These women, led by Grace Dotou-Aboh, began their business, Qui Dit Mieux?, in 1996. They collect plastic bags littering Benin's streets, clean them and transform them into beautiful purses, bags and dolls. The group has received international recognition for raising environmental awareness and for teaching women skills -- and independence.
Role models like Dotou-Aboh are important for young girls in Benin because old laws and tribal customs are oppressive for women. A wife often is considered to be inferior to her husband, according to Y-Press interviewees, and Beninese culture accepts domestic abuse. In the workplace, women may be seen as unable to handle finances or leadership roles. Customary mindsets perpetuated by child marriages, child prostitution and polygamy present barriers for women, according to a 2006 U.S. State Department report on human rights.
"I would never vote for a woman," said Christophe Glectohvi, 15, who lives in a small village. "Because when a man gives an order to a woman, the woman must obey. Because the woman belongs to the man when she is his wife and she is under his roof."
Despite such thinking, change has begun.
The Women Lawyers' Association of Benin, created in part to promote women's rights, worked with other groups to develop the Code of Persons and Family. This law, passed in 2004, increases opportunities for women, allows property ownership and outlaws atrocities against women.
Women are beginning to occupy high-ranking positions in government, another sign that traditional attitudes about women's roles are changing.
Even the newly appointed U.S. ambassador to Benin, Gayleatha Brown, sees this change happening but said Benin still has a way to go.
"I'm impressed by the number of (women) ministers, but in some of the working meetings, you don't always see a cross section of the society," Brown said.
Lack of education plays a large part in dictating female roles. According to the World Bank, only 38 percent of girls complete their primary education, compared with 59 percent of boys.
In a country where young girls are viewed as investments and may attract a wealthy husband, it's sometimes difficult to justify spending money to educate a daughter and not a son.
Chabi Ganni Orou Wianso, 49, a deputy secretary of education, said this mindset is hard to change. If a family is poor, it's hard to justify continuing her schooling if there's a choice between a daughter's education or marriage. Also, boys are more likely to go to school because they're expected to get paying jobs as adults.
"Too often, parents fear that nothing good economically will come if their daughters go on to higher education," Orou Wianso said. "The young woman will simply complete her education and then come home without a job or income. . . . It will change, but we need time."
The government and international groups are sponsoring messages aimed at improving women's status in society. Billboards along Cotonou's streets proclaim "All Girls in School." Motorcycle taxi drivers sport shirts with the same message.
Nongovernmental agencies, such as Women in Law and Development in Africa, sponsor outreach programs to help women and young girls in rural areas. They often have neither the time nor the desire to learn about their rights, or their access to education is limited. So the group broadcasts radio ads featuring prominent, educated women encouraging women to think independently.
For youths, gender roles are changing. Carla Adjibodou, 17, is determined to become a doctor. She is looking into college scholarships and wants to finish her college education before she has a family.
The Cotonou student said she's seen plenty of hard-working women, like her mother, who have set good examples to pursue careers in medicine or government.
"Women are good at taking care of people, like schooling the children. And rearing children is the responsibility of women in our society. If they've been able to take such good care of their houses, why can't they rule a country?"
ASSISTANT EDITORS: Keisha Mitchell, 18; Elisabeth Randall, 17; Chris Reissaus, 17; Jonathan Gainer, 14; and Jessika Officer, 14.