BENIN: Girl’s Long History of Abuse is Put to an End through the Help of a UNICEF-Supported Program Run by Salesian Sisters
(UNICEF) “I lived with my grandmother because my parents abandoned me as soon as I was born. Therefore, my grandmother is the only person that counts for me,” says 15-year-old Solange. Today she lives in Cotonou, Benin, in a UNICEF-supported home operated by the Salesian Sisters.
“I was born in Guinea,” Solange says. “I was 8 years old and I was in second grade at primary school when I left the country. My grandmother fell sick, and she took me to my mother’s in Cotonou.”
Separated from her grandmother and living in a new country, Solange found herself in a family with two children, a step-father, and her mother, whom she barely knew. She was lost. She dropped out of school.
“I used to tell her that she is not my mother,” she says. “I insulted her because she had abandoned me in the past. Then she would hit me very hard.”
Two months later, Solange was taken to the home of an aunt. She attended school in the daytime, but in the evening she had to sell rice on the street, staying until midnight to cook and sell food. Her aunt was often angry at her because she did not obey.
“Every evening after school, she used to beat me,” Solange says. “I stood on my knees, and she hit me with an electric wire. She did it most of the time when I broke glasses or made such mistakes.”
When she turned 12, Solange was sexually abused by her aunt’s husband. “I denounced him to my mother, but everyone said I was lying,” she says.
Soon after, Solange became pregnant. The family forced her to have an abortion and sent her back to live with her mother, whose husband raped her. This time, the family listened to her and treated it as a serious matter. They took her to the police to make a formal complaint, but they left her at the police station. Nobody came back to get her. Once more, Solange was alone.
After several days, she was handed over to the Salesian Sisters, who run a transit center for girls who are victims of abuse, exploitation and trafficking.
Yvette Dayé Lalèyè, the project coordinator at the center, is a strong advocate for the children’s cause. “Here at the center, all the girls benefit from health care and psychological support. They get an education and have access to vocational training. They can become hairstylists or dressmakers,” she says.
“Listening to these girls is heartbreaking. You suffer in their place,” she continues. “We try to give them some hope, so that they can have happy moments like any other child. But this is just a drop in the ocean. Much more should be done.”
A safe environment
About 40 girls live in the transit center, staying from one day to three months while they wait for the results of family tracing. “We want to be sure that they get into a safe environment,” Ms. Lalèyè says. “Those who cannot find a host family may stay in the biggest section of the center for three to four years. The Sisters take care of some 500 girls per year.”
Solange’s dream is to open her own beauty salon. She also wants to buy a computer and connect with her friends. “I like the center because nobody is bullying me here,” she says with a smile.
She is also optimistic: “One day, I will go back to Guinea.”
By Hadrien Bonnaud / UNICEF
Photos: © UNICEF Benin/2015/Bonnaud