February 6 is the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) designated by the United Nations to bring awareness to the dangers of FGM and “promote the sanctity of a woman's autonomy over her body and health.” The World Health Organization estimates that more than 200 million women and girls alive today have been subjected to FGM. On this day, the Hilton Prize Coalition shines a spotlight on member Tostan, a global organization contributing to the abandonment of FGM as a component of its work to empower rural communities with sustainable development and human rights based education.
“Tostan” means “breakthrough” in the Senegalese language of Wolof. Awarded the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize in 2007, the organization was founded in 1991 by Molly Melching, who had already spent more than a decade living and working in Senegal. Tostan’s flagship offering is the Community Empowerment Program, a three-year, human rights-based educational program offered in local languages that teaches literacy as well as values-deliberation and collective action for community led development. By empowering communities to lead their own development, Tostan has catalyzed a grassroots movement in West Africa for the promotion of human rights and the abandonment of harmful practices, including female genital cutting and child marriage. Tostan’s mission is to empower African communities to bring about sustainable development and positive social transformation based on respect for human rights, and to ensure every person—woman, man, girl, and boy—is able to live a life of dignity. As a result of this respectful, holistic approach, more than 20,000 women have been selected into leadership positions in their communities. More than 4.8 million people live in more than 8000 communities that have publicly declared an end to female genital cutting and child marriage.
Tostan’s unique approach to addressing deeply entrenched social norms and its method of organized diffusion relies on allying with religious leaders and former ritual cutters to speak out publicly about harmful practices and the need to respect the human right to health. The impact has been captured in this video, in which local imam Demba Dwara and cutter Oureye Sall share about their work helping to build the Tostan movement of dignity for all.
Tostan’s Community Empowerment Program is innovative in the following ways. First, it recognizes participants as the agents and architects of community change. Next, it provides a proven strategy for addressing deeply entrenched social norms. It strengthens community members dignity and individual and collective agency. It teaches, reinforces and formalizes leadership and governance skills through Community Management Committees, which are comprised of 17 people (nine of which are women), who often continue managing community issues following the formal program.
The Tostan Training Center, which was launched in 2015, shares Tostan’s model for replicability and regional and global systems change. Since opening to external trainings in March 2015, the Tostan Training Center has served more than 210 participants, representing 81 organizations from 34 countries, including 59 religious leaders. The Tostan Training Center supports grassroots movement builders and activists from which civil society leaders have been trained in Tostan's content, participatory methodology, human rights approach and movement-building strategies.
By providing high-quality human rights based education and dignity-enhancing leadership skills that advance women and girls and whole communities, Tostan has supported the original and new leaders of the Breakthrough Generation, as well as their historic and brave decisions. This recent video, New Leaders of the Breakthrough Generation, showcases how they are bravely shaping the communities of the future.
(Photos courtesy of Tostan)