This blog is written by Odilia van Manen, Her Choice’s programme manager
The name Cotonou appeals to my imagination. It is ‘the mouth of the river of death’, and de facto the capital of Benin, formerly the kingdom of Dahomey. However, upon arriving at the airport with its usual chaos – from searching for the right hotel shuttle and finally taking a taxi anyway – we drive into another loud and crowded African city. Hot and humid. Heavy traffic, constant honking. Mopeds (driven by multiple non-helmeted persons) that manoeuvre between cars and somehow end up not being overrun.
Our car stops at a traffic light. Colourfully dressed people walk besides the highroad. Women confidently balancing loads of goods on their heads. One very young – a girl even. Already a housewife and a mother? Very plausible in Benin, where 32% of girls marry before the age of 18. She turns her head towards our direction and in her proud look I recognize the looks of other girls in remote villages that I was visiting. Tough, smart and vulnerable at the same time. Girls who dream about a future as a teacher, entrepreneur, doctor.
My colleagues from Kinderpostzegels, The Hunger Project and the University of Amsterdam, and myself, as well as our partners from Burkina Faso, Mali, Senegal and Benin, are here for the regional linking & learning meeting of the French-speaking part of the Her Choice Alliance. The results of the Midline Study are promising. Not only have marriages of underage girls been clearly reduced in the implementation areas, girls are also more knowledgeable and empowered, and local communities are motivated to tackle harmful traditional practices, including child marriages, and send their girls (and boys) to school.
Also thanks to the study, we can better point out issues that go less well and require additional focus. During this meeting we want to find out how each of the 19 Francophone partner organizations achieved all those good results. And how they deal with the serious challenges they are confronted with in their countries. Not surprisingly, the question of the day is: what is the key to meeting our challenges?
Washable sanitary pads
Our partners’ secret appears to be a combination of dedication, expertise and inventiveness; they show us how they implement all 6 strategies of the program and build a relationship of trust with the communities. During the 3,5 days of hard work, occasionally interspersed with a Malian rap, dinner in the city and an Afro-rock disco night, we listen, talk and learn a lot.
We gain new insights in the results of the Midline Study: we learn that pupils judge the standards for safety and girl-friendliness of school very differently than teachers and directors – and how they can collaborate on improving them. That comprehensive sexuality education in schools comprises infinitely more than just sex education. That girls make washable sanitary pads themselves and therefore no longer miss school during their menstruation. That boys are involved in that sanitary pad production and thereby stop bullying girls for having their period. That priests and imams explain why we should stop marrying off minors during their services. How a single, local organization can be the impetus for changing the law.
Linking & learning
Her Choice supports communities to take full responsibility for ending child marriage. Local ownership is the key factor to achieve sustainable results. Local organisations, assisted by community networks, women’s groups, schools and SRHR-services, are the implementing actors who ensure that strategies are locally embedded. International and local partners work side by side to generate knowledge and good practice, to support networks and to build on local assets.
Linking & learning meetings like the one in Cotonou form an important element of the program. The members of the Her Choice Alliance all have their own fields of expertise. By working as an alliance they complement each other. Activities to promote linking and learning are realised at local, national and international levels. In order to share knowledge, experience and lessons learnt, and to widen support networks.
The quote of the last day is: unity is strength. Perhaps the most important key. And that is how Cotonou remains in my memory. As the city where we celebrated the collaboration of Francophone Her Choice.
 Koster, W., Miedema, E., Sotirova, A, Pouw, N. & Meyer, P.: Her Choice Midline Study Synthesis Report. Amsterdam, March 2019, AISSR/UvA.
 So many examples, that we decide to combine them to form a booklet. The examples of good practice presented in Benin will be published on the Her Choice website, presumably in August 2019.