In a country where most girls drop out of school at nine or 10 years old to help care for their homes and families, Viola Vaughn has worked tirelessly to change the status quo and improve literacy amongst females in Senegal.

On March 22, Vaughn delivered a lecture entitled “Teaching Literacy in Senegal” at the C. Walsh Theatre. Vaughn’s lecture was the third installment of the 2010 Civic Discourse series, Literacy and Democracy, presented by the College of Arts & Sciences at Suffolk University and the Boston Athenæum.

Vaughn emigrated to Senegal in 2000 from the United States and is the founder and executive director of the Women’s Health Education and Prevention Strategies Alliance (WHEPSA), which aims to develop strategies to provide different health and educational services to girls in rural Senegal. Through WHEPSA, Vaughn created the 10,000 Girls initiative, a program that was received praise worldwide for helping to educate young girls in Kaolack, Senegal.

According to Vaughn, lowering the dropout rate is crucial for the future of girls in Senegal.

“All I’m trying to do is keep these girls in school,” Vaughn said of her mission with the 10,000 Girls program, adding that out of 60,000 first-grade girls from her region in Senegal, only 500 will graduate from high school and just 15 will graduate with a college degree.

“We maintain three types of girls (in our program). Girls who are failing school, girls who already failed school, and girls who have never been to school.”

Through the 10,000 Girls initiative, which simply began after a third-grader came to Vaughn seeking academic help, a number of programs are available to roughly 2,700 school-aged girls. In addition to learning literacy and other academic skills, Vaughn’s students also have the opportunity to practice being entrepreneurs, as some of the girls in her program harvest and export hibiscus tea while others sew dolls or sell cloth woven from organic cotton.

Vaughn’s other efforts to promote literacy in her region include a traveling bookmobile, which provides children the opportunity to own their first book, even if they can’t read yet.

“You need to increase the access to books at a young age. It allows our girls to develop and possess reading skills,” said Vaughn.

When discussing literacy from the global perspective, Vaughn cautioned about the arbitrary way that people evaluate whether or not a certain country is literate and its impact in linguistically diverse areas like Senegal.

“Literacy rates determine the economic funding given to a country and it depends on what their national language is. If French is the national language of the country and half of the people there speak Arabic, that half is considered to be illiterate,” said Vaughn.

Vaughn showed a short movie that provided an in-depth look at the day-to-day operations of the initiative.

“The main point of the program is that it is run by the girls. They decide what’s going to happen. They decide what will happen and they learn from what they’re doing. I’m really the only adult in the program. The girls do all the work for themselves.”

—by Andrew Clark

Additional Information

Vaughn will be at Suffolk for the week of March 22-26 as part of the Distinguished Visiting Scholars program at the College. Please contact associate professor Mohamed Zatet at or 617-573-8675 with any inquiries.
The next installment of the 2010 Civic Discourse series, “Prison Literacy,” will be held at 6 p.m. on Thursday, April 8th at the Boston Athenæum (10 1/2 Beacon St.), when poet Jill McDonough, Suffolk Professor Steven Spitzer, and UMass-Dartmouth Professor Bob Waxler meet for a panel discussion moderated by author Jack Gantos. Admission is free and reservations can be made starting on March 26 at 617-720-7600.