Friday, April 22, 2011

Pop Culture Used to Encourage FGC Abandonment

Sister Fa, the Senegalese “Queen of Hip-Hop,” uses pop culture to spark discussion of FGC, a harmful, centuries-old practice. Her lyrics spread awareness of the harmful consequences of FGC and of the possibility of a life free from those consequences. As part of her “Education sans Excision” (Education without FGC) project, she toured through Africa encouraging community-wide conversations about the practice. Here is a video about her efforts.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Element of Faith in the Advancement of Human Rights

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

I sat in my chair, captivated, focusing my eyes on the strong, but kind Senegalese man to my left and my ears tuned to the English translation of his words from the person on my right.

“Human rights are divine rights,” he said. “It’s man’s relationship with his religion that must be reviewed.”

The man speaking, Mohamed Cherif Diop, Islamic Rights Specialist and Child Protection Program Officer at Tostan, was one of several human rights activists gathered at The Carter Center and Women Thrive Worldwide event in Washington, DC on April 7th. This event, hosted by Sojourners, was entitled “A Dialogue on Faith, Belief, and the Advancement of Women’s Human Rights in Africa” and featured an inspiring panel of traditional and religious leaders and women’s rights activists from Senegal, Liberia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Tostan’s Executive Director Molly Melching, Tostan staff from Dakar and Washington, interns, and Community Empowerment Program (CEP) participants from Senegal were all in attendance.

Karin Ryan, Director of The Carter Center Human Rights
Program, welcomed all to contribute to the dialogue on
faith, belief, and human rights.
The discussion that day was a satellite event of The Carter Center Human Rights Defenders Forum, which took place in Atlanta, Georgia a few days prior. Both the forum and satellite event were inspired by a speech given by former US President Jimmy Carter. In this speech he called attention to the fact that throughout history many religious leaders wrongly use religion as a tool to deprave women of their human rights. He quotes a statement by The Elders, whom he is a part of, saying, “the justification of discrimination against women and girls on grounds of religion or tradition, as if it were prescribed by a Higher Authority, is unacceptable."

Stirred by President Carter’s speech and further dialogue at the Defenders Forum, Diop echoed this sentiment at the DC event. Following insightful questions and comments by fellow activists, he made the clear point that human rights are not incompatible with religion, but rather human rights are the very essence of religious belief. He emphasized that human rights are divine rights for everyone, men and women. It is scripture, he argued, that reestablishes these human rights in society, specifically women’s rights, not the other way around. According to Diop, it is the job of men and women to revisit this idea of dignity, equality, and respect taught in scripture and then to use that knowledge to promote human rights in their communities.

Tostan team members at The Carter Center and
Women Thrive Worldwide event in Washington.

In an effort to raise awareness of this point among Muslims in Senegal, Diop compiled a list of Koranic verses that preach equality and profound respect for human rights, specifically the rights of women. It served as a call to his faith community to reevaluate their perception of the rights of all people.

He finished his comments by saying he and the other activists will return to Africa and will “build a critical mass of religious leaders to show [they] support the rights of women…to say religion does support this.” His words were met with an energetic round of applause, the sound itself symbolizing a call to action.

As I listened to the words of Mohamed Cherif Diop and the other determined and sincere religious and traditional leaders from across Africa, I recognized the truth in their statements. Regardless of which religious belief a person prescribes to, human rights make the foundation of that belief. By making religious and traditional leaders key actors in the movement to advance human rights worldwide, safety, respect, and equality for all people will be within reach for everyone.

To read more about the experiences of other human rights activists who attended The Carter Center Human Rights Defenders Forum click on the links below.

Molly Melching, Founder and Executive Director of Tostan

Marina Mahathir, Daughter of the Former Prime Minister of Malaysia and Long-time Columnist for The Star Online (Malaysia)

Friday, April 15, 2011

Afternoons in Samba Tacko, The Gambia

Story by Kirby Tyrrell, Assistant to the National Coordinator at Tostan’s office in Basse, The Gambia

Situated under a mango tree, the shade providing a slight reprieve from the 100-degree weather, a group of 25-30 women were arranged in a circle around a blackboard. Some women carried sleeping babies on their backs, while others held fidgety children in their laps, but all were focused on the woman leading the discussion. She was a Tostan facilitator and I had arrived at a Tostan Community Empowerment Program (CEP) class in the village of Samba Tacko.

Samba Tacko is a village located about four kilometers from Basse, the town where Tostan’s field office in The Gambia is located and where I have been making my home for the past two months. Tostan works in over one hundred villages in The Gambia, all located in the Upper River Region, the region furthest east in the country. Though I have visited a number of other villages during my time here, Samba Tacko always stands out in my mind.

I first visited for purely social reasons. Fanta, a volunteer at the Tostan office, mentioned that her village would be hosting a program that weekend to celebrate a boy’s coming of age ceremony, and I quickly accepted her offer to attend. I arrived that Sunday afternoon dressed in my completo, a traditional Gambian outfit, not knowing what to expect. Fanta quickly took my arm and walked me around the village, where I used my limited Fula language skills to greet her mother, grandfather, friends, and other community members. We wandered back and forth between her compound, where we shared bowls of rice and looked at photographs of her friends and family, and a neighboring compound, where women were making food for the evening’s ceremony.

Due to the inland location and hot temperatures, there is little tourism in the town of Basse. Therefore, when I walk to work or wander around the market, I have become accustomed to stares or calls of “Toubab! Toubab!” (a complimentary term for “-foreigner”). It is not meant pejoratively and does not especially bother me, but in Fanta’s village, sitting among other women as we all relaxed and watched the activity around us, I appreciated the sense of calm and belonging that I had not yet experienced in The Gambia. I quickly felt at home in Samba Tacko and many hours passed before I realized it was starting to get dark and I should be on my way back to my compound.

Arriving in this village for the CEP class weeks later, I was immediately struck by this same sense of comfort. Women that I recognized warmly came to greet me, remembering my name and welcoming me back. It was especially meaningful to watch these same women actively participate in that day’s CEP class and share the new information they learned with those around them.

Tostan has been working in The Gambia since 2006 and has implemented its CEP in 70 Mandinka villages and 40 Fula villages. Samba Tacko, a Fula village, began the CEP in 2008 and will conclude the program in May 2011. They are currently in the Aawde II phase of the program, during which they learn reading, writing, and basic math as they revisit topics previously covered in earlier sections of the CEP, including human rights, democracy, health, and hygiene. 

The class discussion topic for this day was prevention and treatment of diarrhea. One by one each woman demonstrated how to make oral rehydration solution for someone experiencing dehydration from diarrhea, or how to properly wash hands to prevent the spread of germs. Before participating in the CEP, many of these women did not know how to read or write, but now some women read aloud from their lesson books while others wrote on the blackboard. After each presentation, everyone in the class applauded and the women returned to their chairs, smiling with pride because of their achievements.

These women will now be able to recognize and sign their names on documents and solve basic mathematic equations, and they will be able to use these skills in micro-credit projects that are often established in villages after they conclude the CEP. I am excited for future visits to Samba Tacko, to greet these women again and see what they’re working on next.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Tostan Participates in Carter Center Forum to Promote Women’s Rights

On April 3-6, Molly Melching, Tostan’s Executive Director, and four key Tostan team members from Senegal joined 35 other human rights advocates, religious leaders, and scholars at The Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia. The inspiring and committed group gathered to discuss what role religious, traditional, and government institutions play in the protection and advancement of human rights.

Monday, April 11, 2011

A Reflection on Student-Led Philanthropy

The closing element to Eastside College Preparatory School’s philanthropy project was an awards ceremony at which all of the participating student groups shared what they learned about their selected organization with their fellow students and other audience members. After their presentation, the students presented giant checks to representatives of their chosen organizations. Paige Kaneb, a long-time friend and supporter, agreed to attend the ceremony on behalf of Tostan and express our thanks to all in attendance.

Paige and her family have been actively following and supporting the work of Tostan since 2008. Their interest and passion for community-led development inspired them to travel to Northern Senegal in 2009 and experience firsthand the community education and empowerment initiatives taking place in Tostan partner communities. Paige is a lawyer by profession, currently working as Supervising Attorney at the Northern California Innocence Project, where she works to help bring justice to wrongly-convicted people.

A message from Paige:

On Thursday, March 31, I attended a philanthropy celebration on behalf of Tostan. Seventh and eighth graders in groups of three or four presented non-profits working towards meeting the UN's Millennium Development Goals that they had chosen to donate to. The students were amazing. They talked about how this experience had taught them that they could make a difference, that they could do it as children, and could continue to change the world throughout their lives. They talked about their organizations, why they chose that non-profit and what it did.

One of three group posters about Tostan
When it came to present Tostan, 14 students walked up on stage—all had chosen Tostan. One student spoke of how difficult it was for her to read about how women are treated differently in other countries and to learn that they don't have the same rights as men. Another spoke of female genital cutting and how many young girls die from the procedure. They presented numbers, statistics and each of them discussed some of Tostan's work and what this meant to them. I fought back tears a few times as I listened to them—so young and eager, but also so globally conscious, intelligent and enthusiastic.

They presented me with a giant check for $750, made out to Tostan, and next to the word "for" was written "being an amazing organization." It was signed by all 14 students. The event and the students were inspiring, and I feel fortunate that I was able to go, listen to the students and accept this tremendous donation on behalf of Tostan, which really is an amazing organization.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Unlikely Solar Engineer

Story by Caitlin Snyder, Tostan Volunteer in Kolda Region, Senegal

Imagine spending all your life in your village of 500. You only ever leave to walk three hours to the nearest village with electricity to recharge your cell phone. On rare occasions, you'll grab a seat in a passing car to visit relatives further away.

Now imagine that you find out you're about to travel to another continent to study solar engineering.

Lamarana Ba didn't need to imagine any of this. The Tostan participant and Community Management Committee (CMC) member of three years left her village one morning to visit with friends and returned later that day to discover that she would be traveling to New Delhi, India as part of an exciting solar energy partnership with Tostan’s Solar Power! Project and the Barefoot College.
Lamarana Ba (left) with friend

The 41-year-old vegetable-seller has lived in Kibaasa, a village in the region of Kolda, southern Senegal, since childhood; Lamarana helped her father in his fields, met her future husband, and raised their seven children all in the small community nestled close to the Gambian border.

Always bustling and ready to share a smile, everyone in Kibaasa knows Lamarana for her neighborhood visits. Her confidence made her the natural choice when the village's 56 Tostan participants came together to elect a community representative for their public health committee. Lamarana's friendly house calls increasingly incorporated discussions about hygiene and family well-being.

When it came to organizing a weekly village cleanup day, Lamarana had no difficulty in getting the community involved; she rings a bell once a week and all the villagers come prepared. Kibaasa's paths and yards are spotless today thanks to this woman’s leadership.

Kibaasa communitiy members

The energy and activism that Lamarana has brought to her position are characteristic of the entire Kibaasa CMC. Recognizing the village's leadership in local development, Tostan invited Kibaasa to take part in an innovative program spearheaded by the Barefoot College. The non-profit promotes sustainable rural development around the world and trains women and men from remote communities to install and maintain solar panels.

For villages like Kibaasa, these panels mean that the community has immediate access to electricity for the first time. Cell phones are more easily recharged, facilitating business and contact with relatives far away. Hours lost walking to a village with electricity can now be invested in caring for family well-being or studying for school.

Kibaasa didn't hesitate when it came time to elect their delegate to the Barefoot College. Everybody agreed that Lamarana was the natural choice to bring business savvy and initiative to the position, which will involve building a sustainable microenterprise around community solar panel usage. Lamarana will apply the small business skills she learned in Tostan classes to develop a pricing system and usage parameters to maximize benefits for her new clients.

In early March 2011, Lamarana and another Tostan participant flew across Africa to join other community activists from around the world at the Barefoot College. When they return home in six months time, the two women will rejoin their families and friends as certified engineers—the first in their villages.

Already a locus of development thanks to the energy of community members, Kibaasa will soon shine even brighter.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Crossing Boundaries: Communities From Senegal and Mali Come Together To Declare Their Abandonment Of Harmful Cultural Practices

Story by Aude Muillez and Will Schomburg, Tostan Volunteers in Senegal

Located in the far east of Senegal, the Kéniéba zone of Tambacounda region, which leans against the border with Mali, certainly feels far away from cosmopolitan Dakar. It was only after a long, off-road journey through an arid terrain peppered with colossal Baobab trees that we finally arrived at the host village of Gathiary. This community belongs to the minority Soninke tribe with a distinctive language and culture, found primarily in this eastern outpost and across the border in Mali. Visitors to Senegal often praise the country’s hospitality, referred to locally as terranga, and this minority community was no exception-- the villagers went to every length imaginable to ensure we were made to feel welcome and comfortable.

We were in Gathiary as the village was playing host to a public declaration at which eighty-nine communities were to announce their abandonment of female genital cutting (FGC) and child/forced marriage. Of this number, thirty were villages engaged in Tostan’s non-formal, participatory Community Empowerment Program (CEP), which facilitates discussions surrounding human rights and health as well as numeracy, literacy and a range of different issues.

The historic event, as the President of the Rural Community defined it, began a day early, on Friday night, at the neighboring village of Tamé. This community began as an adopted village, benefitting from Tostan’s program through the process of “organized diffusion.” Through organized diffusion, participants from the program in Gathiary visited neighboring villages, including Tamé, to share the information they had learned in the CEP.

This periphery involvement in the Tostan program was not enough for the motivated and determined community members in Tamé. When the Tostan Regional Coordinator visited Gathiary a month after the program had begun, women from Tamé came to see him and demanded that Tostan implement the CEP in their own community, which they consequently received. One year on and determined as ever, the women of Tamé organized a cultural evening of dancing and skits for guests the night before the declaration in addition to the cultural evening planned and organized for the following evening in Gathiary.

The population of Gathiary more than doubled on the weekend of the declaration with village representatives travelling from as far as Mali to attend and participate. The wood fires under the large cooking pots roared all weekend long with women taking turns to fry potatoes or dance in large circles with the adolescent girls whose colorful traditional head dresses gleamed in the roasting sun.

The declaration on Sunday was read aloud in French, Mandinka, Pulaar and Soninke and was followed by a string of speeches given by visiting delegates and community representatives. The local imam of Gathiary, who was instrumental to the community’s abandonment, explained that he was extremely engaged in Tostan’s program, its goals and in the journey that led to this declaration. He also explained that he works to raise awareness in his own community and how he will continue to travel to villages where community members are reluctant to abandon FGC and child/forced marriage. He explained that he will speak with imams and marabouts (traditional religious leaders) and explain his conviction that the Qur’an supports women’s health and fundamentally opposes FGC.

Initially concerned that many participants would not come to this event due its isolated location, the organizers were impressed with the attendance as well as the participation of representatives from the Mauritanian and Malian communities. Upon their departure, the Mauritania representatives expressed their desire to invite the adolescents from Gathiary and Tamé to raise awareness about these issues back in their communities in Mauritania. This landmark occasion proves that while these communities may be detached from the nation’s urban and economic centers, it is clear that these communities’ formidable dynamism will form the basis for their ongoing development.

*Aude is Tostan’s regional volunteer who will shortly be leaving Senegal after spending a year based most recently in the Tambacounda region and was deeply involved in this, her last declaration. William is Tostan’s communications assistant in Dakar.
Blog adapted by Salim Drame