When Binta found out she was pregnant, she knew she would have to leave her home in southern Senegal.
Pregnancy outside of marriage is taboo in the West African nation and abortions are punishable by jail. The father of Binta’s child was an extended family member, she said, not specifying whether their relations were consensual.
“I didn’t know how to tell my family about this… The family is too sacred,” the 30-year-old said. Her name and those of other women interviewed by the Thomson Reuters Foundation have been changed to protect their privacy.
So Binta made up an elaborate story about finding a job and packed her bags for Guediawaye, a poor suburb on the outskirts of capital Dakar, where a social worker had told her she could find refuge at the Maison Rose, French for “pink house”.
An old court building with pink-painted walls, the Maison Rose is a rare refuge in Senegal for women and girls who have fled abuse, rape, forced marriage and other trauma. Hundreds of people have found sanctuary there in its nine years.
“Anything that can happen in Senegal, we’ve seen it,” said French founder Mona Chasserio, who has given the shelter a warm and homely feel. Most women come to see out unexpected pregnancies and give birth, she said.
Now Chasserio is broadening its impact by including more job training programmes to help the women gain economic independence when they leave. The shelter also teaches community leaders how to handle sensitive cases and guide women toward support.
The Maison Rose aims to help women recover from psychological trauma through music, art, and other types of therapy. The women do daily activities to relax and refocus and when they are ready, begin learning professional skills.
Six toddlers played in the sunny courtyard one morning while their mothers shared stories as part of a workshop. Binta sat across from a 16-year-old girl who was seven months pregnant from rape.
Building economic and social resilience is the goal, said Chasserio, but she believes that peace of mind must come first.
“END OF THE WORLD”
Senegal ranks high in some areas of gender equality, with equal access for girls to primary education and one of the world’s highest proportions of women in parliament.
But in other areas women are disadvantaged and vulnerable. Domestic violence is a widespread problem, abortion laws are strict and child marriage is common, experts say.
Single women have difficulty accessing contraception and often lack basic information about it because it is expected that they will remain virgins until marriage, said Sanou Gning, country director at international charity Marie Stopes.
“When a woman who is not married gets pregnant, it is the end of the world,” she said.
The stigma leaves unmarried pregnant women with few choices. They can tell their families about it and risk being thrown out of the house, or seek an unsafe abortion, which could land them in jail. Many run away from home instead, said Gning.
There are a few shelters in Senegal that will take them in, she said, but not enough for all the girls in need. Many unmarried mothers end up in the streets and are forced to beg.
The Maison Rose takes women to a nearby hospital to give birth and helps with early childcare. In some cases it even brings in the mother’s family to convince parents or relatives to let the girl come home.
“I think it is an initiative that needs to multiply throughout Senegal,” said Marie Sabara, a national programme officer at UN Women, of the Maison Rose.
Many of the women who have left the shelter have gone on to vocational schools, while others have found work as hairdressers or tailors, Chasserio said.
“The problem here is jobs for women are extremely limited,” she added. Women lack a strong presence outside of traditionally female fields in Senegal such as sewing, housekeeping and hair salons.
Chasserio is planning to rent a building next door to expand Maison Rose’s training programmes. She plans to start a store to sell the women’s jewellery and crafts and has an partnership with a local mill so the women can get jobs making bread.
Women who leave the shelter often bring their children back for holidays, she said, and are always welcome to seek advice or provide it to newcomers.
“It’s helped me a lot,” said Fatima, 24, whose mother brought her to the shelter after she got pregnant. She is taking a class in couture at the Maison Rose and hopes to find a job in a clothing shop.
“I came to rebuild myself,” she said.
The shelter is expanding its work with social workers and religious leaders so that they know when women should be referred. Chasserio also hopes to train others in Senegal and across West Africa to start similar shelters of their own.
“Here we see lots of suffering, but you can see (the women) change,” Chasserio said. “It’s incredible.”