Public declarations are a unique opportunity for communities to come together and make public their joint commitment to abandon harmful traditional practices, such as female genital cutting (FGC) and child/forced marriage and to the promotion of human rights. They are large-scale celebratory events that recognize positive traditions that already exist as well as pledge to end other traditions that are harmful. Over 7,000 communities across eight countries in Africa have already participated in public declarations of abandonment.
But how do communities reach this point?
The process begins three years earlier, when a community invites Tostan to implement our Community Empowerment Program (CEP). This holistic program focuses on human rights and basic nonformal education which provides a foundation for sustainable development. Our facilitators provide participants with access to reliable and factual information on their human rights as well as knowledge and practical skills in the areas of hygiene, health,, democracy, literacy, math, and project management. As community members begin to discuss and determine a collective vision for their future, they consider which practices exist in their communities which don’t lead to wellbeing.
As part of the Tostan Community Empowerment Program, participants share what they have learned in Tostan class sessions with others in their own communities, and whole communities ‘adopt’ their neighboring villages in order to spread what they have learned further across their social networks through organized diffusion. Social mobilization teams also have a role to play, traveling between communities, holding meetings to share information, and increasing awareness of human rights. As harmful practices, such as FGC, cannot be abandoned by one community alone because they are social norms that are reinforced across interconnected families and communities, or social networks, this process of reaching out is very important
The next step towards a public declaration is the organization of inter-village meetings. These meetings bring together communities participating in the Tostan program alongside the ‘adopted’ villages within their social networks. Representatives from Tostan and local and national government as well as respected community and religious leaders attend.
The purpose of the meetings is to allow communities to exchange ideas and generate dialogue and build consensus around the protection of human rights, including important issues such as FGC and child/forced marriage. They typically include singing, dancing, and theater as well as speeches and dialogue. The theater skits prepared by participants are often the highlight of inter-village meetings, bringing a touch of humor to otherwise serious discussions.
Leading up to a public declaration that took place in Basse, The Gambia in June 2013, community members organized an inter-village meeting in Boro Dampha Kunda and an inter-zonal meeting in Kantela Kunda that brought together communities from the four different regions where Tostan The Gambia works. During the meeting which took place in Kantela Kunda in March, community members performed a skit in which two families disagreed over whether to practice FGC on their daughters until a doctor explained to the village chief the harmful effects to girls’ health and the FGC practitioner renounced the practice.
Although these meetings are a crucial part of the planning of a public declaration, FGC is not the sole focus of the events. Discussions centered on wider human rights take place, with community members, including women, presenting individual rights to the whole group. Communities also share the actions they are taking to help protect these rights. In Kantela Kunda, representatives from each of the four zones where the CEP is being implemented spoke about an action they had taken to lead development in their own communities, such as the vaccination of children. Kumba Daboe, a CMC coordinator present at the Boro Dampha Kunda meeting, spoke about the progress that had been made in prenatal care since participating in the Tostan program.
The next step for community members, with support from Tostan, is to organize the public declaration itself. There is a lot of work to do, including arranging travel for visiting communities, inviting representatives of local NGOs and government to attend or speak and journalists to take part in the press panel; supplying food and refreshments for everyone attending; preparing the many speeches, songs, and skits to be performed; and much more.
Communities in Senegal are bound by the weight of their words, and making an announcement in a public setting reflects endorsement of the new social norm - no one will be ostracized for deciding not to engage in a practice when all have collectively agreed to stop it. It is very important to bring together the whole community to abandon a practice, and we feel public declarations are important in building critical mass for abandonment through collective and public support.
In 2008, a Unicef evaluation examined villages that had participated in the Tostan program from 1997 to 2001 and had taken public pledges to abandon FGC. It found that, nearly 10 years later, the prevalence of FGC had fallen by more than half in participating villages. This evaluation established a link between public declarations and a decline in prevalence.
As Tostan has always explained and as our external evaluations have shown, abandonment following our program and a public declaration for abandonment is not 100 percent. However, public declarations are critical in the process for total abandonment and necessary for building critical mass, eventually leading FGC to becoming a thing of the past.
Read some of our past coverage of declarations: