Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Tostan Change Makers Share Insight with Orchid Project and DFID Minister

Earlier in the month Rt Hon Stephen O'Brien MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development in the UK, accompanied Tostan partner Orchid Project on a visit to the Tostan office in Dakar, Senegal. Following an opportunity to speak with key community members who enacted positive change in the first Tostan communities, Orchid Project Founder Julia Lalla-Maharajh wrote about the moving experience they shared in this blog post.

This post originally appeared on Orchid Project's blog on December 1, 2011 and is reproduced with Orchid Project's permission. To view the original post on the Orchid Project blog, click here.

“I see you as social evolutionaries.” ~ DFID Minister to Senegalese community members working to end female genital cutting

This morning, we welcomed the Rt Hon Stephen O’Brien MP to Tostan’s offices in Dakar in Senegal. He is pictured here with community members who told him in eloquent and articulate terms how it is possible to end female genital cutting.

Duusu Konate

Duusu pictured second left in the photograph talked about the Tostan approach and how participants in their respectful community empowerment programmes learn about their human rights. She outlined all of the things that communities learn: to read and write, about health issues, income generating activities and how to manage them. Her village had identified the need for a health hut and built and stocked it themselves. She also told the minister that she is now a solar engineer who installed solar power in her village whilst training others in her community.
But most of all, she emphasised that villagers now understood that they had a right to be free from all forms of violence. They also know that they have a responsibility to uphold this right – that no one should harm or be harmed. This was the first step in understanding why FGC should be ended.

Marietou Diarra

Marietou then talked about “the tradition” – which is how she refers to FGC. She said that she had had many problems as a direct result of FGC. “Really, I have had many horrible things happen.”

Marietou outlined her story and told of her two daughters who died from the practice. She spoke with such dignity and halfway through her testimony, she started to cry with the memory of the moment. I was sitting next to her and found my emotions hard to keep in check. This is the first meeting Ministerial meeting that I have participated in, where I have been in tears. For those who would like to learn more, I would encourage you to watch Marietou telling her story in full here to Molly Melching.

 In spite of how greatly Marietou was affected, when Demba Diawara (see below) came to her village to start discussing FGC with other villagers, she walked away. The tradition was so strong that she was unable to question it. Three times, she and others refused to listen to Demba.

Demba Diawara

Demba spoke about social networks and how when the villagers from Malicounda Bambara first came to him to say that they were having difficulty having chosen to stand up and abandon on their own, he realised that he had to reach out to his “wider family.” It transpires that this is really a very wide family! Family members link through different villages right across Senegal, but in the first instance, he “put on his shoes” and walked to 12 other villages. On 14 February 1998, the first community declaration was held.

Molly Melching, Founder of Tostan (pictured below with the Minister) told of how it was really that first village of Malicounda Bambara, but also Demba’s wisdom and that of other community members that allowed Tostan to understand how to really spread the abandonment of FGC – which now has led to over 6,200 communities choosing not to cut their daughters. It is entirely possible that Senegal could have ended this practice completely by 2015.

Oureye Sall

Oureye (pronounced Wari) opened her discussion by saying: “I was the one who practised cutting. It was the only job I knew.” She went on to outline that it was only once she had participated in the Tostan programme that she realised the real consequences. She learnt about germs: that they are invisible and that they are transmitted; she learnt that tetanus is a killer and that it was not the spirits that were causing girls to die.

Oureye had never had any formal education. She was married at the age of 14 to a man who was 55. Her only income had come from FGC. When she realised the harm she was doing, she decided that “peace and wellbeing of girls was more important.”

She also went to her imam and asked if religion said that FGC was required. The imam answered that: “Around you are many Wolof communities. They are religious people. Yet they do not practise FGC. What do you think?” From this, Oureye realised that religion did not play a part in FGC.

Overall, we hope that the Minister was impressed by his visit. We believe that our group represented the most important voices, those of the community. From my part, as a representative of a UK NGO and as a British citizen, I was quietly delighted that our political representative was able to listen to such an important message, in such a positive way.

We look forward to all working together towards an end to female genital cutting and making connections like these, I hope, are one of the respectful ways we can do this.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Forbes Magazine Names Molly Melching One of the Most Powerful Women in Women's Rights

As a follow up to Forbes Magazine Power Women List, Half the Sky authors Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn named Molly Melching, Tostan Founder and Executive Director, one of the top ten women who empower other women worldwide. Listed among women such as Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton, Melching is honored for her work to ensure respect for human rights.
To see full list, click here.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Championing Human Rights: Celebrate Dec. 10, Human Rights Day

“We are ready to…collectively seek the respect of human rights,” Gambian youth Fatou Baldé stated confidently to a crowd of over 170 in Basse, The Gambia. In a five-day awareness raising event that culminated in a march through Basse to draw attention to human rights, Fatou and other youth from throughout The Gambia’s Upper River Region shared with peers, family members, community leaders and government representatives the utmost importance of human rights for all.

This Human Rights Day let us celebrate the determination of those, like Fatou, who are bringing human rights to the forefront of discussion in their community.

Click here to read more about the recent human rights awareness events led by Gambian youth.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Gambian youth encourage leaders and communities to "practice what you know": Part II

Story by Alisa Hamilton, Program Assistant in Dakar, Senegal, and photography by Elizabeth Loveday, Regional Volunteer in The Gambia

After five days of visiting communities and spreading awareness about youth rights, the youth caravan buses arrived in Basse for the final march to the Governor’s Residence of The Gambia’s Upper River Region (URR). The theme of the final day of activities, Kalong ka baara or “practice what you know” in the local language of Mandinka, captured the enthusiasm of the young people. They recognized that with their new found understanding of democracy and good governance, problem solving processes, and health and hygiene, came the responsibility to implement that knowledge.  Their hope for the final day of the caravan was to instill that same sense of responsibility within their local government.

Participants arrive in Basse, The Gambia
 for the final day of the youth caravan
As honking horns announced their arrival, participants spilled out of each vehicle and joined together at the Tostan office. The atmosphere was alive with excitement. Groups of girls in colorful fabric and matching white caravan shirts danced while waiting for the festivities to begin. Nearby Tostan supervisors began organizing people into lines and handing out large banners that read “Allow me to choose my husband when I turn 18” and “Child protection is a responsibility for all.” Once assembled, the group began their march through the town of Basse. Supervisors on noisy motorbikes and a marching band of teenage boys playing The Gambian national anthem led the mass of people along Basse’s main road. Crowds formed on the sides of the street to witness the celebration.

Youth participant Fatou Baldé reads the manifesto
out loud in Basse, The Gambia
Upon reaching the governor’s residence, those holding the banners formed a large semicircle creating a powerful scene of young faces and written text. They then presented a manifesto. Read aloud in English by Tostan participant Fatou Baldé, the manifesto demanded action and support on the part of community members, local leaders, and government officials concerning unmet rights affecting the lives of Gambian youth. These rights included the right to the survival and development of every child, the right to basic education and access to higher education, the right to employment opportunities, and the right to safe recreational spaces.

Basse’s assistant governor, Mohamed Salu Diallo, responded to Fatou Baldé’s reading of the manifesto with admiration and respect.  Publically to the impressive scene of young Gambians, he confirmed his commitment to human rights and youth rights stating:
Human rights are undeniable rights and should be enjoyed by all, especially the youth who are our future leaders. Your manifesto has outlined key issues on the rights that correspond to the responsibilities of youth and their expectations from the government. We will do our utmost best to support you as responsible youth since you are [the] cream of our future society.

Tostan may have initiated The Gambia’s first annual youth caravan three years ago, but today, children and teenagers are the driving force behind this social mobilization event.

Gambian youth on the march to the Governor's Residence
in Basse, The Gambia
Fatou Baldé best summed up the youth caravan when she explained, “as young people preparing to become responsible future leaders, we are ready to disseminate the knowledge and skills we have gained to our peers and collectively seek the respect of human rights that directly or indirectly affect children and adolescents.”

With the success of this year’s youth caravan behind them, young people in The Gambia’s URR have taken ownership of the human rights introduced to them through Tostan’s Community Empowerment Program (CEP) and today, act independently with a strong sense of responsibility and purpose.

Did you miss Part I of “Gambian youth encourage leaders and communities to ‘practice what you know?’” Click here to read about the community discussions the youth inspired during the first five days of the youth caravan. 

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Tostan DC Internship Program Offers Unique, Substantial Experience in International Development

With over 99% of Tostan staff working in Africa, the Washington, DC team accomplishes much with a small presence.  Because of this, interns in the DC office take on an immediate and important role; they are an integral part of our office, working to assist in our Development, Communications, and Operations Teams.

Speaking to her experience, current Communications Assistant Hannah Kramer said: “Daily check-in meetings and joint projects create opportunities for interns to work in collaboration with other staff and teams. I have never felt more valued in an internship.”

If you would like to learn more about the Washington, DC Internship Program, click here.  Ready to apply? Access the application here.  

Please note: The application deadline for Spring 2012 is December 1. 

Thinking of volunteering for Tostan in the field? Tostan Volunteers work in five countries. Visit the Africa Volunteer Program page for more information.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Tostan Partner Sister Fa, Winner of the 2011 Freedom to Create Prize

Award winner Sister Fa, Senegalese musician Baaba Mal and Tostan
Executive Director Molly Melching at the 2011 Freedom to Create Festival.

We are excited to announce that Senegalese hip-hop artist and Tostan partner Sister Fa was awarded the 2011 Freedom to Create Prize in Cape Town, South Africa this past weekend.  This award aims to honor “the courage and creativity of artists, and the positive influence of their work to promote social justice and inspire the human spirit.” Sister Fa exemplifies this courage and creativity as she uses her talent for music as a tool to promote dialogue about harmful traditional practices in her native Senegal, specifically female genital cutting (FGC).

Congratulations Sister Fa!

Click here for more on Sister Fa’s work and the Freedom to Create Prize.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Gambian youth encourage leaders and communities to "practice what you know": Part I

Story by Alisa Hamilton, Program Assistant in Dakar, Senegal, and photographs by Elizabeth Loveday, Regional Volunteer in The Gambia

Today marks a very significant event as it is an opportunity for young people to express sincerely the issues that affect us and solicit everyone to give us support, encouragement, and an enabling environment. As a result of the holistic Community Empowerment Program, we are ready, determined and encouraged to do our [utmost] best to realize the outcomes of the good intentions that the government of The Gambia has for the youth of this region.
                                                                   -Fatou Baldé
                                                                                    Tostan Youth Participant

On October 24, over 170 youth participants in Tostan’s Community Empowerment Program (CEP) marched from the Tostan office to the residence of the Governor of The Gambia’s Upper River Region (URR) in order to bring attention to one thing: their human rights. This visit was the culminating event of the third annual Tostan Gambia Youth Caravan, a five-day event funded by UNICEF. According to Assistant National Coordinator Ansou Kambaye, the objective of the caravan is to raise awareness of “youth rights and the problems youth encounter in their lives” among parents, elders, authorities, and community members.

Caravan participants during the march to
the Governor's Residence in Bassa, The Gambia
Five days earlier, one could feel the excitement as the youth began their march to Basse.  In each of the five villages they visited along the way, an afternoon ceremony was held, which included opening remarks, speeches from youth participants about human rights, a skit, and closing remarks.  Host community members in each village greeted the six caravan buses filled with participants and facilitators representing 73 Tostan villages with singing, dancing and drumming. An audience gathered under tents for the afternoon ceremony, which commenced with words of welcome from the local imam, Community Management Committee (CMC) leaders, and the president of the local women’s group. These remarks addressed the positive changes in the village since the implementation of the Tostan program. Marième Diambo, a CMC Coordinator in the Serehule village of Parai, attested that the CEP had improved relations among community members, “old, young, male and female,” as well as between villages. “This village is open to everyone,” she concluded, “Tostan is the same family wherever you come from.”

CEP participants from Bassendi perform
a play about teenage pregnancy
During the ceremony, youth participants spoke about various issues facing young people in The Gambia. In the Serehule village of Sotima, Tida Waaly warned against the dangers of teenage pregnancy—one harmful and common result of child marriage. She urged parents to let their daughters chose their husbands and allow them to marry only after they turn 18. In Parai, Adje Jawne stressed the importance of registering children at birth because of the benefits of having a birth certificate, including the ability to enroll in school and to obtain an official ID and passport. Fordé Sane also warned against the harmful effects of tobacco, alcohol, and marijuana use. She encouraged her peers to avoid drugs and focus on their studies.

Following speeches by youth participants, host community members performed a skit which addressed education and teenage pregnancy. The Mandinka village of Bassendi performed a powerful play about a girl who is seduced by a young man who offers her money. After having unprotected sex, she becomes pregnant. The girl dies in childbirth because her body is not physically mature enough to deliver the baby. While the animated acting during a scene in which the mother discovers her daughter’s pregnancy provoked laughter, the somber funeral song concluding the play clearly drove home the message that teenage pregnancy poses severe health risks for girls.

An animated play discusses teenage pregnancy
Final words from National Coordinator Bacary Tamba, International Program Officer Mohamed El Kabir Basse, and local authorities brought each afternoon to a close. Mariama Touré, the community health nurse in Parai, stated that the Tostan program compliments government efforts to promote sanitation. She also noted the decrease in the number of cases of teenage pregnancy. Myabi Dramé, the village city chairman, agreed that Tostan has made his job easier. “Before Tostan, it was hard to mobilize people,” he said, “now the [community] meets regularly to organize cleanup days and implement community initiatives.”

Caravan participants and host community members often expressed their enthusiasm for the open communication fostered by the youth caravan. A prominent community leader thanked God that she could stand up and speak her mind to the audience. “Today everyone is discussing issues – youth, elders, men and women,” she shared. “In the past, only men made important decision…now women are involved.”
A youth participant gives a speech
during the afternoon ceremony
When asked how participating in the caravan had changed her life personally, youth participant Tida Waaly commented that the caravan had given her the courage to talk about taboo topics, such as teenage pregnancy, in front of large audiences. She reaffirmed that she would never have had the confidence to do this before.

At night, host communities held celebrations with dancing, poetry recitations, and cultural entertainment. While the caravan schedule was packed, participants did not lose any stamina after traveling from village to village for five days. On the sixth day, they gathered in Basse, URR’s largest city, with as much energy as they had at the start of the caravan for the march from the Tostan office to the Governor’s residence.

Click here to read about the youth caravan’s culminating event, the march to the Governor’s residence, in Part II of “Gambian youth encourage communities and leaders to “practice what you know.”’

Monday, November 14, 2011

Owning Their Human Rights: Molly Melching and Gerry Mackie Discuss Social Change on Wisconsin Public Radio

On November 3, Tostan Executive Director Molly Melching and UC San Diego Professor Gerry Mackie were interviewed by Jean Faraca of Wisconsin Public Radio about the realities of changing social norms and what it takes for a community to collectively abandon female genital cutting (FGC).  The two speakers were guests on Here on Earth: Radio Without Borders, a live radio show broadcast weekly that highlights international movements, world citizens and cross-cultural conversations from around the world.  During the hour long program called “Confronting Female Genital Cutting,” Molly and Gerry talked about the role of men, the importance of language and the basis of education in achieving social change.

Speaking to the process of abandoning FGC, Molly said:

“It’s not really the law, but rather people getting good information, it not being imposed but rather letting [individuals] make the decision and understanding why it was critical for their health and for the well-being of all the girls in their community.  We feel confident that those who did abandon [FGC], have really abandoned, and will not start again” (See minute 7:15).

Click here to listen to more insights from Molly and Gerry in the full WPR interview.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Tostan FAQ: Education for All

In response to a brief profile of Tostan, a reader on the website Goodreads recently emphasized the importance of educating women. A common question asked of us is Why does Tostan’s nonformal education program, the Community Empowerment Program (CEP) engage women and men, girls and boys? Why don’t we focus exclusively on women?

At Tostan, we pride ourselves in being a learning organization, which means that we will make adjustments to our program if a certain initiative or approach is not as effective as we know it can be.

With that said, the first version of the Tostan Community Empowerment Program (CEP) was designed for female participants exclusively. While the program was effective in educating and empowering the women and girls who participated in the program, it also caused some distrust and tension in families when wives and daughters came home with new ideas about rights and responsibilities - ideas to which the their husbands, fathers, and other male family members had not been exposed.

When Tostan facilitators communicated this issue to leadership, Tostan shifted approaches and redesigned the program to include both women and men, adolescent girls and boys. In doing this, male and female participants learned about their human rights (as opposed to only women’s rights or children’s rights) and then in turn became advocates in their communities for the rights of both women and men. This shift has led to a human rights movement that is spreading across West Africa and parts of East Africa. To date, over 6,000 communities in eight countries have publicly abandoned the traditional practices of female genital cutting (FGC) and child/forced marriage because of such community-wide discussions of human rights.

Click here to read more about Tostan’s CEP. To read about how empowered individuals are improving their communities and leading social change, please click here. We feel that the work of our partner communities to date is a testament to what is possible when we move towards a shared vision of education as a right, fully supported for all, by all.


Luzon Pahl Kahler
Director of Administration, Tostan

Friday, November 4, 2011

Tostan and partner organization, the Orchid Project, referenced in British House of Commons debate on Female Genital Cutting

During last night’s adjournment debate in the House of Commons, ministers raised concerns over the practice of female genital cutting (FGC), or female genital mutilation (FGM) as was used in the House of Commons debate, in diaspora communities in the United Kingdom.

Lynn Featherstone, the Minister of Equalities and Ministerial Champion on International Violence Against Women opened the conversation on international abandonment movements by citing the work of Tostan and Tostan partner the Orchid Project. She commended Tostan for its culturally sensitive approach in the community-led abandonment movement in Africa.

The following is a clip from Featherstone’s remarks during the debate:

“I want to talk about abandonment. I recently met representatives from the Orchid Project, who introduced me to Tostan, a non-governmental organisation whose mission is to empower African communities to bring about sustainable development and positive social transformation based on respect for human rights. It takes a respectful approach that allows villagers to make their own conclusions about FGM and to lead their own movements for change. By helping to foster collective abandonment, Tostan’s programme allows community members to share the knowledge. Through this process, entire villages and communities—men and women—have decided together to end FGM. This is incredible work.”

To read the full transcript from last night’s debate, click here.

Former Tostan volunteer Sydney Skov shares her Tostan story on Stirring the Fire

Stirring the Fire, an organization focused on raising awareness about gender equality, connects individuals seeking internship, volunteer, study abroad, and political advocacy opportunities with international organizations involved in promoting human rights and gender empowerment.

Stirring the Fire’s Volunteer Insights series highlights individual volunteers from various organizations and their stories. One of their most recent Volunteer Insights videos features Sydney Skov, Tostan’s Communications Assistant in Dakar, Senegal from January 2010-11. During her time with Tostan, Sydney was involved in various communications projects, including developing social media platforms and website resources for Tostan’s Anglophone and Francophone audiences. In the video, Sydney speaks to her experience as a Tostan volunteer, and describes how witnessing grassroots initiatives and women’s empowerment personalized the connection she saw between gender issues and development.

To view this Volunteer Insights video featuring Sydney Skov, please click the image below.

Volunteer Insights - Tostan from Phil Borges on Vimeo.

In addition, Stirring the Fire also interviewed Gannon Gillespie about his experiences as a Tostan volunteer in Senegal in 2004 and his current role as Tostan’s Director of Strategic Development. To watch Gannon Gillespie featured in an exclusive video interview, click here.

If you are interested in learning more about Tostan's volunteer and internship opportunities and application process, please click here.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Still Four Stars

Even after Charity Navigator revamped its evaluation criteria to include metrics that measure an organization’s financial health and accountability and transparency, Tostan still maintained its 4-star rating, the highest rating given by the independent charity evaluator.

For interesting stats about the Charity Navigator rating changes and links to Tostan’s full report, click here.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Singing and dancing their way to a healthier future

Story by Elizabeth Loveday, Regional Volunteer in The Gambia
Tostan CEP Participants in Tambasansang, The Gambia
Song and dance go a long way in Tambasansang.

Situated just ten kilometers from Basse in the Upper River Region of The Gambia, Tambasansang has over 200 women, men, and adolescents currently enrolled in Tostan’s Community Empowerment Program (CEP).

Class sessions in Tambasansang begin with participants joining together to sing songs about what they are learning and to celebrate their involvement in the 30-month program. One lyric that resonated with me was, "open the door for me for Tostan so that I will have the knowledge." Coming together at the beginning of sessions, which sometimes cover difficult and sensitive issues, fosters a strong sense of unity and shared experience among participants.
Tostan CEP Participants in Tambasansang, The Gambia
put class topics to lyrics and dance
Outside of the classroom, song and dance have also been used to engage community members in various initiatives. One CEP participant, Kaddy Jaigen, told me about a cleaning exercise organized by the Tambasansang’s Community Management Committee (CMC) every Sunday. The exercise, which invites members of the wider community to remove waste from family compounds and village roads, is led by a troop of singers, dancers, and drummers. The troop leads the procession through the roads of Tambasansang, performing songs to maintain the momentum and to motivate others to join.

CMC members have also initiated a penalty tax system, which requires class participants to pay a fee if they do not engage in the cleaning. This money is fed back into the community fund and used to pay for events, activities, and to support income generation projects. The CEP participants with whom I spoke all told me how these initiatives have improved the overall health of people in their community. Also, as a result of the health modules, community members said that now people in Tambasansang understand the importance of taking their children to the doctor instead of relying solely on local medicines.

The Tambasansang Drama Troop performing a play
about the importance of treating malaria
Along with song and dance, drama is also used as a tool to promote positive change within the community. I was introduced to the Tambasansang Drama Troop made up of predominantly young, enthusiastic female class members who hold performances every two weeks at the bantaba (meeting ground), a large open space in the center of the village. The troop presents educational and entertaining plays on topics including malaria prevention, drug abuse, and child/forced marriage. The troop told me that people have been very responsive to such fun performances and accessible messages. Through these productions, passionate youth performers help engage and educate other community members, young and old.

Tostan CEP Participant Kaddy Jaigen
To learn more about how the CEP is impacting the community, I sat down for a more lengthy discussion with CEP participant Kaddy Jaigen. She told me that Tambasansang classes are currently completing the module focused on developing problem-solving skills. As a result, community members now recognize the importance of engaging in discussion and planning together as a unified community. Through the Tostan program, Kaddy Jaigen has seen the community become much more united. People are working together to establish and achieve shared goals.  

One such goal is to build a youth center where young people can receive additional support with their schoolwork. The CMC understands the financial implications of such a project and is already taking steps to raise the necessary funds. Every month they ask that participants contribute a small amount to a community fund. CMC Treasurer Mohammed Kora told me, “we do not have the funds, but we have the desire and we are trying to settle the finances with the monthly contributions.”

Through developing their own community initiatives and celebrating positive change through song and dance, the people of Tambasansang are engaging and investing in their own empowered future. 

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Birth Spacing Makes Inroads in Senegal

Story by Ramatoulaye Sène, Tostan facilitator in Kantora Diassé, and Sarah Harris, Nike Project Manager for Tostan Senegal

Starting in 2008, Nike Foundation funded the Empowering Communities to Empower Girls project in 55 villages in the regions of Kaolack and Thiès, Senegal. Participating communities took part in Tostan’s 30-month Community Empowerment Program (CEP), and 50 of those communities also participated in additional class sessions that discuss gender roles using gender terminology. This story was chosen by project facilitators and supervisors as the best story among all those written at the Nike Foundation Project’s Most Significant Change workshop in November 2010.

Mariama Diop  was a participant in the Tostan Community Empowerment Program (CEP) in her village, Kantora Diassé, when she became pregnant for the fourth time in three years. This time, she became ill and spent most of her time in bed. Mariama was not able to attend most of the Tostan Kobi II classes on hygiene and health. While Mariama was bed-ridden, her husband and the other members of  the household took over her daily household responsibilities, including caring for her three children.

Mariama, a participant in Tostan's
Community Empowerment Program (CEP) 
When the time came for her to give birth, Mariama’s child was stillborn. Mariama was devastated, and her health remained poor. Tostan facilitator Ramatoulaye Sène heard about Mariama’s situation and went to visit her at her home. Empathizing with Mariama, Ramatoulaye brought up a previous class discussion topic: using contraception for birth spacing. Mariama was open to the idea, but she was afraid to bring it up directly with her husband, the village Arabic teacher. She asked Ramatoulaye to bring up the issue with him. After Ramatoulaye spoke with Mariama’s husband, Mariama gathered the courage to talk with him herself. When she spoke, he simply listened, offering no response.

After giving birth, Mariama travelled regularly to the nearby town of Nioro du Rip for post-natal treatment. At her next appointment, she asked for a three-month contraceptive injection. When she returned home to Kantora Diassé, Mariama told her husband about the injection she received. Again, he listened without responding.

Since then, Mariama has been going to Nioro every three months for a contraceptive injection. Her husband gives her the money to pay for the injection when she asks. Last time, he even reminded Mariama that it was time to go to Nioro for her next injection.

Mariama’s husband explained that he had been worried for his wife’s health all along, but he was also afraid that contraceptive injections would prevent her from being able to have children in the future. He felt anxious when he noticed that Mariama sometimes did not menstruate every month. Nodding in response, Ramatoulaye gently reassured him that many people feel worried about these symptoms. She explained that it is normal to miss periods when a woman receives contraceptive injections.

Since her last pregnancy, Mariama has regained her health and started an income-generating activity producing and selling soap. She said that she has never done this before, but that she wanted to have some income of her own.

Other community members in Kantora Diassé have discreetly gone to see Ramatoulaye to ask questions about contraception. One man begged her to convince his wife to start getting the injections. He and his wife already have more than eleven children, and it pains him to see his wife do heavy housework while she is pregnant. He knows that having children was his wife’s pride, but “it is just too tough,” he said, shaking his head, “when you have so many children, you lose your strength. It can kill you. I would be happy to have no more children.”

This same man said that he now brings up the subject of birth control with other men he knows. One time, he gently teased a close friend: “You look like a man who has not had sex in a while!” He used the joke as a lead-in to explain how he and his wife can have sex when they want to without worrying that his wife will get pregnant. His friend asked him to convince his wife to start going for contraceptive injections, too.

Fatima Thiam, Head of Social Mobilization for the Community Management Committee, observed that prior to the start of the Tostan program, she was one of only two women in Kantora Diassé who went to Nioro for contraceptive injections. A nurse in Nioro convinced her to start the injections after she gave birth to two sets of twins, three of whom died. Since then, her health and strength are much improved.

Fatima explained that before the Tostan class, “people used to say that you should let a child come – you should not prevent a child who wants to be born from coming.” “Tostan opened our minds,” she said.

Now, Fatima estimates that there are 80 women in the village of Kantora Diassé who go to the clinic for injections every three months. She explained that some learned about birth control methods in class, and each husband and wife who gains experience and knowledge shares it with others. Fatima and Ramatoulaye have each spoken with only a few people, but their efforts have sparked further discussion about contraception and birth spacing.
Community Empowerment Program (CEP)
 classes in Kantora Diassé, Senegal

Still, barriers remain for some community members. Mariama and Ramatoulaye are concerned about the health of one of their friends and think that she would benefit from using contraceptive injections for birth spacing. However, each time they bring up the subject, their friend begins to cry because she does not have the money to pay for the injections. Nonetheless, even the village chief of Kantora Diassé has noticed a significant difference within his community. Before the CEP program, birth spacing was not openly discussed, and most women were afraid to try it or even to bring up the topic with their husbands. Now, using contraception to space births is a common practice in the village, with support from women, men, and traditional and religious leaders.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Outstanding Supporter: Couple Donates Wedding Registry to Tostan

Story by Elizabeth Clay, Development Associate

The couple at their Michigan wedding
Krista and Serge Badiane, newlyweds living in Michigan and enthusiastic Tostan supporters, have been celebrating their marriage for over a year. The couple eloped in May 2010 hoping to avoid a big ceremony and gifts. "That didn't really work out for us," said Krista. "We both have large families and everyone wanted to celebrate with us." Instead, their marriage celebration has taken them from Michigan to Senegal and back.
Serge, a native of Dakar, and Krista, of Michigan, met in a graduate class about sustainable development in Senegal at the University of Michigan's School of Public Policy. Coincidentally, Krista had also studied abroad in Senegal in 2001, the same year that Serge came to the U.S. as an undergraduate student at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. It was through this class at the U of M, which included a ten-day visit to Dakar, that they first learned about Tostan's work and were impressed by the program and model.

Celebrating at Gorée Island off the coast of Dakar
 As part of their wedding celebration in Senegal, Serge’s family and friends planned a Yendoo, a day-long traditional celebration with food, drumming and dancing, for New Year’s Day 2011 and a reception at a local hotel, Hotel Océan, the following day.

For their Ann Arbor ceremony, which took place in late August, they asked their guests to donate to Tostan in lieu of giving gifts.

"We wanted to do something that would have an impact and something that was connected to Serge and his side of the family," Krista said. "Our guests were really positive and supportive. It was great to give a gift that will keep on giving and that others can pass along in some way."

Friday, September 30, 2011


An organization is nothing without the passion and dedication of the team of individuals behind it. Tostan is comprised of talented, committed people ranging from community leaders to organization directors, Community Empowerment Program participants, volunteers and interns to donors and project partners. Each individual contributes his or her unique personality and skills to further the work of Tostan, thus creating a dynamic environment in which positive change can take place.

We would like to highlight the diversity of interests, talents, and backgrounds within the Tostan team here on the blog in a series entitled Voices of Tostan. Specifically, we will explore what brought each unique voice to Tostan and why Tostan’s efforts to bring about positive social change are significant and meaningful to each individual.

We hope that readers, in turn, will share with us what brought them to Tostan and what inspires them. To submit your own Voices of Tostan post, please write to commsassistant@tostan.org. We look forward to hearing from you!

Our most recent addition to the Voices of Tostan blog series comes from John Graves. Mr. Graves has been a global adventurer for forty years, visiting more than 80 countries around the world. He has sailed across the Atlantic and Pacific, driven across the Sahara, Taklamakan, the Rub’ali-Khali and the Namib. He has been an independent financial advisor for 28 years.

Pay It Forward

Story by John Graves 

Driving across the Sahel towards the deep desert of the Sahara is a voyage in time, back several centuries in human culture. You survive the desert. The people who live there survive in their own manner. It is a manner quite different from the 21st century lifestyle of comfort and ease many of us enjoy here in the US. Some of us grumble about politics, about the economy, about the price of gas. In the Sahel, the vast emptiness of the sand seas can exact a cruel price on change - survival itself. In this environment we visited incredible villages steeped in time, where customs haven't changed for many generations. The people are predominantly Muslim. Emerging from the sands of the Arabian desert, Islam spread quickly across Africa. Little has changed in the intervening 1300 years.

Women had a place, a very defined place, in desert communities we visited. I was traveling with a woman, an Australian doctor. We were told to leave - escorted by the gendarme in one instance - from more than one village along the edge of the Sahara in Dogonland in Mali. Why? She, an outsider, was teaching the village women, in French, the health hazards of FGM, female genital mutilation. Everyone, even the women had a strong, visceral reaction to the message we brought. Indeed, the extraordinary lengths to which the women of the villages would go, just to get us to leave, frightened us. At moments it seemed the gendarme was as much protecting us from angry, offended women as evicting us from a tribal hinterland. We were shocked, scared and angry at their reaction.

Upon my return to the States in 1991, I did some research. I had lived in the Middle East for several years, so the culture of Islam was not foreign to me. I had seen many of its faces, or at least those faces exposed partially, willfully, to Western eyes. I knew the limits. We had clearly trespassed. I am not a cultural apologist, accepting every culture as equal - far from it.Yet, I also know to stand back and observe, if not admire, when in other lands, when with other peoples. I also knew that someone, somewhere, might be having success in working on this issue.

My research led me to a few NGOs that worked with the people of West Africa, namely The Peace Corps, The White Fathers, The Nomad Foundation, and Tostan. I gravitated to Tostan. Perhaps a few of the reasons are obvious: my experience, the people, the desert lifestyle, the French cultural overlay. The reasons were deeper. This NGO took matters deeper. They spend three years in a village, melding local teachers into the life there, engendering trust with honest, hard work. They do so with little overhead; an incredibly small amount of what you give goes to administration, particularly considering how much they do, how much they accomplish.

When I married, my wife and I adopted a village, then another. I recommended, along with others, Tostan to the Hilton Prize committee. They eventually awarded it to Tostan in 2007. We have been donors of choice to Tostan, with pride, for many years.

The importance of tithing was instilled in many of us Baby Boomers. We learned it from our parents and grandparents along with the habits of frugality, savings and debt avoidance. Most Boomers live these habits each day.

Tostan does as well. Today they run their Community Empowerment Program, which includes lessons on human rights, hygiene, health and literacy, in eight African countries. For more than 20 years they have affected the lives of millions of Africans to "tostan,' or 'breakthrough.' Using local customs, language and experience the indigenous teachersencourage each community to come forth into its own empowerment. Women's health and hygiene, pre and post natal care, and education for adults and adolescents are at the forefront of their efforts. Sustainable economic development is also integral to Tostan's efforts. The Solar Power Projectis an example.

To this end, I have devoted a portion of the sale of mybook, The 7% Solution, to be published in February, to Tostan. Fifty percent of the net proceeds from its sale will be given to Tostan and The Ojai Foundation.  In addition, the voluntary subscription fee to the website http://www.theretirementjournal.com/ is a simple contribution to Tostan. I have chosen to support their Solar Power Project with a matching gift of $5,000 for subscribers. I hope to build on these gifts with their success.

Note: The opinions expressed in the Voices of Tostan blog series are those of the individual author.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Inspiring Moments from the CGI Annual Meeting Captured on Film

Attended by heads of state, chief executives of companies, and global changemakers, including Tostan’s Molly Melching and Gannon Gillespie, the Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting serves as a forum for invested people to share ideas and make commitments to effect meaningful and lasting change in the world. Following this year’s meeting, which took place in New York City, September 20-22, CGI collaborated with Micro Documentaries to create a short inspiring video that shares pivotal moments and commitments made at the meeting. Watch the video below and see Molly make two cameo appearances!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Vote for Tostan and Molly Melching today!

Tostan Founder and Executive Director Molly Melching is one of the five finalists for the Guardian International Development Achievement Award, which honors unsung heroes working to alleviate poverty worldwide! You will decide the winner through public voting on the Guardian website going on now until October 2nd. Celebrate and support the effective work Molly and Tostan are going to create positive change in Africa by voting for her here!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Supporting with Style: Carlyn Ring Finds Unique Way to Give

Story by Elizabeth Clay, Development Associate

Carlyn Ring, a long-time Tostan supporter, spent part of her summer fundraising for the organization at the annual Arts Festival in Ketchum, Idaho in July.

For three full days, Carlyn tirelessly manned a tent decorated with colorful hand-beaded necklaces hanging from clotheslines and a framed sign telling visitors about her cause. Carlyn hand-made the necklaces, registered for the fair, and sold her craft all in order to support Tostan. She even handed out flyers and shared information about Tostan’s work in Africa with each passerby.

"Hundreds of new people now know about Tostan," she said, "and many of them told me that they thought it was a wonderful cause."

In preparation for the fair, Carlyn spent hours beading over 135 unique creations, 60 of which she sold over the summer. “It was a time consuming project, but I was happy to donate my time to Tostan,” she said.

Since the event, Carlyn has displayed the remaining necklaces in her home, continuing to raise awareness and money for Tostan among visiting friends.

Carlyn began supporting Tostan over ten years ago, after going on safari in Kenya and learning about female genital cutting (FGC). “I decided it was time to get involved,” she explained.

After learning about Tostan through a friend, Carlyn contacted Tostan Founder and Executive Director Molly Melching to find out how she could help. She has been a member of the Tostan family ever since.

"Carlyn is one of Tostan's most fervent and dedicated supporters," Molly said. "Her efforts to share Tostan's work with others is truly inspiring and I can't thank her enough for all she's done for Tostan over the years."

For more information about Carlyn’s necklaces, please email info@tostan.org.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Education First! A Tostan participant chooses education over child marriage

Ayset Diallo, a 14-year-old girl from the village of Diamwély Peulh, Senegal, received three marriage proposals over the course of a few months. With her family’s support, Ayset rejected each suitor. Like other young girls living in the Kaolack region of Senegal, Ayset wants to get married when she is ready and to invest in her own future by continuing with her education.

Ayset and her parents
Ayset and her family are participants in Tostan’s “Empowering Communities to Empower Girls” project, also known as CEP+. In partnership with the Nike Foundation, the project focuses on improving the lives of rural adolescent girls in the Kaolack region of Senegal through the implementation of a modified version of Tostan’s Community Empowerment Program (CEP). With classes centered on human rights, health, and social norms, families have a space to openly discuss topics relevant to their lives, like child marriage and education for girls, and to make decision that will promote an empowered future for their daughters.

Click here to read more about Ayset’s story and the inspiring change being fostered through the “Empowering Communities to Empower Girls” project.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Mobilizing Change: Tostan participants featured in TrustLaw report on child marriage

Three former participants in Tostan’s human rights-based education program, the Community Empowerment Program (CEP), from Keur Issa, Senegal were featured in a video and series of articles on TrustLaw earlier this month. These articles and video are part of a TrustLaw special multimedia report on child marriage. This report aims to increase people’s awareness of the realities of child/forced marriage and to highlight those who are working to end this practice.

Click here to read more about these inspiring changemakers.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Dakar Suburbs Prepare for a Brighter Future

Story by Eliane Luthi Poirier, Communications Assistant in Dakar, Senegal

Guediawaye is far off the tourist radar. In this suburb of Dakar, residents live in cramped, spontaneous housing with little or no sanitary infrastructure. Many of them have come from other regions of Senegal in hopes of better economic opportunities.

During the rainy season, flooding is a daily reality here. Mosquitoes breed in the stagnant waters and water-borne illnesses proliferate. Upon arriving in the Medina Gounass neighborhood, I was brought to the water retention basin that the Senegalese government had created in hopes of alleviating the problem of flooding. The wired fencing around the basin had been broken and we saw children playing in the reeds lining the stagnant water.

Through the generous support of the Rapidan Foundation and the Epstein Family, Tostan has been working in Guediawaye since 2008. It’s the only neighborhood of Dakar where our Community Empowerment Program (CEP) is run (though we are running the program in Dakar’s prisons). The 30-month program is now coming to a close, and the 100 participants – all women – are preparing for their future.
I asked Nogoye Dieng, the coordinator of the Community Management Committee (CMC) of Medina Gounass II, whether Tostan’s program had responded to the specific needs of the residents here.
Nogoye Dieng, the coordinator of the
Community Management Committee of
Medina Gounass II
One of the great successes of the program, she said, was ensuring the local children went to school. “Before, people didn’t have papers here. Parents couldn’t sign up their children for school because the children didn’t have birth certificates. Now, when a child is born, his/her parents make sure to obtain papers.” Because of this, she explained, the number of children attending school has shot up.

CEP participants contributing a weekly sum
to their community fund
The other success story, she told us, was the establishment of a community fund and the teaching of income-generating activities, including soap making, the grinding of grains, beadwork, sewing and dyeing fabrics. The head of these activities, Marieme Fall, is blind. As the president of a regional association of the blind, she has much experience conducting income-generating activities for the members of her association. She may need help to find her way around, but her sharp wit and her long experience in the field commands a high level of respect among her fellow participants.

The community fund operates on the principle of solidarity, or jappal ma japp. Every Monday and Thursday, the group meets and each member makes a fixed contribution to the fund. The money is then given to one participant, on a rotating basis, and she invests the money in her income-generating activity.

Awa Ndiaye, a youth participant in the
program, has learned to read and write in Wolof

Half of the participants in the program are teenagers and young women. Many of them have come to Guediawaye to work as domestic workers. Awa Ndiaye was one of them. She told us she used to walk in front of the Rapidan Centre on her way to work and was curious to find out more. Now, after attending the program, she can read and write in Wolof. When she goes back to her home village, she said with pride, she can teach her family what she has learned. A fun part of the program, she added, was learning how to use her mobile phone to send text messages.

Today, Medina Gounass is celebrating all that they have achieved over the past three years at a social mobilization event. Music, animations, skits and games are all part of the festivities. A young girl is called up to recite the pillars of democracy. Not missing a beat, she lists all that she has learned in program.

Despite the festive mood, Nogoye Dieng admits her CMC has encountered some difficulties on the way. Storage space for the couscous the women grind is one of them. She would also like official certification from the Institut de Technologie Alimentaire as a marker of quality for the couscous.

What are her CMC’s plans now that the Tostan program is over?

“To me,” she said with a smile, “the program has only just begun.” 

Monday, July 18, 2011

Tostan on PBS Religion and Ethics Newsweekly!

On July 15th, Tostan was featured on PBS Religion and Ethics Newsweekly! PBS crew members Fred de Sam Lazaro, Tom Adair, and Nikki See traveled to rural Senegal to profile the abandonment of female genital cutting (FGC) among communities with which Tostan partners.

Discussing the unprecedented number of communities abandoning harmful practices, Molly Melching, Tostan’s founder and executive director, said: “Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that I would be sitting here years…[after the first public declaration], 13 years later, saying that 4,792 communities in Senegal had abandoned. In the beginning it was just unthought of, unbelievable, because it was so taboo.”

In 1997, 35 women in the village of Malicounda Bambara declared their abandonment of FGC and other harmful traditions upon learning about human rights and the negative effects of these practices through Tostan’s Community Empowerment Program (CEP), a human rights-based education program. From that first declaration, the movement has grown to include over 6,000 communities in six African countries.

The PBS crew was hosted by two communities involved in Tostan’s CEP. During their visit they met with CEP participants and Tostan team members as well as attended a CEP class, a community meeting, and a film screening. Tostan is currently collaborating with communities in eight African countries.

Click here or the image above to watch the PBS spotlight of Tostan!

Monday, June 27, 2011

Exclusive Article on Molly Melching in the Financial Times

Molly Melching, Tostan’s Founder and Executive Director, was featured in the Financial Times article “Turning Senegalese” on June 24, 2011. Interwoven within Melching’s personal journey to Senegal, the author, Candida Crewe, discusses the development of Tostan’s unique approach to creating positive change in African communities. She describes how Melching founded Tostan in response to the development initiatives she saw fail when outsiders acted without properly consulting village residents. In contrast, Tostan works collaboratively with communities to equip them with the knowledge and the confidence to realize their own development goals. Today, Tostan’s human rights education program is fostering sustainable development in eight countries in East and West Africa.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Tostan FAQ: FGC vs. FGM

A Facebook contact recently posed a question to Tostan asking about the use of the term female genital cutting (FGC) versus female genital mutilation (FGM) when talking about this cultural practice. Gannon Gillespie, Tostan’s Director of External Relations, responded:

Dear Walter,

Thank you for your question, which is one we have received regularly for many years. Let me begin by saying that terminology around this issue is challenging. Three separate terms have been widely used to describe the practice: female circumcision, female genital mutilation, and female genital cutting. We avoid the term “circumcision,” as it incorrectly implies a parallel between FGC and male circumcision. Unfortunately, all other terms have limitations as well, and fall clearly short of accurately describing this practice—which has four major and infinite minor variations in practice around the world. No one term is truly “accurate”.

But we must use words, and so among these options, Tostan has for over 13 years chosen the term female genital cutting (FGC) based on what communities that are giving up the practice have told us: the term “cutting” allows them to accomplish more than the others because it is less judgmental and value-laden. As a result, the term is more effective for engaging groups in dialog around this practice, and eventually bringing about its end.

Let me be very, very clear. We do not use this term in an attempt to excuse or diminish the impact of the practice. I think anyone who has taken the time to learn about Tostan and watched the testimonies given by Tostan’s local partners, for example that of Marietou Diarra, knows that we are very far from hiding or excusing the real, significant consequences of this practice. Yet despite its serious health consequences, we have found that FGC itself is not done with the intent to “mutilate” a girl. Rather, parents who have their daughters cut want the best for them, and the practice is seen as a necessary step to enable her to be a fully accepted member of the community.

It seems counter-intuitive, but in our experience, if there is a dominant emotion involved in FGC, it is love—because not cutting your daughter risks her entire future. As explained by a former cutter turned Tostan advocate, Oureye Sall, in communities where FGC is practiced, community members will not eat food cooked by a woman who is not cut, will not accept water from her, will not even sit with her. She will have difficulty getting married. An uncut woman is viewed as unclean and therefore unable to participate fully in the community. With these social pressures, if a family chooses not to cut their daughter, they have risked severely damaging her social status. To imply that parents are actually “mutilating” their daughters through a decision made with love and concern for her well-being is unfair to them and risks alienating and offending them rather than convincing them to abandon the practice.

In addition, we have found that many communities do not fully understand the consequences of the practice—the effects of which are not always immediate or obvious, especially in cases of infections, tetanus, etc. Without an understanding of concepts such as germ theory, recognizing the true long-term health implications of FGC is difficult. When communities do get access to this information, presented in ways they trust, they come to understand the harm the practice causes and decide to stop—but if the person bringing these messages begins with judgmental terms, the chance of reaching this breakthrough disappears.

We should remember that all of us, no matter where we are from, tend to greet judgmental outsiders in similar ways. When our beliefs and actions are challenged or condemned by a stranger, we are likely to become defensive; rather than taking their concerns to heart, we view their accusation as an unwarranted and uninformed attack on our character. We certainly won’t feel inclined to change in order to satisfy this judgmental critic; we may even respond by holding on more tightly to the belief or action being questioned. Our experience has shown us that it is dialog and discussion that can lead to change, and dialog requires a relationship of trust and respect. But calling the practice “mutilation” prevents this relationship from developing and invites defensiveness rather than productive discourse.

And, if we take the example of Oureye Sall—who transformed her experience as a former cutter into a source of leadership against FGC—it becomes clear that we must avoid demonizing those who perform the practice. Oureye is not a “mutilator” and villain; she is a hero driven by her new knowledge. When she had cut girls, she did so because the experience and knowledge available to her told her it was right to do so. When she decided to stop and to become a champion of the movement to abandon FGC, it was because new experiences and new knowledge showed her that the practice was harmful and that change was necessary. Tostan’s experience has shown this to be the case for almost all cutters; they are not evil, they do not seek to “mutilate” girls or bring them harm, but rather they are acting based on what they believe is right.

Perhaps most importantly, we should be very cautious in labeling and stigmatizing the girls and women who have been cut. We do not believe it is our place to tell them that they are “mutilated.” As with other victims of violence, we believe they have the human right to self-identify in whatever manner they choose. I have personally met many women who have undergone FGC. Some prefer to call themselves mutilated, others simply “cut”, many others say less, or nothing, as they are not yet comfortable being public about this very private matter. And all of them (even those who themselves identify as “mutilated”) agree: women should be free to choose the term that best defines them, and that the term “mutilated” should not be forced upon them.

In short, our use of the term "FGC" is not apology, nor is it political correctness. It is simple practicality: this way of speaking opens doors to dialog that have led to thousands of communities standing up to abandon this practice, doors that more accusatory language would keep shut. We choose to use language that is working, that community leaders and evaluation data alike are telling us brings real, concrete change.

In keeping with the above approach, I can also tell you that we are not posting this in an effort to "fight" others who use different language. We respect the many differences of opinion on this truly complex subject and the language that accompanies it. We do encourage others to study our experiences, both in relation to FGC and the many, many other areas on which our program works. We hope to continue supporting community-led work in the field to ensure all girls--cut and uncut--have human dignity. These actions are our main focus, and we believe they speak much louder than words.

For those interested in learning more about FGC as a social norm, I recommend that you read “Female Genital Cutting: the Beginning of the End” an article by political scientist Gerry Mackie. The article explains why a program like Tostan’s can be effective in sparking a movement to abandon FGC. The section on pages 277-278 entitled “Propaganda and Prohibition” discusses the results of respect-based approaches versus shame-based approaches to effecting social change.

Gannon Gillespie

Blog adapted by Salim Drame