the links between GBV and ARH. ADOS funds a cohort of research institutions to produce convincing data on these issues. This data is then used by a cohort of youth-led civil society organizations to advocate for improved access to ARH services and to combat GBV.
The program takes a multi-sectoral and inclusive approach that brings together all relevant stakeholders — adolescents, community leaders, policymakers, communities and health service providers, among others. It also integrates the principles of intersectionality and transformation to consider gender specificities and diversity.
The project for Prevention and Holistic Care of Adolescent Victims of Gender-Based Violence, led by the Regional Center for Training, Research and Advocacy in Reproductive Health and its partners, made it possible to identify adolescent girls at risk and to work with young people to improve their access to ARH services that meet their specific needs. To learn more about the project approaches, see the information on the ADOS program here.
Giving voice to adolescent girls: Youth leadership innovation at the heart of change
One of the distinctive pillars of ADOS is the engagement of adolescent girls as co-researchers in the research process, an approach piloted by the Université Cheikh Anta Diop’s Institute of Population, Development and Reproductive Health. This participatory model “for and by adolescent girls” demonstrates remarkable added value by bringing together change and empowerment within the community to drive adapted solutions as well as transformative leadership.
The PASTEEF Youth Development Association carries out two flagship initiatives in Guédiawaye: “Ados Leaders” and “Ados Leaders Centers” which train adolescents in ARH issues and motivates them to become agents of change in their community.
The National Youth Alliance for Reproductive Health and Family Planning is also leading an innovative initiative, “My Voice,” in Kaffrine. This initiative aims to raise awareness among adolescents of their reproductive health rights and help them break the cycle of GBV.
Empowering adolescents through technological and artistic innovation
In an increasingly digital world, technology and the arts provide spaces to speak to young people in their own language. Dedicated mobile applications are increasingly used in Senegal, allowing young people to receive reliable information and advice in real time. The “TAWFEEX” project is a digital and community hub for 200 adolescents, 60% of whom are girls, from Gniby to Dakar. Merging mobile technology and local information and advice shops (BIC), this project implemented by the NGO ALPHADEV strengthens their autonomy and their education on ARH while combating GBV.
Simultaneously, the Gënji Hip-Hop association harnesses the power of art — hip-hop and murals — to raise awareness and empower young girls. “This mural is therapeutic and has the capacity to support victims and help them express themselves, heal themselves and integrate back into society,” explains Wasso Tounkara, President of Gënji Hip Hop.
Another innovative model combines accommodation, the provision of services and legal empowerment to improve the ARH, and fights against GBV and the socio-cultural exclusions suffered by adolescent victims of GBV.
The multi-sectoral impact of ADOS: An integrated response to address the links between ARH and GBV
Thanks to the collaboration of several research and advocacy entities, ADOS was able to better understand the links between ARH and GBV. This synergy was the key to laying the groundwork for improving national policies and strategies based on reliable data, while amplifying the autonomy and leadership potential of adolescents. The African Population and Health Research Center and ENDA Santé cooperate closely while the l'Institut de Santé et Développement, Centre de Guidance Infantile et Familiale de Dakar, the l'Institut de Population, Développement et Santé de la Reproduction and the Laboratoire d'Analyse des Sociétés et Pouvoirs / Afrique-Diasporas (LASPAD) at Gaston Berger University each develop their own specialized initiatives, but they are complementary to those of the other organizations.
Although ADOS has made progress, challenges persist. The LASPAD HIRA (Héberger, Informer, Resocialiser et Accueillir) project, which aims to elucidate the conditions for improving the accommodation of victims of GBV, illustrates this. The ADOS approach highlights the need to adapt and innovate to meet the ever-changing needs of communities.
Toward sustainable empowerment and protection of adolescents in Senegal
The ADOS program uses a PAR model to help young people become agents of their own well-being, all the while engaging with their communities and the larger society where they live. The results obtained so far are promising and could be a game-changer because of their work from various complementary entry points. If these initiatives are scaled up in Senegal as part of a broader sustainable development strategy, the country could become a model for other similar ARH and GBV initiatives.
IDRC and GAC provided essential support to initiate this transformative work. The aim is now to make the initiatives autonomous and sustainable, while rooted in the communities.