by Molly Melching, Tostan Founder and Creative Director
West Africa is experiencing a quiet, two-pronged social earthquake: rural women in traditionally patriarchal societies are running for and getting elected to local office, and Muslim religious leaders are emerging as champions of human rights — particularly for girls and women.
These seemingly unrelated developments are in fact linked: they’re both results of a human rights-based grassroots education program.
Consider Fatima’s story. Growing up in rural Senegal, she dreamed of going to school, but it was not to be. Her family decided she was to be married at 13, and soon Fatima’s aspirations for a different life faded away under the burdens of raising a family and running a household.
Fortunately, as an adult, Fatima got the opportunity to participate in the three-year education program developed by Tostan, the nonprofit organization I have led for 26 years. Fatima joined two dozen other villagers, mostly women, for classes covering democracy, human rights, health, literacy and entrepreneurship taught in her mother tongue by one of Tostan’s local facilitators. She became one of the more than 60,000 women who have participated in Tostan’s program.
Excited but nervous, and unaccustomed to speaking her mind in public, she kept quiet in class at first. But as Fatima learned about human rights and democratic practices she discovered that she had the right — and the responsibility — to voice her views. And slowly, she began to speak out.
Before long, Fatima was helping organize community meetings where she advocated for abandoning harmful traditional practices such as female genital cutting and child marriage.
By the time the program ended, Fatima had established herself as a confident, knowledgeable and articulate leader. A group from her community asked her to run for a local political office. Tostan’s program had also taught her that she had the right and responsibility to vote and participate in politics, so she accepted the invitation. She ran on a platform promoting human rights for all men, women and children, and was elected.
Tostan’s efforts are also bearing fruit with West African religious leaders, whose support is essential to long-term success in the six West African nations where we work.
We have started offering training courses for groups of male and female religious leaders from the region, focusing on parallels between human rights principles and teachings from the Quran and the hadiths (sayings of the Prophet Muhammed).
A Tostan staff member, who is a prominent and well respected Senegalese Islamic rights scholar, leads the training. In addition to human rights, he touches on ways to imagine a better future, pointing to hadiths such as: “There is one thing that is far more important than extra prayers and many alms: that is to spread peace and reconcile people.”
The course engages the participants in discussions about how the concepts we teach fit within an Islamic framework. As one imam put it after participating in the training, everything he learned “aligns with the teachings of the Prophet.”
The most exciting outcome of this work is that these religious leaders have become enthusiastic advocates for ending human rights abuses such as violence against girls and women, and for religious tolerance. They discuss human rights principles in sermons they give at the mosque on Friday and speak out at baptisms and marriages.
The content of Tostan’s curriculum is important, of course, but equally crucial is our methodology. It emphasizes interactive conversations in which participants recognize the importance of applying human rights principles in their everyday lives and sharing their knowledge with many others.
Besides demonstrating how human rights promote and maintain dignity for all, our classroom discussions provide a safe space for inquiry into the relationship between human rights and social, as well as religious, values.
As those who go through our program come to understand their own and others’ human rights, such as the rights to be free from all forms of discrimination and from violence, many reconsider and often end harmful social practices because they recognize that those practices conflict with their values.
Tostan participants have always inspired me to continue as an educator despite challenging conditions, but these latest graduates of our program have given me a new goal: to advocate for initiatives around the world that prompt local communities to engage in dialogue about human rights and responsibilities.