Burkina Faso

by Patricia Julio

Burkina Faso is in West Africa, surrounded by six countries: Mali, Niger, Benin, Togo, Ghana and the Ivory Coast. Formerly called the Republic of Upper Volta, the country was renamed Burkina Faso in 1984 by then-President Thomas Sankara, using a word from each of the country’s two major native languages, Mòoré and Dioula. “Burkina,” from Mòoré, is translated as “men of integrity,” while “Faso” means “fatherland” in Dioula. “Burkino Faso” is the “land of upright people” or “land of honest people.” The 16 million inhabitants of Burkina Faso are known as Burkinabé. The official language is French, while Mòoré, Mandinka and Bambara are recognized regional languages (Burkina Faso, n.d.).  The area became a French protectorate in 1896. After gaining independence from France in 1960, the country underwent many governmental changes and is now a semi-presidential republic. Political freedoms are severely restricted, with human rights organizations noting numerous acts of state-sponsored violence against journalists and other politically active members of society (Burkina Faso, n.d.).

There are more than 60 different ethnicities in the country, and hundreds of thousands of Burkinabé migrate to Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana, many for seasonal agricultural work. Islam and Christianity are often practiced in tandem with indigenous religious beliefs. Even among Muslims and Christians, ancient animist rites are still highly valued (Burkina Faso, n.d.). Burkina Faso is one of the poorest countries in the world with an average income per capita of $300 USD. More than 80 % of the population relies on subsistence agriculture, with only a small fraction directly involved in industry and services. Highly variable rainfall, poor soils, lack of adequate communications and other infrastructure, a low literacy rate, and a stagnant economy are all long-standing problems of this landlocked country.

Courtesy cia.gov

The export economy is subject to fluctuations in world prices, and a large portion of economic activity is funded by international aid. Gold production increased in 2011 at six gold mine sites, making Burkina Faso the fourth largest gold producer in Africa, after South Africa, Mali and Ghana. As of 2004, it was estimated that there were as few as six physicians, 41 nurses and 13 midwives per 100,000 people. Even though the hospital at Ouagadougou is one of the most modern in Africa, in 2007 the mortality rate from HIV/AIDS was 62 per 100,000 (Burkina Faso, n.d.).  With a cost of nearly $100 USD per year, attending school in Burkina Faso is out of reach for most Burkinabé families. Boys receive preference in schooling, but recently more girls been attending school due to a government policy that makes school cheaper for girls and scholarships. The UN Development Program ranks Burkina Faso as having the lowest literacy rate of any country in the world, despite an 18-year effort that doubled the literacy rate to 25 % by 2008 (Burkina Faso, n.d.).

Why Women’s Leadership is Important to Burkina Faso

Country Convener Claudine Zongo acknowledges that Burkina Faso is one of the least developed countries in the world. Poverty is pervasive, with about 45% of the population living below the poverty line. Feminization of poverty is on the increase: more than 50% of women are among the ultra poor, and about 16 percent of all households are headed by women, while only six percent of farms are owned by women. Two of the main objectives of the Government’s policies relating to women’s empowerment are the reduction of women in poverty by 35 percent over a 20-year period and increased women’s participation in the economy.  Women’s access to microfinance is very limited, and households headed by women depend mainly on moneylenders. Most credit funds go to non-poor households with collateral.  There is a need to institute,  coordinate and streamline the delivery mechanisms for micro credit in a financially viable and sustainable way, as well as to increase and strengthen the availability of loans to very poor people and rural entrepreneurs – two groups that are mainly composed of women.

Biography of Country Convener Claudine Zongo

ClaudineAs a young girl, Claudine was sent to live with her grandmother who was elderly and needed help. “I learned many lessons through that relationship which have continued to serve me as I embarked on my professional career,” Claudine says. “Yaba,” as Claudine affectionately remembers her grandmother, was the only surviving child of ten children.

At an early age, Yaba gained social and cultural responsibilities typically granted to boys and men of the village. Yaba’s father decided to provide educational and leadership opportunities for his only child, which resulted in her being chosen to serve on the council of the village and participate in decision making. Yaba’s role on the council was an important one. Her voice was always heard and she developed many skills, which “common” women would never have gained. Some of the lessons Claudine remembers from her grandmother include, “A woman should learn how to do something with her ten fingers,” and as an example, Yaba developed income-generating activities such as shea butter production and distribution. Another key lesson that Claudine remembers from Yaba is, “Communities feed themselves with forgiveness. Never refuse to forgive.”

Claudine was a Hubert Humphrey Fellow at the University of Washington in 2009, where she studied leadership and government policy. She now works with the World Health Organization as Assistant to the Coordinator of the Inter-country Support Team for West Africa.  Along with several other professional women, in 2004 Claudine founded and now leads AProFEn (Action Promo Femme et Enfant), an association that allows professional women to give back to their larger community. These women had the opportunity and benefit of education and training, and through this association, they now provide literacy classes and income generation through microenterprise training to village women who have not had their same opportunities. The association aims to intervene in five sectors:

  • Education – with the objective of aiding scholarship for young girls and acting towards the elimination of adult illiteracy
  • Health -with the goal of improving health of all people, especially reducing infant andmaternity mortality rates and fighting the HIV/AIDS epidemic, malaria, and other diseases
  • Economic Sector -with the goal of reducing extreme poverty and hunger through productive income activities and the self-sufficiency to provide food
  • Socio-Cultural Sector, with the objective of eradicating forced marriage, excision,child labor, and child trafficking
  • Environmental and Water Resource Sector – with the objective of protecting and promoting a healthy and sustainable environment

The Association is fully recognized by the government, and is unique in that its formation did not alienate the men of the village where they have been working, but gained their support.  “The Association made intentional time to learn about the critical ways men communicated and made decisions in the village,” Claudine says. Among these were respectful salutations, appropriate attitudes, the use of conventional expressions and the ability to anticipate feedback from specific inquiries. The Association gained the partnership of one young man who was held in great respect and had a track record of leadership in the village, to assist them in navigating communication among the village men. “Some of the key messages that AProFEn was able to relay included empowering the entire village community by focusing on women and their needs, ensuring men that they are a critical partner in achieving the Association’s goals, and describing success stories and best practices and gently requesting feedback from the men thereby indirectly soliciting their support for the Association’s work.”

Claudine 2The result is that AProFEn gained the confidence of the Village Chief and the Association was granted three hectares of land. The women envision building a headquarters and training center on the land, which will include leadership training for women and education for young girls. The center will also provide support for women to develop and expand businesses with products such as soap, shea butter, woven materials and preserved fruit.  According to Claudine, “This project contributes to the assumption of responsibility for women and children in difficulty, primarily the orphans, widows, women victims of social exclusion as well as the infected and affected of AIDS, and also creates the conditions for the socio-economic empowerment of the recipients.”

Conversation Circle
In the Conversation Circles, we asked the Convener to explore these four questions

  1. What do you care about in your community and in what projects have you participated?
  2. As you engaged in this work, what skills have you used?
  3. What additional skills or knowledge would you like to gain?
  4. How do imagine you might develop these skills?

1. The participants of Claudine’s conversation circle are women who work in different sectors, from health care to the office setting. They all have personal and professional passions that inspire and motivate them to action, to improve the livelihoods of girls and women in Burkina Faso. These participants care about the rights of women and children, education, literacy and keeping girls in school.

2. The participants are very thoughtful about the skills they use in their work and utilize a broad array of values and skills to make positive change happen, including teaching, mentoring and not just “doing for,” perseverance and commitment, observing and identifying an issue, visioning, organizational skills, compassion and use of metaphor.

3. The participants would like to gain both individual skills and skills that will help them in community work. Individual skills focus on self-care, developing personal stamina and motivation to continue their vision, team building and people management. Community focused skills include identifying resources and connecting with those who need it, working within cultural norms or working at the edges of boundaries to expand them, helping women become financially independent, project management, resource mobilization, mutual win strategies and partnership development, evaluation and monitoring, and helping those who suffer from a lack of rights, access to education and living with dignity.

4. The participants will seek to develop these skills by strongly advocating for capacity building work through the results of programs and projects, such as combating women’s illiteracy by increasing literacy by 10%. Sharing experiences and best practices learned with other communities and building a collective of learners as well as motivating people to commit around and across common objectives, will assist in the development of these skills. Most importantly, taking an approach of mutual respect, humility, consideration and open-mindedness, without imposing dominating views, rather providing suggestions, will build their own capacity.

Kitchen Cabinet Letter to Claudine:

Chére Claudine,

It has been a pleasure to partner and learn with you. As I was reading the stories you shared with us from your first conversation I couldn’t help but notice your passion and that of the women you work with. I wanted to know more and learn how the stories continue to cheer you on or lend you a shoulder and helping hand. Your conversation was a starting point to bring your stories together with those of women around the world and to see that underneath it all, we are all alike. And we are working to make this world a better place than we found it.  You are all doing incredible work and I am very excited about the connection we have started to create. You are an inspiring and courageous woman, to not only see where obstacles are, but to provide a way for your community to get past those barriers and become self sufficient and thrive rather than just to survive. Thank you for all that you do and being part of this conversation and to expand my personal horizon of what is possible and what is needed. I look forward to long and lasting partnership and friendship.

Ton amie,


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