Angélique Kidjo is an African singer. She was born on July 14, 1960, in the city of Ouidah, in what is now Benin. Kidjo sings in many different music styles (Afropop, jazz, gospel, Latin, etc.) and languages, as she is fluent in five. She has received many musical accolades, including four Grammy awards. Kidjo began her activist career in 2002 when she became a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador. She founded the Batonga Foundation in 2006, which focuses on empowering women in Benin and surrounding countries.
Women’s Education and Rights in Benin
Benin is a francophone country located in West Africa. The country gained independence from France in 1975, when its name changed from Dahomey to the People’s Republic of Benin. As of 2020, Benin had a population of approximately 12 million. Beninese people speak an estimated 68 languages with the most common ones being French, Fon, Yom and Yoruba.
Benin’s economy relies mainly on agriculture and trade with Nigeria. It grew by approximately 6.6% in 2021 according to the World Bank. In 2019, Benin’s poverty rate was 38.5%, an 11% drop from 2015.
Beninese women meet obstacles including poverty, familial expectations and forced marriages early in their life stopping them from progressing educationally. Kidjo’s Batonga Foundation highlights that uneducated young women end up married before turning 18. Although the literacy rate among Beninese youth has risen in recent years, in 2018 among individuals ages 15 to 24, males had a 69.76% literacy rate and females had a 51.94% rate. Additionally, young women have often been pushed away from education due to long, inflexible hours unrelenting to girls expected to do housework often. Teachers are mainly male and perpetuate gender stereotypes in their classrooms.
Kidjo founded the Batonga Foundation in 2006, alongside Mary Louise Cohen and John Philips, with the aim of empowering young African women. The foundation is named after her 1991 song, “Batonga.” Kidjo has always been an avid gender equality advocate and recognized the potential of her continent. Growing up, she saw her peers not pursue higher education and work low-income jobs, which is one of several factors that inspired Kidjo to found the project.
Kidjo’s Batonga Foundation primarily supports and invests in secondary and higher education for girls in Benin in multiple ways. Some examples are granting scholarships, building secondary schools and providing mentoring programs.
Among the Batonga Foundation’s goals is empowering young women economically. Young Women Business Circles connect female entrepreneurs ages 18 to 30 with access to a trained business expert, a mentor and 20 to 25 peers. The women receive business and financial literacy help and small business seed funding.
Additionally, the Batonga Foundation hosts 126 Leadership Clubs. The clubs are safe spaces for adolescent girls to meet with peers and gain access to an older female mentor. Mentors at these clubs teach the girls about reproductive health, financial literacy, economic independence and leadership.
Batonga Foundation Accomplishments
In the 16 years and counting that the Batonga Foundation has been in action, it has achieved a significant amount.
Kidjo’s foundation has supported more than 3,000 young women and girls, reaching 15 rural communities. There are 50 Young Women Leadership Clubs, 55 Batonga mentors and 126 Leadership Clubs. Through her hard work in activism and frequent trips to Africa, Kidjo has supported thousands of young women on the path to independence and success.
– Sophie Buibas