On March 8th, I visited a women’s prison in Rufisque, Senegal to celebrate International Women’s Day with Tostan’s Prison Project. As per Tostan tradition on International Women’s Day, everyone—detainees, prison workers, and Tostan staff—wore traditional Senegalese clothing cut from the same fabric, which was made specially for the detainees to mark the occasion. We were a stylish sea of burnt gold and green wax fabric.

The Rufisque prison is one of six prisons in Senegal where Tostan has worked since 2003 to implement a modified version of the Community Empowerment Program (CEP), a three year non-formal human rights education program delivered to detainees by a trained facilitator in local languages. “The women like the program a lot because it helps relieve their stress. When they come to the classes, they can forget about their problems, be together and learn new things,” said supervisor Nogaye Diouf.

Prison Project Coordinator Aïssatou Kébé and her team also provide family mediations and practical skills trainings in project management and income-generating activities. The mediations help integrate former detainees back into their communities upon release. After being incarcerated, women in Senegal are often viewed as a source of shame and excluded from their families and communities, and mediation activities encourage ongoing interaction and connection between detainees and their families. Upon release, participants in the program also have access to start-up funds for the establishment of small businesses. Some participants’ handiwork was even available for sale during the Women’s Day celebration.

The prison in Rufisque has comparatively some of the best conditions in Senegal, as it is clean and small, holding only 70 women. I also noticed the amicable, joking relations between the detainees and female guards. But Senegal’s state prisons often lack water, adequate food, toilets, medical services, and are, in general, extremely overcrowded. Prisons in Senegal usually lack organized rehabilitation activities for detainees; without these activities, the likelihood that detainees will become repeat offenders increases. This makes Tostan’s intervention essential to these women’s reintegration process.

After being greeted at the event, we gathered under a big tarpaulin marquee sheltering us from the sun just outside the prison, and listened to some powerful speeches from a range of speakers about the importance of women’s rights and the ongoing quest for dignity for women worldwide. I was particularly moved by the words of the honorary speaker for the day, Government Councilor Binta Cissé, who talked about the challenges of living in prison for extended periods and highlighted the large number of women imprisoned in Senegal for abortion or infanticide. Women in Senegal can’t legally terminate their pregnancies (even if they are the result of rape), leading some to seek clandestine abortions. Figures from February 2015 show that 19% of women imprisoned in Senegal were detained on charges of infanticide, and 3% on charges of clandestine abortion. Binta’s message focused on the importance of prevention. She stressed the need for more access to information and education about women’s health and particularly reproductive health to avoid this situation in the future.

After the speeches, we watched a lively and dramatic piece of theatre devised and performed by a group of detainees during their Tostan class sessions. The skit touched on the themes of polygamy, abortion, prostitution, women’s solidarity and wellbeing. Despite the somber and important issues dealt with in the play, it was clear the women were thoroughly enjoying getting into character and jostling for the limelight, to the great amusement of their fellow detainees who were hooting and cheering them on throughout.

I left Rufisque that day feeling humbled. The women welcomed us warmly and shared their stories with us. I learned a lot from them, especially the importance of maintaining a sense of positivity and dignity in the face of hardship and great injustice. I came away ever more convinced of the value of the human right to education and information worldwide, and the right of every woman to agency over her body, which belongs to her and no other.

*A big thank you to the US Embassy in Senegal for funding this event, and to UNFPA Senegal for their collaboration.

By Vicki Loader, Programs Assistant