SOCIAL POLICY | The Women of Burkina Faso : Long Road to Freedom by Renate Staudenmeyer and Irma Bergknecht

Burkina Faso has a numerous laws, including a constitution, family and penal codes, and is party to international treaties, which protect the rights of women and girls. But enforcement of the law is a completely different story. A local organisation and its German partner are working hard to end FGM and other forms of violence against Burkinabe women and girls.

By Renate Staudenmeyer and Irma Bergknecht

A committee from TERRE DES FEMMES – Human Rights for Women e.V. (TDF) - visited the Association Bangr Nooma (ABN), the organization’s partner institution in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, between 5 and 12 June 2015. The representatives included Renate Staudenmeyer (TDF Department for International Cooperation) and Irma Bergknecht (TDF Board of Directors). The visit was undertaken in connection with the grand opening of the new Consultation Centre for Women and Girls - CAECF (French: Centre d’Accueil, d’Ecoute et de Conseils pour les Femmes et les Filles), a project which was made possible through grants from the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development of Germany – BMZ (German: Bundesministerium für Wirtschaftliche Zusammenarbeit und Entwicklung), internal resources provided by TERRE DES FEMMES, and the active involvement of TDF’s partner organization, the Association Bangr Nooma. Conceptualised in December 2014, the project has created a new space for women and girls, who have been affected by violence to find protection, consultation, and guidance.


Burkina Faso has one of the highest national poverty rates per capita in the world. In 2014, The Human Development Report ranked Burkina Faso 181st out of 187 countries on the Human Development Index based on the measures of long and healthy life, access to knowledge, and decent standard of living, a position it has continually held in recent years (UNDP: Human Development Report 2014). Currently, 44.6% of the population lives under conditions of extreme poverty, classified as less than $1.25 USD per day. Such difficult socio-economic conditions foster strong inequalities between men and women, leading to types of violence against women that are both more distinct and more multifaceted than in other contexts. Manifesting not just as physical or sexual violence (strikes, rape, abuse, sexual exploitation, etc.), violence against women can also take the form of psychological or moral violence (insults, threats, defamation, etc.), economic violence (denial of access to monetary resources, income, land, etc.), and social violence (female genital mutilation, early and/or forced-marriage, repudiation for reasons including accusations of witchcraft, compulsory levirate marriages, etc.), amongst others. Furthermore, such acts are compounded by the local cultural practices and norms, which are contextually characterised by strong traditions, customs, and patriarchial interpretations of religion.

In a 2010 study by the African Child Policy Forum, approximately 600 young women (aged between 18-24 years old) from capital cities across the world were interviewed about violence they had experienced throughout their lives, including women from Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. The results of the study showed that: around 88% of women surveyed stated that they had suffered physical abuse where an object (such as a stick, broom, or belt) was used; 91% experienced blows and/or beatings; 51% have been victims of serious impact injuries; and 27% reported having been choked and/or having suffered burns. Furthermore, 81% of all respondents had experienced sexual harassment; 52% had been molested; and 40% of women reported having experienced force and/or coercion in sexual intercourse[1] .

TDF’s partner organization ABN therefore works towards an overall societal shift by employing awareness-raising methods in which traditions harmful to women can be transformed and new social norms be created.


TDF has supported the Association Bangr Nooma’s fight to end female genital mutilation (FGM) in Burkina Faso since 1998[2] . Though outlawed in 1996, FGM is still widespread, with UNICEF reporting that as of 2013, as many as 76% of the country’s women and girls have undergone some form of traditional cutting.

FGM harms women’s physical and mental health throughout their lives. The cutting is mostly done under unhygienic conditions, consequently leading women to suffer from not only the traumatizing effects of the procedure itself, but also from subsequent complications and side effects, such as tumours, adhesions, and fistulas, among others. Rakieta Poyga, director of ABN, recalled that, “I myself felt the devastating consequences that the mutilation can have on us women during the unbelievably painful birth of my daughter in 1998…” adding that, “…This was the trigger that led me to establish the Association Bangr Nooma. The women of my generation, I myself born in 1960, have almost all been cut. Only now, amongst the younger women, are the signs of a decrease noticeable enough to show that the practice is no longer universally exercised”.


“Before we can even begin to take action in a rural area, we must first seek the consent of the village chiefs, for nothing may be accomplished without them”, explained Rakieta Poyga. Once ABN has confirmed the willingness and openness of the traditional chief, their work is carried out in three building phases: a team consisting of a woman and a man who have each been trained by ABN, undertakes the awareness raising efforts in a specific area. In the first phase, the team meets with people of respected positions in the society, like teachers, police officers, traditional midwives, and circumcisers, etc., for these are the people who must first be won over for the fight to stop FGM. They will later become the disseminators of the new information provided by ABN.

Next, the second phase focuses on the area’s population as a whole. New knowledge is conveyed through house calls, family talks, village discussions, films, sketches, and many other such techniques. It often takes quite some time for the team to build enough trust in the community for it to be able to begin to grapple with the idea that FGM can and must be overcome. At the end of this phase, the entire village community is assembled in a large gathering, in which all of the important local leaders are represented. Statements saying “NO TO FGM” are openly made by each representative, who then also declares that being uncircumcised will from then on be the new social norm. During this ceremony, the tools of the former circumcisers are symbolically buried and the leaders of all the local religious groups[3] give their word that they will help end FGM. After this ceremony, the third phase of ABN’s work begins with forming the Anti-FGM Village Committee, in which volunteers are deployed to monitor that no girl in the village will ever be mutilated again.

This successful model of awareness-raising campaigning will also be carried through into ABN’s new consultation centre, the CAECF.

“We have been able to create a strong bond of trust between us and the community through our work in the fight against FGM. This has also led to situations where women and girls who have experienced violence have come to us asking for help. I myself have been asked many times for my help; for example, a mother told me that her husband abused her daughter… or young women have come to us because they are being forced to marry against their will. We have always been able to help them in one way or another, but we also started to feel overextended. This is what led us to want to build a new drop-in centre”.

Women and girls in Burkina Faso shall no longer be defenceless against violence: they have the right to seek help, and at CAECF it will be both professional as well as targeted.

The CAECF’s work towards female empowerment and protection from violence is dualistic in its conception in that it combines both intervention and prevention. Their intervention services include expert advice, emergency accommodations, and accompaniment during specific problematic situations. On the other hand, their prevention services include sensitisation and awareness-raising measures, skills advancement, and vocational training conducted at three societal levels: team ABN, community champions at the village level, and the general public.


After an arduous process of preliminary planning, ABN and TDF together took great pleasure in the official inauguration of the Centre d’Accueil, d’Ecoute et de Conseils pour les Femmes et les Filles (CAECF) on 9 June 2015. More than 300 guests were in attendance including ABN’s animatrices and animateurs, village kings, local youth from the training centre, traditional village chiefs, members of the Saaba municiple community, and many other official representatives from institutions like the German Embassy, the Burkinabé Minstry of Women, and the Interim Government of the Saaba Municipality.

Each made a short welcoming speech, noting how the CAECF is truly, in its way, a one-of-a-kind institution, which further shows how important it is for counseling services to be made available to women and girls who have experienced violence in Burkina Faso.

Further meetings and exchanges took place between TDF and local community members both before and after the inauguration. For example: TDF representatives took part in FGM awareness seminars in Toukin; interviewed Mme Zongo, a woman affected by FGM who was able to receive an emergency operation in 2014 through the support of TDF (Link:; met with traditional chiefs and kings; met with Prof. Akotionga, a gynacologist who has dedicated his career to fighting FGM, and thus performs multiple emergency operations for ABN every year, free of charge in his private clinic; and were also in attendance for one of ABN’s first awareness-raising campaigns to stop violence against women in the Saaba Municipality.

The TDF representatives were so impressed by how far the local fight against FGM had come through ABN’s work in the area that when reports about the magnitude and extent of poverty, unknowing, and violence experienced by these same village women were brought to light, they were left questioning why local women did not also fight back against other unjustices done to them, as was actually their right under law. Would ABN have to pioneer new initiatives to end other forms of violence against women - just as they had done in 1998 when they begun their work to end FGM in Burkina Faso?

“It is true that Burkina Faso has a numerous juridical texts (legal protections for women), including a constitution, family and penal codes, and is party to international treaties like the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which has been ratified since 1987. But the law in action is a completely different story. A modern legal framework can not be fully utilized in local contexts where traditional rules and values are often the more strongly respected regime”, said Rakieta Poyga.

The conflicting situation between juridical prescriptions and the practical reality is also described as ambivalent by Monique Ilboudo in: Droit de cité – Etre femme au Burkina Faso (2006), (English: Civil Liberty – To Be Female in Burkina Faso). She particularily highlights this ambiguity in Burkina Faso with the examples of FGM and social exile due to accusations of witchcraft[4] . While in the area of female genital mutiltion the legal prohibition seems to grab at least gradually, this is not the case concerning the problem of social exile due to accusations of witchcraft. When stripped entirely of their dignity and self worth, women do not have the possibility to plead the illegailty of the injustices before a modern court. They are, in the eyes of the law, unprotected against such social exclusion, often leading them to experience further forms of violence because of it. They are beaten, humiliated, stripped of their belongings, and ostracized from the village. “What legal means (do they have) to combat this phenomenon?”[5] .

On the other hand, legal improvements are vital for civil society organizations and lend legitimacy to their activities.

“Traditional practices are anchored deeply in the Burkinabè society and make up the cornerstones of the extreme forms of discrimination and violence against women and girls. For example, traditions around strengthening familial clans are used as justification to control a girl’s reproductive choices, embodied in the negotiation of dowries in marriage ceremonies, or in the arrangements made for underaged/forced marriages of girls aged 11 to 13 years old (the age at which their first menstrual cycle begins). Misogynistic rituals are inflicted on widows when it is assumed that she must have been involved in the death of her husband in one way or another, and others still are cast out of their communities under accusations of witchcraft. There is simply still so much more to be done. Because these traditions are so deeply engrained, patience and perserverance will be needed to create long-lasting changes. To change social norms in any culture requires protracted transformative processes; the important thing is that we do not give up.”

For further information about the German Human Rights Organization TERRE DES FEMMES:

About The Authors:

Renate Staudenmeyer is a sociologist, who was active in the field of gender equality in Niger, Togo, Senegal, Indonesia and is currently the head of the International Cooperation Department of TERRE DES FEMMES.

Irma Bergknecht is chairman of the board of TERRE DES FEMMES and works at the Technical University of Mittelhessen/Germany in the field of Gender & Diversity.


[1] „Childhood scars in Africa: a retrospective study on violence against girls in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria and Senegal“ (2010),


[3] Religious diversity in Burkina Faso: ca. 60.5% Muslim, 23.3% Christian, and 15.3% Traditional. The remaining 0.9% belongs to other various African religions. FGM is practiced within all of the Burkinabé religious communities.

[4] TDF visited the Delwende Centre in Ouagadougou where 250 women (and five men), exiled from their communities for accusations of witchcraft, currently live. Practiced in a particular region of Mossi, this terrible form of social marginalisation is an example of one of the many forms of violence against women (and men) in Burkina Faso. The women (and men) in the Centre, ranging in age from 60 to 100 years old, live in conditions of extreme poverty, under which they are forced to gather food scraps in Ouagadougou and produce course yarn to survive.

[5] Ilboudo, 2006: p.65 (French: Quels moyens juridique pour combattre ce phénomène?)


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IndraStra Global: SOCIAL POLICY | The Women of Burkina Faso : Long Road to Freedom by Renate Staudenmeyer and Irma Bergknecht
SOCIAL POLICY | The Women of Burkina Faso : Long Road to Freedom by Renate Staudenmeyer and Irma Bergknecht
Burkina Faso has a numerous laws, including a constitution, family and penal codes, and is party to international treaties, which protect the rights of women and girls. But enforcement of the law is a completely different story. A local organisation and its German partner are working hard to end FGM and other forms of violence against Burkinabe women and girls.
IndraStra Global
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