Dignity, Human Rights and Social Transformation the Tostan Way

by Leisa Hirtz

Our contemporary world is made up of a vast collective of complex cultures, currently embroiled in a geopolitically charged global environment which is beset with extreme gender imbalances. Those most at risk are poor, marginalized women, girls and children living in the global south. This current reality counters sharply with the United Nations’ ambitious Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set for achievement by 2030.

In our own effort to assist with the success of the SDGs, our mission at Women’s Global Health Innovations (WGHI) is to research, develop and deliver human-centered designed menstrual, sexual and reproductive health products and related rights-based education programs to adolescent girls and young women. We seek to meet them where they are, within their respective communities, in their local languages, contexts and cultures. Over the past seven years, our product developments have focused on delivering user-inspired, affordable, high quality menstrual and contraceptive products. These products are free from chemicals, microbicides, drugs, and hormones. They are designed to have a low impact on the environment, as they are reusable for years, are easy to use and clean.

‘Look, feel and feedback’: Young women and girls from South Sudan consulting with Leisa about product developments, such as menstrual cups. Palorinya Refugee Settlement in Uganda, October 2017.

Inclusive in our governing principles at WGHI is the importance of delivering cross-cutting, comprehensive menstrual, sexual and reproductive health and rights education for adolescent girls and young women, built on a foundation of the principles set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) as well as Global Affairs Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy. Finding organizations in which to model, seek advisement and learn from had been a challenge. That is, until a serendipitous meeting between my business associate Megan White-Mukuria of ZanaAfrica and Molly Melching, Founder and Creative Director of Tostan, at the Skoll World Forum in Oxford, UK in April 2018.

Megan had expressed to me her enthusiasm in learning about Tostan’s human-rights based programs and insisted I read Aimee Molloy’s book However Long the Night, on Molly’s journey to help empower African women and girls. Eager to know more myself, I followed this up by reading Ben Cislaghi’s incisive Human Rights and Community-Led Development, Lessons from Tostan. Tostan’s mission “to empower African communities to bring about sustainable development and positive social transformation based on respect for human rights”, and the programs designed, implemented and measured by them, provided us with a concrete example of a holistic approach to development. An approach which is bottom-up, which empowers communities from within.

‘Christina.’ Palorinya Refugee Settlement in Uganda, October 2017.

I passionately believe that empowering adolescent girls and young women can be aided by learning about and internalizing their human rights. Set amongst other goals in the UDHR is the goal “to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, and the equal rights of men and women.” Human rights and their enforcement is an ongoing global challenge, and their benefits will remain underachieved until all people, women and girls in particular, become aware of their inalienable rights. Lack of awareness of one’s human rights is a formidable barrier to their enforcement, thus inhibiting positive, equitable social change.

Like Tostan, we are in strong favor, belief and support of communities rightfully owning and leading their own social transformations.Wishing to avoid imposing preconceived western biased ideas or perceived ‘solutions’, we aim to implement a human-centered design approach where needs are defined and gaps bridged by the ideas and solutions that young women and girls themselves bring forward. A lesson that continues to be reinforced time after time is the power that all people inherently possess to question, analyze and inform changes that will directly affect their own lives. Adolescent girls born and raised in the most marginalized of circumstances have been our greatest partners in developing solutions to their needs. I believe that given the power of decision-making, voice, choice and courage to engage in civic action, young women have within themselves the capacity to alter their own lives and communities. In turn, this will shift paradigms on a global scale.

WGHI is still in its infancy in regard to implementing human-rights education into its programming. Learning of the impact of Tostan’s Community Empowerment Program is assisting us in developing our own programs based on the principles of respect for human-rights, personal empowerment and dignity. As an organization, WGHI is committed to continuous learning, and are eager to participate in Tostan’s training seminars. As we continue to learn more about Tostan’s methodology, it’s our hope that we can influence positive social transformation in the communities we work.

‘Participation and positivity’: Leisa with the girls and young women from Self-Help Secondary School, Palorinya Refugee Settlement, Uganda. Photo credit: Patrick Segawa of Public Health Ambassadors Uganda.