OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso — A white van roams the streets of the capital here every Wednesday morning to help young women and girls who may be homeless or destitute to take them to a health clinic on the outskirts of the city.
There, a small team tries to help the clients, who may be single mothers or prostitutes or both, overcome any sense of victimization they might experience by society. The team also offers essential services in a country where government services remain practically absent as it recovers from a people’s revolt against its longtime autocratic leader, Blaise Compaoré. (Compaoré has been exiled to the Ivory Coast, and a new government was democratically elected in 2015.)
In sandy, dusty Ouagadougou, located in the center of this landlocked country in West Africa, stigmatization is an active form of abuse carried out against young single mothers or prostitutes, which is why the clinic was launched by Keogo, a local association, or charity. The abuse extends to the very place women and girls may seek safety, comfort and medical attention: in hospitals.
Keogo’s program to assist vulnerable women and girls was born in 2012, offering medical care as part of its services. Lassina Zampou, the president of Keogo, said the clinic enabled its clients to avoid hurtful “judgments from medical staff” in hospitals, where young female patients who are alone or not well dressed are subject to discrimination. Last year, around 1,300 women and girls attended the Keogo clinic.
“We identify them through patrols,” Zampou said, explaining how the clinic helps the clients, although finding them is more difficult than helping boys on the street, whom Keogo also assists. The girls and women are far more invisible, sleeping in schoolyards or parishes to protect themselves.
On a visit to the Keogo clinic one recent day, Djamilatou, 17, and Chantal, 16, sat in the waiting room with their babies of 9 months and 2 months, respectively.
At Keogo, which means “initiation” in Mooré, a local language, the clinic aims to ease the young women’s “passage to adulthood,” Zampou said, given that they are virtually on their own. (Mooré is the dialect of Mossi, a main ethnic group of Burkina Faso).
The clinic teaches basics on common diseases and reproductive health. Two nurses received Djamilatou in their tiny office, while a social worker distributed condoms in the waiting room. Djamilatou looked down when one nurse spoke to her, explaining to this visitor, who was observing as a photojournalist, “We prescribed to her baby a treatment last week, a bronchial pneumonia and she did not complete it.”
The clinic provides four nurseries, a midwife, gynecologist, delivery room and general practitioner (once a week). It also includes a lab, mainly for AIDS testing, and a small drugstore. Keogo is supported by the French organization Médecins du Monde, the Children of Africa Foundation and the International Social Service, a Swiss entity. The Ministry of Health of Burkina Faso provides technical support “to check that we respect the protocol,” Zampou said.
“I knew I was pregnant after six months because I was really sick,” Djamilatou said. “I was afraid my father would kill me and his two wives insulted me.”
She now lives in a Roman Catholic shelter with 14 other single mothers, run by Keogo. Twice a month, she goes back home to visit her family with her baby. A few weeks ago, her father died and “visits her in her dreams.” Although she stopped her studies when she was pregnant, she hopes to become a midwife.
Chantal, the mother of the 2-month-old baby, was forced to leave her family when her older brother discovered she was 7 months’ pregnant, so “he threw me out of the house because he was afraid to die because of me,” she said. “I had nowhere else to go. So I lived in the streets for two weeks. A woman saw me and proposed me to stay and sleep with her at home.” Chantal ended up at the shelter, too. When she gave birth, her mother and older sister came once to visit her and the baby during his baptism.
It is forbidden for Mossi to have babies at home if they are not married. “We think in our traditions that a man from the family will die because of it,” Chantal said.
The young women and girls who end up pregnant — by boyfriends who leave them — have limited choices when they “shame” their family: move out or get a back-street abortion.
In Burkina Faso, abortion is allowed only in specific cases: when the pregnancy results from rape, incest or danger to the life or health of the mother. But abortion remains taboo in the country, a Christian and Muslim society laced with animistic traditions.
“Some women who have had a back street abortion come and see us when they are in a critical situation, so we drive them to the hospital,” Zampou said. “We don’t practice abortion at the clinic because we don’t want to get on the state and the population’s bad side . . . and take the risk to close the center if the population talks too much.”
Sister Michèle Kankyono manages the shelter, in partnership with Keogo, about a half-hour from the clinic. A dozen young single mothers who have been rescued sleep there, where tensions can run high among the residents. Efforts are made to help them return home but they are unwelcomed.
“So we engage a social adviser like an imam, in family mediation, but most of the time it is a failure, it is a shame for the family to take in a child who is not recognized by his father,” Sister Michèle said. “And girls are exposed to forced marriages. For instance, if this girl comes from a family who did things for another one,” the girl must accept a boy to marry her as a sign of gratitude.
Back in the waiting room at the Keogo clinic on another day, 13 young single mothers, like Djamilatou and Chantal, are waiting to receive help, handling their babies awkwardly, lacking the nurturing guidance of their own mothers or aunts or sisters on how to take care of a baby.
Sister Michèle said the shelter tried to teach the youngsters to accept their babies and to love them, but a sense of fatalism permeates everything they do.