Photo story: Planting seeds of hope for girls’ futures

September 1, 2023
By Allison McCrave
September 1, 2023
~3 min read

An 11-year-old girl named Ashraf is watering plants in her school’s garden.

In Niger’s arid desert region, the lush green space is like an oasis, with pumpkins and lemon trees thriving alongside plants and herbs.

Ashraf uses a blue watering can to water plants in her school garden in Niger.
Ashraf, 11, waters plants in her school garden.

Meanwhile, in neighboring Burkina Faso, Aminata and Laeticia, both 13, happily tend to neat rows of vegetable beds filled with newly sprouted tomatoes, cabbage and potato seedlings in their own school garden.

Laeticia and Aminata carry gardening tools on their way to the school garden.
Laeticia and Aminata on their way to the school garden.

Separated by hundreds of miles, the three girls have a lot in common. They’re proud members of their schools’ garden clubs, supported by Plan International, where they’re learning how to grow a variety of fruits and vegetables, as well as how to protect the environment with sustainable farming methods, like conserving the soil with compost. And the gardens are helping the girls to succeed in the classroom as well.

“Through gardening, I have learned to love agriculture, and I can understand my lessons better when we are taken to the garden to practice,” Ashraf says.

Mr. Issifi is head teacher at one of the schools in Niger participating in Plan’s gardening clubs.

“Our school garden is a source of pride for teachers and students,” Mr. Issifi says. “At our primary school, it is a real learning tool for teachers, and it plays an educational role by serving as a practical space for lessons where teachers can introduce new concepts and students can develop practical skills.”

A group of boys and girls stand together in the school garden in Niger.
Students tend to their school garden in Niger.

But for girls like Ashraf, Aminata and Laeticia, gardening is more than a hobby or an educational tool — it’s become a lifeline.

Laeticia plants seedlings in her school garden.
“When I grow up I would like to be an agriculturalist, because I like garden work,” Laeticia says. “I would like to help people succeed in their gardening.”

Niger and Burkina Faso are located in the central Sahel, a volatile region currently facing one of the worst hunger crises the world has ever seen. Conflict, poverty, climate change and food shortages have forced hundreds of thousands of families in the area to flee in search of safety and food, including Laeticia and Aminata, who are part of the large population of displaced children at their school.

When food is scarce, girls and women eat last — and least. Gender inequality impacts how food is shared within families, putting food-insecure girls at increased risk of malnutrition and, if they are pregnant, dying while giving birth.

Already less likely to attend school than boys, the hunger crisis has had a catastrophic effect on girls’ education. More than 85 years of experience has taught us that in times of crisis, girls face greater risk of violence, exploitation, trafficking, child marriage, unequal access to healthcare and lost educational opportunities.

To respond to the hunger crisis and encourage parents to keep all of their children in school, Plan created school gardening clubs and school meal programs in Niger and Burkina Faso. Through these projects, schools are provided with seeds and gardening tools, while teachers and students are taught how to grow and produce their own food.

“Because of this crisis, we also noticed that a lot of students were absent from school,” Mr. Ouedraogo, head teacher at a participating school in Burkina Faso, says. “I told myself that if we offer one meal per day, for free, at the school, the parents will agree to send the kids to school.”

A woman prepares large bowls of vegetables, including tomatoes and cabbage.
A school cook in Burkina Faso prepares lunch with the vegetables from the garden.

Plan’s school meal programs are effective both in mitigating hunger and sustaining school attendance. With school gardens, students eat a nutritious lunch, and parents are motivated to send them to school, knowing they will at least be fed there.

Four girls eat their lunch together at the school’s canteen.
Laeticia (far left) and Aminata (far right) enjoy a meal with their friends in their school’s canteen, eating vegetables that they grew in their garden.

Now, the gardens are thriving, and girls like Ashraf are using the skills they’ve learned to start their own vegetable gardens at home. Schools also sell excess fruit and vegetables and use the profits to buy learning materials for students.

“My parents gave me a hose so that I could water my garden,” Ashraf shares. “I tend to it every day when I get home from school.”

Aminata smiles as she takes a break from gardening.
"It’s only since the garden that I’m able to eat vegetables,” Aminata says.

Fabienne Nikiema, Plan’s agriculture coordinator for the project in Burkina Faso, believes the gardening clubs are also helping displaced children like Aminata and Laeticia feel more settled. It’s a safe place where they can bond with their classmates.

“It’s a complete change because at the start, the children were a little sad,” Fabienne says. “And now, when we see them work with the others, we sense they are relaxed, they are blossoming.”

Girls across the world deserve that same chance to blossom into their full potential. When you give a Gift of Hope, like Plant a School Garden or Planting Seeds of Hope, you’re helping to ensure girls like Ashraf, Aminata and Laeticia stay healthy, safe and educated.