Thursday, July 26, 2012

Honoring Maimouna Traoré, a brave pioneer of the movement for the abandonment of FGC in Senegal

by Molly Melching, Tostan Founder and Executive Director

Maimouna Traoré and Molly Melching at the tenth anniversary
of the Malicounda Bambara declaration.

We were very saddened today to learn of the death of Maimouna Traoré, Coordinator of the Community Management Committee (CMC) and Chair of the Advisory Committee of Women of Malicounda Bambara, a village in western Senegal.  

Maimouna was one of the first pioneers of the female genital cutting (FGC) abandonment movement that is sweeping through West Africa.  She led the group of courageous women who on July 31, 1997 stood before 20 journalists, government and NGO officials and declared before the world the decision of their village to abandon FGC, a tradition which had been practiced for centuries in their community.

Their decision was not only courageous, but ignited national dialogue on the subject. There was much initial criticism around the abandonment and Maimouna and the women of Malicounda Bambara often had to vigorously defend their decision, which they did using their knowledge of human rights and by encouraging dialogue around how the practice hindered African development. 

Following the Malicounda Bambara declaration and another declaration by Nguerigne Bambara in November 1997, the then-President of Senegal, Abdou Diouf announced his support for the declarations and FGC abandonment in a speech to the 33rd Congress of the International Federation of Human Rights held in Dakar on November 20, 1997. 

Now, 15 years later, over 5,000 communities in Senegal have abandoned FGC, and the Tostan approach has been incorporated in Senegal’s National Action Plan for FGC Abandonment 2010-2015. 

None of this would have been possible without Maimouna Traoré.  

Maimouna’s impact on the lives of girls and women across Senegal and her belief that education is the key to positive social change cannot be overstated.  Despite many hardships and criticism following that first announcement by herself and the "evolutionary" women of Malicounda Bambara, her commitment never wavered.   

As Maimouna affirmed:  "Today we are more in harmony with our traditions and culture. We are Bambara more than ever. We strengthened our positive traditions and abandoned those that are harmful to our well-being. We changed because we are now more responsible and caring and proud of what unites us. "

The courage and determination of Maimouna Traoré will continue to inspire millions of women across Senegal, Africa, and the world.   

Maimouna, we valued your spirit, knowledge, friendship; you will leave behind a legacy that will pass through the generations. You will be greatly missed.

Friday, July 20, 2012


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 village elders to directors, Community Empowerment Program facilitators and participants to volunteers and interns. 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 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.

Story by Stephen Allen, MERL Volunteer, Thiès, Senegal

Stephen (bottom right in green) with members of the MERL team, supervisors, and a facilitator.

Arriving in Senegal the first week of June to begin one year of volunteering with Tostan, I was eager to begin my work in the Monitoring, Research, Evaluation, and Learning (MERL) Department in the Senegal National Coordination in Thiès. 

As the name indicates, the MERL Department is responsible for designing data collection tools and carrying out monitoring and evaluations in the communities where Tostan projects are implemented. Tostan uses these reports to feed back to donors, to tell the stories of Tostan’s work from the field and for Tostan’s own continuous improvement of its programs. The MERL Department is able to accomplish its mission partly through organizing field missions to communities at key phases of project implementation in order to complete surveys and monitoring reports. 

When, during my second week, I received the news that I would be accompanying one such mission to ten communities, I was delighted to be able to accompany a field mission so early on in my time in Senegal. 

Bag packed, I headed out with the MERL team to the regions of Kaolack and Kaffrine, just north of The Gambia, for a twelve-day, ten-community final evaluation mission. 

The communities that participated in the evaluation were Pulaar, an ethnic group that represents a minority in every country in which they live but which extends from West Africa all the way to Chad and parts of Sudan. Having just completed Tostan’s Community Empowerment Program (CEP)—a three-year participatory education program that teaches hygiene, health, literacy, and project management, all with a focus on human rights—the ten communities were eager to share their successes with the MERL team. At Néty Dagga, participants from the adolescent Tostan class could be heard all morning reciting Pulaar songs that their facilitator had taught them to help learn the steps of conflict resolution. While at Galoulé, the women insisted we look at the soaps they had produced themselves for sale as an income-generating activity, using their newly acquired management skills. 

Children and adolescent participants in the village of Médina Torodo perform a song.

Tostan regional supervisors, themselves of Pulaar origin, carried out the surveys and interviews for the evaluations conducted in each village. I had the opportunity to sit in on interviews with each village’s Community Management Committee (CMC). A CMC is a seventeen-member, democratically selected committee that is put in place when a community is implementing Tostan’s CEP. The committee is charged with putting the skills acquired through the Tostan program into practice by encouraging active community involvement through democratic participation and long-term sustainable development

Being able to see in person what the other new volunteers and I had just discussed during our volunteer orientation was extraordinary.  I met so many CMC members who were so committed to the development of their communities.  
Over those twelve days, I was able to learn an incredible amount about the Monitoring and Evaluation Department, Tostan’s Community Empowerment Program (CEP), monitoring and evaluation techniques, and the Pulaar people’s wonderful history and traditions. 

My personal observations from the field have been indispensible in helping me to write reports for the evaluation. In all, I had an amazing and educational two weeks—what a way to begin my year with Tostan! 

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Melinda Gates Visits Empowered Community Members in Senegal

Molly Melching, Tostan Executive Director, explains to Melinda Gates how Tostan teaches cell phones with the metaphor of a mango tree.

On Sunday 8th July, the community of Kolma Peulh warmly welcomed a special visitor.

Melinda Gates of the
Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation visited this small rural village in the Kaolack region of Senegal, West Africa on her way to London where she opened the Family Planning Summit 2012.

Ms. Gates spent three hours with women, men, and children of Kolma Peulh discussing the impact that empowering basic education can have on improving women’s health, particularly in the areas of family planning, female genital cutting(FGC), and child/forced marriage.

Throughout the visit, women confidently spoke out about these formerly taboo issues and explained how they had negotiated deep social change with their husbands, religious leaders, and neighboring communities, creating a broad consensus to end practices harmful to their health and that of their children. Community members from Kolma Peulh and neighboring villages are participating in the Tostan Community Empowerment Program (CEP), a three-year non-formal education program in national languages developed for those who have little or no access to formal schooling.

Ms. Gates was particularly interested in learning how social norms affect communities’ attitudes and behaviors and how the CEP provides a holistic framework for all community members to address issues on their own terms.

One man commented that when he learned about the negative consequences of women having children year after year he was keen to begin birth spacing in his own family. "Before we were nearsighted. Nearsightedness of the eyes is bad, but nearsightedness of the heart is worse. We have now adopted practices that we know will lead to better health for women and children in the community and have ended practices that don’t. In the past, we felt we could never question traditional beliefs and didn’t have the right information and social support to change."

Tostan Executive Director Molly Melching noted that the visit was well received by all involved.  “Tostan’s work is community-led and all of us at Tostan were thrilled that the people of Kolma Peulh had the opportunity to share their accomplishments, passion, and vision for the future with Ms. Gates, directly through an extended, open dialogue."

Friday, July 6, 2012

Discussing the Abandonment of FGC and Child/forced Marriage in Kolda

Story and photographs by Angela Rowe, Tostan Regional Volunteer in Kolda, Senegal

Participants at the two-day Tostan workshop in Fafacouru.
Sixty villages in southern Senegal have just completed Tostan’s Community Empowerment Program (CEP).  The villages in the department of Medina Yoro Foulah have spent the last three years working with Tostan to increase literacy and local engagement in projects centered on education, health, hygiene, human rights, and democracy.

Topics such as female genital cutting (FGC) and child/forced marriage are discussed at the community level through participation in the program.

A woman participant works with her
group to generate ideas for handling
violence at the community level.
On June 25th and 26th, Tostan held a two-day workshop in Fafacouru to discuss human rights and democracy and community-led initiatives to end FGC and child/forced marriage.  This workshop was attended by over 150 people, including Tostan staff, program participants from eight different villages, Community Management Committee (CMC) members, NGO partners, and other local leaders.

The workshop began with Mamoudou Camara, Assistant Coordinator of Tostan Kolda, asking the participants to share their expectations for the workshop.  Together the community discussed their desire to further understand Tostan’s strategy and program, to discuss the importance of human rights in regards to both positive and negative social norms, and finally, to generate a sense of community involvement for the abandonment of FGC.  The workshop consisted of presentations regarding Tostan’s values and mission, program implementation and subsequent results. Participants were encouraged to ask questions and share their thoughts with the group, several of whom cited Tostan’s CEP as being an essential component to creating positive social change in their own communities.

One inspiring part of the workshop was when a Tostan presentation on human rights prompted a lively and impassioned dialogue among the participants.  In small groups, community members discussed the types of violence and discrimination they had personally witnessed or experienced, and subsequently generated ideas of how to handle these situations should they arise again in the future.  The recognition of basic human rights, they concluded, was the first step in confronting negative social norms.  After sharing and presentation sessions, the conversation naturally unfolded into a reflection on one of the most sensitive community issues: FGC.

Imam of Fafacouru speaks out
about the harmful consequences of FGC.
FGC, a practice once viewed by many to be an essential piece of traditional culture, can result in higher rates of maternal and infant mortality, fistulas, and other serious health problems for girls and women. After three years of non-formal education, participants were able to participate in open dialogue about these issues and come to a decision together around the necessity to abandon the practice.

At the end of the workshop, Tostan was asked to further extend their program into surrounding villages.  The department of Medina Yoro Foulah hopes that through the process, all its villages will soon declare total abandonment of both FGC and child/forced marriage.

Though the education about human rights through Tostan’s CEP was certainly a catalyst for change, as demonstrated through the workshop and by people coming together to discuss these issues, the most powerful and sustainable forms of social change come from the communities themselves.

Blog adapted by Salim Drame