Situated near the border with Senegal and surrounded by green cashew orchards, the small village of Cambadju, Guinea-Bissau hosted the first ever human rights declaration to take place in the country on December 10, 2012, International Human Rights Day.

Seventy-five communities from the region of Bafata in eastern Guinea-Bissau declared their decision to ensure that all human rights are respected in their villages.  This was the first time that participants of the Tostan program have collectively decided to not only abandon the practices of female genital cutting (FGC) and child/forced marriage, but also embrace all human rights and responsibilities.

During the declaration, all participants gathered to watch the communities use theater, song, poetry, speeches, and dance to share their understanding of how human rights are integrally connected with other topics, including community health and education. The Regional Governor and Minister of Education also attended the event and gave speeches pledging their support for the communities.

Thirteen of the declaring communities had been direct beneficiaries of Tostan’s Community Empowerment Program (CEP) from 2009 to 2012, a non-formal education program based on human rights. The remaining 62 communities were reached during the program through Tostan’s ‘organized diffusion’ techniques, participating as ‘adopted’ villages. These villages exchanged knowledge with the direct beneficiary communities through inter-village meetings and community-led awareness raising activities.

Communities in Guinea-Bissau extend far beyond the borders of villages, forming a complex web of social networks that link people such as extended families, trading partners, and intermarrying groups.  These networks share many cultural practices which bring people together, and changing any of these practices requires wide agreement and participation.  For Tostan, understanding and applying this concept means that new ideas presented in the CEP need to reach far beyond the classroom and deep into the social network in order to be effective.

Tostan’s strategy for spreading knowledge throughout extended social networks is grounded in theories of social change. Many existing practices in communities are social norms – systematic, expected behaviors that create cultural links and are often carried out without thought to their origin or social function. The engaging, educational approach used in the CEP creates safe spaces where these practices can be critically examined by participants. They are encouraged to openly discuss how these practices relate to human rights principles and serve to improve or limit the development of their community.

Through additional outreach activities and community discussion on why certain practices should be adopted or abandoned, participants ensure that all members of their social network are included and have a sense of ownership over any change that happens.

The collective decision made by communities at the public human rights declaration in Cambadju was the result of three years of community-led outreach and engagement. It brought together declaring communities committed to social change and supporters, government, press and the NGO sector seeking to learn more about how empowering education and human rights can be a catalyst for positive social change.

Two more human rights declarations in Guinea-Bissau will be held in the coming weeks with community participants and their social networks from the regions of Gabu and Oio, planning to declare the promotion of human rights on December 20th and January 8th respectively.