Wednesday, March 30, 2011

California Teens Join the Movement for Positive Social Change

Story by Courtney Petersen, Tostan Communications Assistant in Washington, DC

March 30, 2011—In an average middle school class one would expect to hear discussions on the central themes of Romeo and Juliet or the details of the cell cycle. For a group of 43 seventh and eighth grade students from Eastside College Preparatory School in Palo Alto, California, class discussion centered on a completely different subject: gender equality and child/infant mortality.

These students had the unique opportunity to participate in a philanthropy project that gave them the power and responsibility to allocate funds they raised to organizations they felt could make a difference in the world. Through bake sales, information sessions, and other fundraising events these dedicated students raised nearly $5000 to give to organizations they believed in.  

While deciding where the funds should go, the teacher of these young change-makers, Jen Johnson, asked the students to focus on selecting organizations that address the United Nations Millennium Development Goals regarding gender equality and child/infant mortality. The students divided into 10 groups and each chose an organization to research and present to the other students. Of the 10 groups, three chose to focus their energy on Tostan.

After researching Tostan and interviewing Luzon Pahl, Senior Operation Manager at the Tostan DC office, about everything from Tostan’s program model to details about the budget, the students presented their findings and explained to the class why they thought investing in Tostan would make a difference. While presenting, they specifically mentioned aspects of the Tostan model that they truly admire. For example, they discussed how they like that “respect is the base of Tostan’s model and that people have the right to discuss and decide on change themselves.”

After hours of hard work and lengthy discussions, Johnson’s students decided to donate $750 to Tostan. The dedication of these middle school students to create and invest in positive solutions for the global community embodies Tostan’s belief that change comes from the cooperative effort of everyone in the community regardless of age, schooling, position or class.

We thank the students at Eastside College Preparatory School for believing in Tostan’s mission and for supporting work that will create lasting, positive change.

Click here to read this article on Tostan's website.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Running the NYC Half Marathon for African Communities

Story by Cody Donahue, former Coordinator of Tostan’s Department of Monitoring, Evaluation, Research, and Learning

On Sunday, March 20, 2011, I ran 13.1 beautiful miles through New York City's Central Park, Times Square, Broadway and down along the Hudson River to Battery Park in the NYC Half Marathon. The clear skies and sun announced that spring had indeed arrived after a hard and snowy winter.

I didn't come in first place - far from it! That honor went to Caroline Rotich of Kenya and Mo Farah of Great Britain. But, I beat my own personal record by 2 minutes and felt an amazing rush of accomplishment and satisfaction at the finish line. However, it wasn't just that I had completed a personal and physical challenge, it was something more.

I joined hundreds of other runners on Sunday in making my race experience about something bigger than me: helping others in need and running for others who can't. I raised money to support Tostan's work in partnership with African communities. The New York Road Runners partnered for the first time with an innovative new website called Crowdrise to allow every runner to run for a cause. Through their website, supporters could give as little as $10 to support the cause. In total, I raised $135 for Tostan, and all I did was promote my page through a few messages on Twitter and Facebook.

Runners in Sunday's race literally wore their passion on their shirts and sleeves. From Japan earthquake/tsunami relief to breast cancer and cerebral palsy, the spirit of giving permeated the race day atmosphere (almost as much as the sweat!). While I've been involved in Tostan's mission for many years, raising money by running added a new and visceral dimension to my support. I was filled with awesome inspiration as I entered a completely closed off Times Square (the only event other than New Year’s Eve to completely shut it down!) thinking about how running could literally help empower girls and women in African communities.

I hope other athletes will consider using Crowdrise's innovative platform and support Tostan's mission in future races.

Click here to donate to Cody's Crowdrise fundraiser for Tostan. The final deadline for donations is May 31st.


Road Runners

Friday, March 18, 2011

FGC Abandonment is the result; Literacy, Problem Solving, and Community Empowerment are the means

On a recent trip to Senegal, Dr. Richard Besser, Senior Health and Medical Editor at ABC News, met Molly Melching and Demba Diawara, imam and spiritual leader of the Senegalese village of Malicounda Bambara. After speaking with these two change-makers, Dr. Besser recognized the complexity of changing social norms and the benefits of using a holistic, community-led approach─ like Tostan’s─to create positive social change. Continue reading to learn more about Dr. Besser’s insightful look into Tostan’s approach.

Dr. Besser's Notebook: Women's Rights in Senegal
By Richard Besser, M.D.
ABC News/Health
March 17, 2011

"When everyone wears no clothes you don't notice that you are naked."

Demba Diawara speaks in parables. It makes it very hard for me to understand him-- that and the fact that he speaks Wolof, a language native to Senegal. Thankfully, I have with me to translate, Molly Melching, a 60-year old woman originally from Illinois.

Mollie wears a long purple boubou and sunglasses. You might think that she would look incongruous in this little Senegalese village but in fact, I can't imagine her looking more at home anywhere in the world. We're sitting under the shade of a large neem tree talking with Demba, an elderly religious leader about something unspeakable, female genital cutting.

In many parts of the world, female genital cutting has been performed for thousands of years. The United Nations estimates that 3 million girls are cut each year. The practice is most prevalent in parts of Africa. The procedure, usually performed without any anesthetic refers to the ritual removal of part or all of the external genitalia for non-medical reasons. In its most severe form, the clitoris and labia are removed and the vagina is almost entirely sealed. It is a brutal act. There are no medical benefits of cutting; on the contrary, it is an extremely dangerous and often debilitating procedure. Apart from the incredible pain and trauma of the act itself, girls can die from hemorrhage and infection. Complications are often life-long. Women are at increased risk of infertility, childbirth difficulties, and urinary tract problems, the worst being fistula - a connection between the urinary tract and the vagina. Women with this complication continuously leak urine, and many are forced to live away from the rest of the village. Added to all this is the inability to ever have a fulfilling sex life.

For decades, international bodies have condemned the practice and many governments have made it illegal but there is little evidence that these measures actually decreased the number of girls who get cut. In many places it was simply driven underground...

Click here to continue reading full article on ABC News/Health.

Click here to read more about this article on Tostan's website.

Friday, March 11, 2011

International Women’s Day Celebration at the Dakar Women’s Prison

Story by Will Schomburg, Tostan Communications Assistant in Dakar, Senegal

As I arrived at Dakar’s women’s prison, any air of formality I expected was instantly swept away as a smartly dressed female prison guard, tapping her feet to traditional Senegalese music playing in the background, smiled and welcomed me warmly. March 8th marks International Women’s Day, an event celebrated annually at the Liberté VI Women’s Correctional Facility through the support of Tostan’s Prison Project. On this day of music, food and dance, inmates come together to celebrate their womanhood and look to their future.

The Prison Project, which began in the city of Thies, Senegal in 1999, has spread to five jails across Senegal. It provides incarcerated women and men with the opportunity to participate in Tostan’s Community Empowerment Program (CEP), which teaches literacy and numeracy skills as well as facilitates discussions on basic human rights and responsibilities.

Tostan staff dressed in matching outfits at the International
Women's Day Celebration at Liberté VI Women's
Correctional Facility in Dakar.
In Senegalese society, incarcerated women are especially ostracized and often rejected by their families, creating serious challenges as the former prisoners attempt to reintegrate into society upon release. When asked what she felt the biggest difficulty CEP participants in the prison faced, Fatou Faye-Fall, the dynamic and passionate Tostan facilitator in the prison, who tirelessly helped to organize the day’s events, responded, “It’s [reintegration] that they are most worried about. Prisoners know there is a lot of prejudice towards them in society and hope for acceptance and stability in their lives.”

Tostan attempts to address these problems by providing vocational training courses that teach prisoners skills such as hairdressing and fabric dying. These skills will help them to gain financial independence and hopefully ease their transition back into society. The project also provides micro-credit finance opportunities to released participants in order to help them start up small businesses and get back on their feet. These loans are often funded from money other detained women make from crafts and fabric sold while incarcerated.

As I entered the canopied patio where the day’s events were to take place, I couldn’t help but notice the swathes of orange, purple, and turquoise garments. Each woman’s outfit was slightly different than the last - some were simple, others were flamboyant and all were very stylish. The director of the prison shared a few words of thanks with the audience and praised the bravery of all women around the world.

Molly Melching, Tostan’s Executive Director stood up next to speak and encouraged the prisoners, especially on this 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day, to believe in themselves and find hope in their futures. That same message was echoed in the speech given by Robin Diallo, the Public Affairs Officer at the US Embassy in Senegal. When I spoke to Robin later I asked her why she thought the event was important, to which she explained, “Women still have so much to overcome to reach true equality, especially female prisoners who are so unfairly stigmatized. We need to not only highlight their problems but also give them hope for the future… And what a wonderful way to do it!”

The wafting aromas of our simmering lunch and the blaring mbalax hits being played on loud speakers inspired the prisoners to jump to their feet and dance. They were soon joined by members of the Tostan staff keen to join them in their celebration. Soon after, the director of the prison, Agnes, reappeared. Removed of her dark green suit, she wore an outfit of the same material as the inmates in a show of solidarity. Agnes jumped to the dance floor, encouraging others to join. Soon, prison guards were dancing arm in arm with others around them until inmates, guards, Tostan staff and other guests danced together, regardless of rank or age, in a wonderful, energetic blur. Hardly anyone by this point could stay seated and even I bobbed along to the great Youssou N’dour.

Following a delicious and highly filling traditional Senegalese lunch we sat back down to watch a variety of dramatic skits performed by the detainees that dealt with issues such as HIV/AIDS and other social concerns. Though dealing with difficult subject matter, they were able to address these issues with humor and flare, to the delight of the audience. At the end of the day, the joyous and eye opening celebration was rounded off by more music, poetry, and heartfelt words of thanks from the inmates.
Blog adapted by Salim Drame