Tostan’s spark

How do you empower people to change? When communities decide for themselves that the time is right to change.This is the beauty of the Tostan approach and of their programme in Senegal.

Tostan is a non-profit organisation headquartered in Dakar, Senegal, and a new partner of the Cartier Philanthropy.

For the next three years, 1,000 women, men, girls and boys with little or no education, living in the Goudiry Department of Eastern Senegal, will take part in Tostan’s programme.Three times per week, they will attend classes taught in their local language and will debate cross-cutting themes of democracy, human rights, health, and child protection, and learn basic literacy and numeracy in a way that is relevant and engaging for them, for instance using theatre or songs.

The change we expect to happen in these communities thanks to Tostan’s participation has already happened many times before. Nick Cornwall describes it vividly on Tostan’s blog and every word is worth the read! In it, he refers to a discussion he had in the small village of Carrefour with a group of women who were five months into the programme.

The small village of Carrefour is extremely isolated. The land is parched. A scattering of scrubby vegetation dots the landscape, but there are no fields with crops to tend. There is a well, but it only provides enough water for cooking and washing. 

I sat and talked with a group of twelve women of all ages. The women told me what life had been like as they grew up in the village. No one had ever questioned why tradition dictated the way life was lived. Their fathers, mothers or husbands gave them instructions, and their duty was to obey. None of the village women had ever questioned why they were beaten, or why they were not allowed to speak out, or why they were being married against their will at 13 or 14 years old. But now, because of Tostan’s program, they saw the world differently.

The conversation bounced from woman to woman. ‘Child marriage should never happen again’, a woman said. ‘It’s dangerous for teenagers to have babies. Children must stay at school and finish their education’, said another woman.
‘If a man leaves a woman with six children to raise by herself, the law should ensure the man helps out financially’, another woman added.

I was astonished listening to them, and humbled. This was the Tostan spark. These women were speaking from their hearts. They were proud and confident of the message they wanted to tell the world.

The issue Westerners probably find the hardest to come to terms with is the practice of female genital cutting (FGC), considered a human rights violation.
For those of us fortunate to have grown up in a society where our mothers, sisters and daughters have not been cut, our simple reaction is that this is a barbaric act and it must cease immediately. But how do you stop cutting? How do you empower people to change? How do you get people to give up not only this tradition, but also other harmful traditions (such as child marriage)? Outsiders will simply not be listened to if they confront those that practice these traditions and order them to stop. Some of these practices are centuries old; they are part of culture, history, and ancestry.

Change will only come when communities decide for themselves that the time is right to change. This is the beauty of the Tostan approach: understanding and respecting the traditions of people.

Nick Cornwall, Tostan volunteer

The women of Carrefour were without anger about their past. They acknowledged to me that they had all been cut, that some of their own daughters had been cut. But now they were of one voice that no girl in their village would ever be cut again; nor would an underage girl ever be married off again; nor would a man ever beat any of them ever again. The whole village had reached consensus on this and there would be no going back. They had been given information by Tostan about human rights and health and how to respect each other. They decided that the way they would live their lives in the future was to be different from the way their lives had been in the past.

These women, sitting in a circle, talking and laughing with me, could put into their own words why human rights were important. They could articulate why certain traditions were unsafe and why certain traditions would now stop. They had been lit by the Tostan spark.