“The world will never realize 100 percent of its goals if 50 percent of its people cannot realize their full potential.  When we unleash the power of women, we can secure the future for all.”

— Ban Ki-Moon, Secretary General of the United Nations

Empowering women has been at the heart of Tostan’s work since the organization began working with communities in rural Senegal in the late 1990s. Today, on International Women’s Day (IWD), we want to take a moment to reflect on how far we’ve come, look ahead to a future where women everywhere are supported by basic human rights, and celebrate some of the courageous women we’ve had the honor to meet and support— women who are engaged daily in the challenging work of bringing lasting, positive change to their communities.

This year’s United Nations (UN) theme for IWD, “Empowering Women, Empowering Humanity: Picture It!” envisions a world where women and girls can embrace their basic human rights—participating in politics, getting an education, having an income, and living their lives free from violence, oppression and discrimination. 

Through Tostan’s Community Empowerment Program (CEP), women across the African continent are being given that opportunity.

Tostan’s empowered women are not afraid to tackle complicated issues. It was a new understanding of women’s basic human rights that led Oureye Sall to first question the traditional practice of female genital cutting (FGC), and eventually become a brave voice for a movement to abandon the practice. Since the first public declaration of abandonment in 1998, 7,300 communities across West Africa have joined.

Tostan’s empowered women are talking about how they want to change the future for their communities and their daughters. Ubah Abdilahi Hirsi, from Somalia, says, “There is a Somali proverb: ‘If you educate a man, you only educate one person. But if you educate women, you educate an entire society.’ I know now that women are an important element of development. I believe the most effective way to create lasting change is by engaging other women and girls in my community; the CEP gave me the tools to do that.”

Tostan’s empowered women are taking charge of their economic futures. Ramata Sow has used the math, financial and literacy skills she learned in the CEP to start a thriving business to support her family. Nyima Suwaneh not only runs a successful business, but also now teaches skills to women in other communities. She was even invited to share her experience at a national practical knowledge fair on environmental and sustainable development in Basse, The Gambia.

Tostan’s empowered women are gaining access to information in unprecedented ways — and sharing their new knowledge with others. Our founder, Molly Melching, recounts the story of how this grandmother and fish cleaner spoke to her at length about brain development in early childhood one Sunday afternoon. It was something the older woman had picked up from attending Tostan’s Reinforcement of Parental Practices program, and she proudly told Molly, “By talking to your baby, you help to develop the child’s brain and prepare her or him for learning later on.  Your child will be more successful if you do that, you know. We are all talking to babies now in my house because of what I learned.” 

Tostan’s empowered women are engaging in local leadership, finding their voices, and gaining confidence in sharing their thoughts and ideas with the world. Young women like Dallo Tounkara are stepping up to lead the process of positive change in their communities. “For African women everywhere, I dream of education for all, knowledge of their human rights, and an understanding of how the principles of democracy can be used to develop their communities for the better,” she says.

Tostan’s empowered women are essential to the continued spread of human rights awareness in West Africa. Women like Mamie Drammeh, a Tostan supervisor in The Gambia, are passionate about helping other women understand their human rights. “The communities are sometimes surprised to see me working alongside the men,” Mamie says. “But I believe that what men can do, women can do.”

Today we celebrate these women and their accomplishments, their dedication to human rights education, and their commitment to sustainable change in their communities.

Tostan’s empowered women are indeed changing the world–one community at a time.