This is Part II of a two-part article. To read Part I, click here.

Amidst the overwhelming challenge of addressing sensitive issues like Female Genital Cutting, the organization Tostan works with villages instead of against them.

To learn more, Tatiana and I headed back to Dakar to join up with Tostan employees. Before long, we hopped in the Tostan vehicle with Kalidou, the Tostan National Director of Senegal, and another employee to journey across the country to experience the work of Tostan firsthand.

Well…to experience a fete firsthand. Translation: party.

Yes, I was a little skeptical to hear that Tostan, promoter of human rights in nearly 10 African nations for 30 years, is busy throwing parties. But these are no ordinary parties—they are declarations.

How It Goes

To be a part of Tostan, a village participates in the three-year Community Empowerment Program—facilitated lessons on everything from accounting to health and hygiene to basic human rights. The facilitator comes from the same ethnic group as the majority of the village where he or she is teaching and is therefore familiar with local customs. Tostan hires a facilitator and provides training and support, and the hosting village provides housing, food and a place for the CEP classes to be held with a co-ed group of villagers.

Tostan meeting with local and national leaders, including Kalidou Sy (in green), Tostan Senegal National Director.

In addition to setting up a CEP class, the village forms a Community Management Committee comprised of nine women and eight men. The committee works in conjunction with the members of the CEP class to lead development projects in the village—they’re the link that helps turn ideas and discussions into action.

At the end of three years, some villages decide to hold a public declaration. They usually compose a written statement of how they will uphold basic human rights in their village—how they will move away from forcing girls to marry at an early age and drop out of school, how they will abandon practices like FGC that put a woman’s health at risk.

Once these declarations are composed, well…there is obviously reason to celebrate!

A Big Deal

I walked into the central plaza of the town of Bakel unsure of what to expect from such a grand Tostan “declaration.” People from the surrounding villages began pouring into the city the night before the event—69 villages in total.

These girls are learning about the basic tenets of human rights, including their right to an education and control over their own bodies.

That’s right. In this one area alone, Tostan programs run in 69 villages. At this event, 20 villages were to “declare,” or make their promise to uphold women and children’s rights in their villages as discussed during their three years as Community Empowerment Program participants. The other 49 villages in attendance were all somewhere in their three years of lessons.

Tatiana and I waded through the sea of women dressed in their best, most colorful dresses to the hundreds of chairs and accompanying shade tents surrounding the dirt plaza where drums were already starting. We situated ourselves in a spot barely inside the shade next to a girl with soft features wearing a sparkling white dress.

Meet Mariama

She introduced herself as Mariama from Gouniang. Mariama carries herself with the solemnity of someone much older than her 18 years. Perhaps her critical, attentive disposition is what made her a good candidate for participation in her village’s Tostan class.

Mariama, standing on her chair to watch the dancing.

She may have only attended three years of formal schooling, but Mariama is learning skills now through her Community Empowerment Program that will give her responsibility in the well-being of her entire community in the future. Hopefully, Mariama’s village will be reading their own declaration at an event like this one a year from now.

As the event began, Mariama leaned forward in her chair, soaking up the words of the local leaders as they shared congratulations with the community. She and her classmates listened to the speakers and nodded along, at one point shaking their heads and reiterating, “forced marriage is bad,” to one another in their local language of Pulaar.

What Went Down

Mariama watched over Tatiana and me out of the corner of her eye throughout the event. She even clicked her tongue assertively at me during the prayer to attract my attention and show me the proper way to hold my hands. I flipped my palms up and overlapped my fingers before I caused her any more embarrassment.

Some of the local girls performing a dance for the event. They came in wearing t-shirts and holding signs about ending forced marriage and excision.

As the event went on (and on and on…as is tradition with Senegalese fetes), we watched lively dances from one of the local ethnic groups and listened to poems and speeches, honoring the “positive” local traditions.

Everything about the event built up the local citizens—they came of their own free will to declare a better future for their children and daughters. They publicly declared to respect their girls’ right to go to school, to choose to enter into marriage, and to be free from the dangerous practice of FGC.

The Right Direction

We asked Mariama about her Tostan lessons so far. She told us about her new knowledge of money keeping, hygiene, counting and how now, at the age of 18, she can write her own name. She hopes the lessons will end forced and early marriage in her village.

Although the road may be a long one, Mariama is a part of discussions now that will hopefully create new standards for human rights in her village. It takes a moment to tell someone what is illegal, but it may take a movement, an entire community of heightened consciousness, to respect it.

Diairi, calling her peers and community to action!

We looked around at the event, girls holding signs declaring, “End Excision!” (FGC) in French, and decided we could ask the question.

“Mariama, what do you think of excision?” I asked through Tatiana.

“Not good. It’s illegal,” she asserted (what did I expect?)

But looking around at the entire community—men, women, local and regional leaders—all walking proudly into a collaboration to protect the well-being of their people, I believed Mariama was telling me the truth.

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Next Steps
    • Learn more about the work of Tostan from their website. Help support their work!
    • Interested in learning more about women’s issues around the world? Read the book Half the Sky. Tostan is featured in the section about FGC!
    • Know your rights? Have a look at this simplified version of the International Declaration of Human Rights. Are we upholding these standards in our communities?
    • Pray for the work of Tostan in the thousands of villages where their presence is known.
    Next Steps

About the Author: Laura is a journalism fellow with World Next Door. She graduated from the University of Arizona, Tucson with a degree in Animal Sciences and a minor in Spanish. She is constantly learning, making friends, dancing, and trying to understand her role in alleviating the suffering of others. Laura also attracts a lot of awkward situations.

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Comments

  1. Ope said... 

    Reply

    January 25th, 2012 at 7:59 pm  

    Thank-you for sharing your experience in such a passionate and heart-felt manner! I too feel that true progress in the human rights movement is made when people are given the capability of understanding why it is needed, not when someone tells them it is. Tostan has got it right!

    • Laura Stump said... 

      Reply

      January 26th, 2012 at 8:58 am  

      Thanks, Ope! Yeah, the lessons are really an attempt to facilitate as much as possible instead of dictate.

      A lot of discussions are centered around problems the village is having–in things like health, people will bring up issues that women are having in child birth (maybe fistula or pro-longed labors), which opens the door for WHY those things are happening.

      A lot of it (not all, of course) comes down to issues related to FGC or maybe girls getting pregnant at too young of an age.

      That opens the door for talking about what needs to be done to prevent these problems from happening.

  2. Jo Nading said... 

    Reply

    January 25th, 2012 at 10:27 pm  

    wow. I remember my daughter writing a paper on this topic in College – a women’s “rights” class – it was appalling to us but so culturally significant. I can’t begin to imagine. You’ve done a great job with a tough and sensitive subject. And my goodness…Tostan is amazing. So much that education and a little encouragement can do to change the direction of these villages. Thanks so much for sharing Laura. Bless your hearts for doing deep into the cultural issues…

    • Laura Stump said... 

      Reply

      January 26th, 2012 at 9:02 am  

      Thanks, Jo! It’s definitely an incredible approach to the topic–Tostan is working in about 9 African countries right now. They even receive a lot of support from UNICEF because they’ve been deemed an important partner in addressing FGC around the world.

  3. Lisa D said... 

    Reply

    January 26th, 2012 at 9:37 am  

    Thank-you Laura for bringing this entire subject to light and so thankful that there was a Part II! Praising God for Tostan! As you pointed out, their programs are ushering in beautiful, life-giving change filled with empowerment and dignity! I am sure that it was no less than completely captivating…seeing the smiles of hope and the dances of freedom from those young women and all who came to the celebration.

    • Laura Stump said... 

      Reply

      January 26th, 2012 at 1:12 pm  

      Thanks, Lisa–it was a neat event. It was a pretty standard “fete” with dancing and speeches and drumming, but it was cool that it was to honor such a profound transformation in the community.

  4. Jessica said... 

    Reply

    January 26th, 2012 at 10:35 am  

    I’m also impressed with Tostan’s approach…3 years of building a relationship with an entire village – Getting the men on board – Celebrating the great things while confronting the harmful things. Thanks for bringing us this story!

    • Laura Stump said... 

      Reply

      January 26th, 2012 at 1:16 pm  

      No problem, Jessica! The organization of the whole thing is incredible–after 30 years on the ground, they’ve certainly learned a thing or two :)

  5. Julia said... 

    Reply

    February 14th, 2012 at 5:42 am  

    Laura – thanks so much for this article. Having also been so shocked by FGC when I was volunteering in Ethiopia, I set up the Orchid Project to discover more about why this issue was so silent across so many agencies and organisations.

    My journey is similar to yours, in that I found out about the work of Tostan and went to witness a declaration ceremony in The Gambia last year, with 28 communities. It made me realise the importance of social change and collective decisions taken by the community.

    Have a look at our work here – we’re supporting Tostan and we’re also pushing for more work to be done by others who are involved in the agendas of maternal and reproductive health – http://www.orchidproject.org/blog

    Thanks again for this great story!

    • Laura said... 

      Reply

      February 14th, 2012 at 9:04 am  

      Wow Julia! I just looked at the Orchid Project–how awesome! Thank you for sharing that. I’m happy to know about another group involved in this cause–I’ll be sure to let others know about your work.

      Thanks for your commitment to supporting women around the world.

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