DAKAR, Senegal — Dr. Viola Vaughn earned a doctorate in health education at Columbia in 1984. She went on to a long career working as a consultant and educator on a variety of projects in health education and women’s nutrition across the African continent. After the untimely death of her daughter, Dr. Vaughn retired to Senegal with her husband and her daughter’s five children. Shortly thereafter, her husband died. Even with the challenge of raising five children in Senegal on her own, but for the aid of a nanny, Dr. Vaughn began contributing to humanitarian programs in Senegal.
In June 2001, she founded the Women’s Health Education and Prevention Strategies Alliance (WHEPSA). She then launched its 10,000 Girls program to help secure the place of at-risk young women in Senegal’s education system. This kind of work is particularly important in Senegal where only 39% of women are literate, but around 62% of men are literate.
Dr. Vaughn in Senegal
Dr. Vaughn has so far helped more than 1,200 Senegalese women attend and graduate universities around the world. After the program began winding down in 2010, Dr. Vaughn moved to Kedegou in south-eastern Senegal where she has since been working to secure education for disabled children from local villages. Dr. Vaughn spoke with The Borgen Project from her current location in remote south-eastern Senegal about her long career and her thoughts on humanitarian programs in Senegal.
She began by discussing her early career, before her permanent move to Senegal and WHEPSA. She described her consulting work across a variety of African countries as “Going to a community and finding out what certain groups of women wanted and needed and what they could do to get these particular things. It’s about a change from the inside. What they can do locally instead of bringing in things from the outside. What they can do locally to change their situations themselves.”
Humanitarian Programs in Senegal
Dr. Vaughn was very clear on what makes certain humanitarian programs work and certain programs fail. She emphasized repeatedly the importance of having strong communication and connections in the community where the program is supposed to take effect. She has learned from her work consulting across Africa that “people have to understand when you’re going in here, you can’t just look at economics. There’s a reason why people don’t do certain things on Thursday or Friday or Tuesday. There’s a reason why people don’t do things a certain way. Local customs, local history and the local environment play a very important part. Before you do any kind of program or project in a community, you need to find out why the community is going that way before you can decide if you want to implement certain changes.”
When Dr. Vaughn retired to Senegal with her grandchildren, she did not initially plan on launching a humanitarian program and helping thousands of young Senegalese girls attend school. “I had never worked with girls before. I had never been a teacher even though I had several degrees. What I had planned to do was work in making women become independent, setting up small loans and doing small projects that they themselves could realize.”
Girls’ Education in Senegal
The death of her husband put a stop to those plans, however. For a while, Dr. Vaughn was focused on mourning. Eventually, she began homeschooling her grandchildren. WHEPSA and the 10,000 Girls project came along soon after. “There was a little girl in my neighborhood who came to see me. She came to me and asked me if I could help her in school. I told her quite bluntly that I am not here to take care of a whole lot of little girls. I am doing something else. Yet, she kept coming back.
She came back every single day asking ‘Can I go to class with your kids? Can I go to class with your kids?’ Finally, one day Dr. Vaughn asked the girl why she wasn’t in school. The girl told her that “she had failed several classes and she felt that she was going to be eliminated from the school system. I had never heard of this, but I found out that in Senegal at that time if you did not pass your exams then you could be eliminated permanently from the system.”
Upon learning this, Dr. Vaughn went to speak with the girl’s mother, who told her that her daughter was “not intelligent.” Dr. Vaughn responded that “She was intelligent enough to come bother me all the time.” So, Dr. Vaughn agreed to tutor the girl alongside her grandchildren. The next day the girl not only showed up but also brought with her “four other girls. Then she brought 20. And this was the start of our program. The girls started it, I didn’t start it. It came from inside.”
WHEPSA and 10,000 Girls
Dr. Vaughn began to wonder why so many girls were failing out of school and coming to learn with her. So, she did a 20-year study of 60,000 girls in the area. She discovered that of the 60,000 that began first grade, only 15,000 made it to the sixth grade. Of those 15,000, only 3,000 made it through middle school. Of those 3,000, only 300 made it through high school. Finally, of those 300, only 15 wound up receiving degrees. That is a success rate of only 0.00025% for women in the Senegalese education system. She identifies three root causes of this catastrophic failure: “They did not have the place to study, they didn’t have the time to study, and they didn’t have the materials to study.”
As a result, Dr. Vaughn launched the 10,000 Girls program with WHEPSA to address these issues and give girls a place to learn at school and at home. After seeing success with WHEPSA, Dr. Vaughn was approached by a group of girls from south-eastern Senegal who had never finished primary school. While helping these girls, Dr. Vaughn encountered another group of children who had been left behind by the education system: those who had a disability. She has worked to help secure their education ever since. According to the U.N., of the 60 million school-age children who are not in school, around 20 million have some kind of disability.
Dr. Vaughn launched two essential humanitarian programs in Senegal. She ended the interview with a message for everyone, “Especially people who want to work with people in so-called less-developed areas: People will not change until they have expressed the desire to change and they see that change reflected in you.”
– Franklin Nossiter