This is a different kind of development story.
This is a story that puts dignity first — one that sees universal human values transcending geography and culture, and one that ends with the unleashing of immeasurable potential.
In 1982, Molly Melching, a young American woman from Danville, Illinois moved to Saam Njay, a rural village in Senegal, with the intention of staying for a few months. She ended up living there for three years, deeply entrenched in the creation of an experimental education program. After a great deal of listening to and working closely with the residents of Saam Njay, this program quickly became more than an effort to teach basic literacy or numeracy: it was an entirely different approach to “development.”
Decades later, social transformation fueled by human rights is thriving in West Africa. Hundreds of thousands of people — charged with new knowledge, skills and passion — are changing the status quo. Women are running for mayor and men are stepping into their roles as fathers with pride and joy, while religious leaders are calling for an end to harmful traditional practices. Thousands of communities are moving forward together with agency, not aid.
What Molly and her team did all those years ago was to create a holistic program — using local cultural methods of learning — that covered not just reading and writing, but discussions on problem solving, confidence building, and an understanding of health and hygiene. The goal was to create a model of working with communities in which they were at the center: first participants would identify their vision, goals and priorities, then they would acquire the knowledge and skills needed to lead and sustain their own development.
And it worked! The program was suddenly in high demand from UNICEF and other organizations. For over a decade, this first version of Tostan’s Community Empowerment Program (CEP) was implemented in hundreds of communities, in five national languages.
Embracing Human Rights
While researching how to add a woman’s health module to the program, the team realized that simply providing women with health information would not be enough. Even if women decided to change certain behaviors that are harmful to their health and that of their daughters, it would be almost impossible for them to do so given the social and cultural context. The program needed something else — another ingredient.
That’s when human rights were added to the curriculum. International human rights standards that existed to empower all people, including women, were not known to the community. The team created sessions that used role play and theater to help women understand how human rights aligned with their existing values and could be applied in their everyday lives. Even more importantly: they helped them rehearse how to advocate for and claim their rights.
The results were breathtaking: women began to speak up for the first time at community meetings. They started taking on leadership roles, organizing to improve health care in their communities and building makeshift schools. They stood up to violence against children and women, with support from the village chief and imam. As a group, they explained that these practices were no longer acceptable in their community.
Most surprising of all was that the women decided to end the millenia-old practices of female genital cutting (FGC) and child/forced marriage. And not only did they renounce these traditions, but they devised their own strategies for making these changes sustainable. Demba Diawara, a village imam who had never been to formal school, taught Molly and her team that real change would not come about by changing the behavior of one person, family or village. Instead, the extended family and social circle, living in other communities or even across the border in another country, must all agree upon the change.
Thanks to his insight — and the fact that he personally visited 347 communities on foot — today over 7,700 communities in eight African countries have declared their intention to end FGC and child/forced marriage.
Communities across the region are asking for the Tostan program — more than the organization currently has the capacity to provide. You can support this rising movement by resourcing this program and sharing our story.