By Mark Wheeler, MD
Something important is afoot in Africa, and it does not align with our expectations. We’ve been so inundated with stories of famine, violence, and corruption that we’ve become inured to them, and positive developments almost carry an element of surprise. But a movement that began some years ago in western Africa offers reason for hope. It is not about health care, improving educational standards, or better farming practices, and while improvements in these areas are essential, something deeper and more fundamental is brewing: the recognition of individual human rights.
As counterintuitive as that notion may sound, discussions around human rights are beginning to change Africa — from within.
As we approach this month’s meetings on the Commission on the Status of Women, it is instructive to learn how one region got it’s start on the path to gender equality through these discussions. In the early 1990s an NGO called Tostan (meaning “breakthrough” in the local language of Wolof) began organizing community meetings in rural Senegal to open up discussions around what villagers felt was best for themselves. The underlying presumption was that they could work through their own challenges if allowed to talk openly and without fear of repercussion from the village chief, elders, or religious leaders. Little was provided and nothing was donated, only a forum for people to openly exchange ideas.
It was a radical idea, and it worked.
As women began to open up about their feelings on being married as children or being ‘excised’ — a practice called female genital cutting (FGC) where the external genitalia are removed — they discovered that there was general agreement amongst both men and women that these practices were harmful both emotionally and physically, particularly in childbirth, and should be abandoned. It took great courage, but one by one, entire villages began declaring publicly that they were casting off traditions that had been the accepted norm for hundreds of years.
At the present time nearly nine thousand villages in West Africa have abandoned these practices. FGC was outlawed in Senegal in 1999. Childhood marriage is in a steep decline. Women of the current generation are finishing their education, entering the workplace, and becoming leaders in their communities. The basic substructure of society is changing. Women are taking their place as equals to men, and despite headwinds regarding women’s rights in many parts of the world, women in West Africa are moving into the modern age.
It is essential to note the enthusiastic embracement of this movement by African men. Instead of a poorly educated wife, dependent on her husband for every need, the newly educated and independent women are becoming life partners in the true sense. The burden of providing for the family is now divided among two, as it is in most advanced societies. Religious leaders and village chiefs have signed on as well, recognizing the palpable improvements that have come to their villages.
My understanding of this movement evolved over the course of several trips to Senegal, and during one visit with my family we met a charismatic young girl acting in a play in her village. The drama portrayed how she would be married with children by now — at the age of 13 — if she had been born just ten years earlier. Her name is Ndeye Fatou Fall, and she has documented her life in the film ‘Walk On My Own’ which airs later this month on PBS under the banner of Films BYkids (check your local PBS listings). Given a camera and some basic instruction, Ndeye Fatou shared her ambitions and dreams for the future, emphasizing how different her life is from the lives of a generation of women just prior to her own.
Sadly, in our country, a commonly held belief is that aid given in Africa will probably be wasted and it’s best to turn one’s attention elsewhere. Like many others, I once shared that point of view but have completely abandoned such cynicism. I invite you to do the same. Open the door to a more truthful understanding and see Ndeye Fatou’s film reveal what is actually happening behind the headlines.
The landscape has shifted. The recognition of basic human rights is the catalyst and I believe it is a privilege to support those, like Ndeye Fatou, who are leading Africa into a new era.