Senegal: Trip to the Field with the Tresorelle Foundation Trustees
"World Ed's reputation is well-earned: competent leadership, real empathy for communities, and the ability to deliver. Meeting the people living and working in rural Senegal gave us enormous confidence in the program. We both left with a strong sense of hope—and possibility!"
Bob and Biddy Owens would be the first to say that nothing brings home the power of World Education's work better than visiting a field project. Since 2004, the Owens, through their family foundation, have supported an HIV prevention program in Senegal called 'Saving Women's Lives.' They traveled to Senegal this past November to observe project activities first-hand and learn more about the inspiring women who have mobilized against HIV and AIDS in their communities. "We had traveled to rural Africa before, but we had never had the opportunity to talk with religious leaders, families, young people and others in a community—those who are directly affected by this program."
- Bob and Biddy Owens, Principals, Tresorelle Foundation
In Senegal, like other parts of sub-Saharan Africa, poverty, social norms, and low status have made girls and women vulnerable to HIV infection. In an area east of the capital, however, a federation of local women's associations is mobilizing to fight back. With more than 8,000 members, Association Rurale de Lutte Contre le SIDA de Kaïre (ARLS) began working with World Education in 2004 to raise awareness in communities and provide vulnerable women and girls with the tools they need to avoid infection. The leadership and ingenuity of these women have been critical to the program's success.
Bob Owens and Madame Kairé, ARLS founder and president outside of the ARLS office in Thiès, Senegal.
"We were really impressed by the leadership and abilities of the people we met. Honestly, we were overwhelmed by the power of the ARLS team; the leadership is made up entirely of women who are not formally educated. Madame Kairé and her team are all enormously impressive," says Bob. Biddy echoes "It was so encouraging to see how organized the ARLS women were—they had their mission, they had plans, they knew how to influence decision makers."
World Education works with ARLS to think through strategy, management and program activities. "We realized that in World Education, we have the right partner," said Bob, "Abdou Sarr, World Education's Senegal country director, doesn't impose his ideas, but helps ARLS think through, plan, and execute creative and thoughtful strategies that involve the entire community."
With World Education's support, ARLS operates kiosks at weekly markets visited by thousands of villagers along one of Senegal's most frequently trafficked routes. Through the kiosks, the project uses public theater, community discussion, and personal counseling to raise awareness about HIV transmission, the importance of testing, and ways to combat women's vulnerability.
Though Bob and Biddy met often with World Education staff to follow the progress of 'Saving Women's Lives,' they had never before witnessed the program in action. "I wasn't sure what to expect," says Biddy, "I wanted to know 'What did the kiosks really look like?' 'How did they operate?' 'What were the communities like, where they were located and how were people participating in activities?'" During their time spent in Touba Toule and Mbafaye, where ARLS is operating kiosks, Bob and Biddy observed community discussion sessions about how HIV is transmitted, spoke with women who have benefited from the activities, and interacted with local and religious leaders who support the program.
Bob and Biddy Owens with Abdou Sarr, World Education Senegal Country Director and Ouly Ndiaye, Program Assistant
"The public theater, the themes are really part of the fabric of people's lives. During skits, the local actors talk about infidelity, the importance of testing, and the vulnerability of young girls. I was really quite impressed with the amount of collaboration with health officials, local religious, and government leaders—and elders in the community. It is a very traditional community and to hear and see people openly talk about sensitive topics like HIV was really encouraging."
In two years, nearly 10,000 women, men, and young people have learned about HIV and AIDS—some for the first time. After the success of the kiosks in Touba Toule and Mbafaye, ARLS plans to start another market program this year. In addition, ARLS recently launched a savings and credit program to reduce women's vulnerability by increasing their household income. After three months of operation, 194 loans have been dispersed and are being paid back at a rate of 99%.
"Before the trip, I didn't really make the connection between women's vulnerability to HIV and their migration to cities in search of work. Young women who go to cities to look for work are often unaware of their vulnerability. Often, they find themselves with no support and end up trading sex for money. I was particularly touched by a group of young women who are hoping to use the savings and credit program so that they could start small businesses and stay in their own communities.
"In our travels, we could see poverty and its affect, but I really wasn't sure how we could change it. After seeing communities' support for the HIV awareness activities and the savings and credit program, I started to think 'this can be done'."
The partnership between ARLS and World Education has created a powerful force in the community. The Owens understand the importance of giving local women the tools and resources to address HIV for themselves, a strategy which has improved their status and given them the confidence to become leaders in the community. Bob notes, "It was important to us to find a partner that shared our values and a commitment to educating and lifting up women to become decision makers and leaders in their families and communities. We hope to be working with World Education for a very long time."