When I walked into the Tostan office in Kolda, Senegal, I was greeted by a lively scene of 20 children laughing and bouncing around the front of our office. I realized that they were the youth that had participated in the three-day awareness-raising caravan that Tostan had held over the weekend.

These children traveled to five different villages in the Kolda and Sedhiou regions of Senegal to raise awareness about human rights. The 16 girls and four boys came from various Pulaar and Mandingue-speaking communities that had completed or are currently participating in Tostan’s Community Empowerment Program (CEP). Armed with songs, chants, and a collection of posters with images used during CEP classes, they piled into a van with a few Tostan supervisors and began their journey to educate communities about child/forced marriage, child pregnancy, female genital cutting (FGC), the significance of obtaining birth certificates, and the importance of education.

Even though my Pulaar-language skills leave much to be desired, I seized the opportunity on Monday to speak with some of these youth about how they thought the weekend went. Bana and Mariama, two girls who looked to be about 13 or 14 years old, shyly agreed to answer my questions.

My first question was why they thought it was important to have activities like this caravan. Mariama answered, “Because communities have practiced child and forced marriage for a long time. If we do not go out to these communities, they will continue to carry out these practices.” Bana herself is at risk; her parents found her a fiancé and she is no longer going to school. This broke my heart, but Finté Boiro, one of Tostan’s assistant coordinators for the Kolda region and caravan organizers, assured me that the Tostan supervisor in charge of the CEP program in her village is encouraging their parents to let her finish school. The caravan tried to convey that it is not just a question of child marriage, but also the harmful consequences related to pregnancy before age 18.

I also asked Mariama and Bana what they did to raise awareness about human rights. Mariama told me they introduced each of the human rights during the caravan meetings, using CEP posters. One of the children would start by showing an image and explaining the human right that it illustrated, and then Finté or another supervisor would take over and facilitate a community discussion about its importance. I asked Mariama and Bana if they could show me their favorite and, without hesitating, they purposefully shuffled through the stack. Mariama immediately selected the image showing the right to health, and Bana chose the image showing the right to a name, nationality, and family.

Finté told me later about another girl from the caravan for whom the right to a name, nationality and a family was especially important. In Senegal there is a serious problem with parents not registering their children at birth. In Saré Yeroyel, a girl stepped forward and announced that she does not have a birth certificate. Children without birth certificates not only do not know their exact ages, but are also prohibited from taking the state-issued test at school permitting them to continue their education beyond a certain level. While it is possible to obtain a birth certificate later, it becomes more expensive and more difficult. This is why the caravan stressed to the parent that paying the small initial fee for a birth certificate is worth the price.

Talking with Mariama and Bana made me realize just how important Tostan’s work is in inspiring young people to speak up for their beliefs, promoting human rights and dignity for all.

Story by Allyson Fritz, Regional Volunteer, Tostan