Maimouna Ba is one of the 2023 Young Activists Summit winners.
My home country of Burkina Faso is a West African nation. We were colonized by France, which is why we are Francophone. Each region has a name; the one I grew up in is called Sahel. The capital of this region, Dori, is a small town on the border between Burkina Faso and Niger. That's where I was born and raised, and it's where I have spent most of my life.
I was born into a family with no income at all and went to school by sheer miracle. At the time, my father went to the mosque every evening. He was already very old, blind, and had no source of income. He was a great Muslim scholar, having studied the Quran and become a hafiz before the age of 23. When he went to the mosque to share his knowledge, people would give him a few coins, and that's how we survived. After my mother sold some of the clothes she had received as a gift from my sister returning from Côte d'Ivoire, she managed to send me and my two sisters to school.
Today, Burkina Faso is facing numerous conflicts, especially violent extremism. A significant part of the country is under the control of armed groups: 26 cities in the Sahel are under blockade, except for four to six cities, where people can travel, but only through humanitarian or military flights. There are over 4,000 closed schools. People were forced to flee their original areas and settle in more or less stable zones — these individuals had no choice but to leave everything behind to settle in relatively stable urban centers.
Hundreds of thousands of people find themselves entirely vulnerable.
That's why, with my colleagues, I founded Femmes pour la dignité au Sahel (Dignity for the Women of Sahel). Our goals were broad, encompassing all women who lived in that area, shared our realities, and for whom education was not necessarily straightforward. There were several challenges to address — including education, economic empowerment, combating gender-based violence (GBV), engagement, leadership, and rebuilding a certain peace and social cohesion among communities.
Unfortunately, the civic space is deteriorating in Burkina Faso, with freedom of expression being stifled to the extreme. While we don’t face authorities directly — the issues we address do not contradict the state's interests — political activists are significantly more exposed. Many face restrictions on their freedom of expression, and numerous organizations struggle to function.
To protect civic space, people must first know their rights. For this reason, we launched a program called "Promotion des droits humains et de l'espace civique au Sahel par des femmes” (Promotion of Human Rights and Civic Space in Sahel by Women). This project, which started in December 2022, targets women who did not have the chance to go to school.
When you go to school, you can search for certain terms on the internet, and take part in relevant training. But these women, somewhat lost in their villages, dealing with their daily lives, often have no knowledge of human rights, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation. Our target includes internally displaced women, rural women, and activists in civil society organizations. They need to be the guardians of this civic space, as knowing its history makes the commitment to protect it seamless. Most of these women have never heard of human rights or the mechanisms to protect them. We’re working on collecting their testimonies to know how to best help them move forward in protecting their rights and seeking recourse in case of violation.
In parallel, through our goal of educating children, we initiated a project called "Un enfant, un parrain" (One Child, One Sponsor) to support orphaned children displaced in this area. We found volunteers willing to provide material and psychological support for children to go to school, have some basic guarantees, eat at least once a day, and more.
Since these are individual commitments based on what people can offer, they may not be sustainable because people can change their minds. So, we thought it would be interesting to provide income-generating opportunities for these mothers to support the children so they could take care of them. These women may not have formal skills or degrees, but they have skills that can be valued and used for their economic empowerment. We work on enhancing their abilities and allowing them to adapt what they already know about pottery, basketry, hairstyling, beading, or hand embroidery to the needs of the urban population. We wanted to mobilize minimal resources to help those who want to engage in livestock farming, as our area is an excellent livestock farming zone.
In 2020, we conducted a fundraising campaign based on a traditional economic uplift technique called "haɓɓanaye," which saw a cow being given to women facing economic hardship. The community helped feed the cow until it gave birth and her calf was able to live independently. The woman [who had received the cow] then had the responsibility to pass the cow on to another person in need to continue the chain of solidarity. Using a similar method, we bought goats and gifted them to some mothers. We didn't need people to give a lot. We thought that giving a lot might seem enormous, but if everyone gave 500 francs (US $0.83), we could gather at least a significant amount to help these women get a head start in livestock farming. We couldn't cover the entire amount and everyone, but we hope that over time, others will also benefit from goats and recover economically.
One of our significant challenges every year, as women who are not internally displaced, but achieved a certain level of schooling, was community engagement and leadership.
"I believe that women are capable of alternative approaches to rebuilding a community where social cohesion is a reality. For this to happen, each of us — women who are natives of these areas and on the ground — must get involved."
When I talk about leadership, I'm not referring to a hierarchical position, but rather the willingness to serve community causes. The goal is for our work to continue, to create a generation of young women who will continue to fight for the ideals for which we stood up. That’s why, every year, we implement the a young girls leadership program in schools. The initiative brings together young people and puts them in an environment where they can learn important management skills, get to know individuals who are on this journey and learn from them directly, serving as a roadmap for the actions they want to take for their community. We have programs that focus on empowerment through entrepreneurship, providing training in soap making, baking, and more.
Last, but not least, to fight the destruction of wildlife and the surrounding environment caused by massive population displacement, we launched the "Un arbre, un enfant" (One Tree, One Child) program. For each internally displaced child, we offer a tree that they are responsible for. They plant the tree and maintain it as it grows. This work has been well received and valued at the United Nations, which annually selects five young people and rewards them for their work within their community at the Youth Activists Summit. This year, the theme was peace and reconciliation, and I had the honor of attending the event in Geneva.
Today, my greatest challenge is the commitment of my colleagues. I wish my colleagues had the same level of motivation as me, but unfortunately, after a while, one looks to earn a living. We are not able to provide that [financial] security, so people eventually leave. You find yourself alone, having to make sacrifices to make things work.
If I had the power to change one thing, I would ensure that children victimized by war have access to a good education and a space that protects and helps them find peace. Among them are children who witnessed their parents being murdered before their eyes and they still carry the trauma. Some saw their parents unjustly arrested and imprisoned, and they still bear the scars. When I hear children in the field telling me that they want to take up arms to fight against the state or armed groups, it breaks my heart because I believe that a child should not contemplate violence. A child should neither think about making war nor killing.
The second dream I nurture is that, as women, we also realize that we are the ones most capable of reconciling hearts in the community and that we take action because the solution for men is weapons. I believe that women are capable of alternative approaches to rebuilding a community where social cohesion is a reality. For this to happen, each of us — women who are natives of these areas and on the ground — must get involved. So, winning the battle for the commitment of young girls is truly essential. It is an urgent matter.
I have written a book, and the title of the book is Quelques pages de la vie d’une activiste (A Few Pages From the Life of an Activist). In it, I recount the adventures I shared with the children we support, all the suffering I have experienced with these children, and everything I have witnessed in recent years. I highlight how children are affected and the urgency of laying down arms. The key would be to help us amplify this message.
As told to Sarah El Gharib; this article was edited for clarity and length.
The 2023-2024 In My Own Words series was made possible thanks to funding from the Ford Foundation.
Editor's note: In an earlier version of this article, an incorrect website link was provided for Femmes pour la dignité au Sahel. The link has now been updated.