In the Department of Ranerou-Ferlo, in Eastern Senegal, communities are preparing to publicly declare their abandonment of female genital cutting (FGC) and child/forced marriage. In this generally conservative area of the country, it can take a long time for villages to reach a decision about changing such social norms.

A series of intervillage meetings (IVM) were held from October 21st to 23rd 2014 to prepare for a public declaration this December. Participants included community members, Tostan partners, local authorities, and administrative officials—such as the religious leaders in the region.

On October 21st, an IVM took place in the small village of Ouro Dickorou, where 84 people representing 30 communities from Velingara and Younoufere gathered to discuss the decision to abandon FGC and child/forced marriage. Of the 30 communities, four communities who participated in Tostan’s Community Empowerment Program (CEP) abandoned FGC in 2010. The other 26 communities, who did not participate in the CEP, have been visited many times by awareness-raising and social mobilization teams financed by Radio Sweden, and have also participated in sharing seminars to discuss the harmful effects of FGC and child/forced marriage. Dra Ndiaye—from the community of Fourdou— said that his community was reluctant to abandon FGC because there was insufficient information about the harmful effects of the practice, but now they will join others to abandon the practice. This IVM gave the representatives of each village the opportunity to announce their desire to publicly declare their abandonment of the practices, which were deemed harmful for the community members’ health.

The following day, Tostan’s partners in the region participated in a working group in the community of Younoufere, where community members had initially been skeptical about abandoning FGC. However, thanks to the discussion during the working group, they welcomed the decision to organize a public declaration with the others in Ranerou. They also showed their readiness to collaborate with other villages to strengthen collaboration on social mobilization and to work on community health.

The representative from Action against Hunger stressed the importance of ending child/forced marriage saying “Child marriage poses incredible risks, including maternal deaths. We must instead support girls and allow them to finish school.” Working groups including school principals, NGO representatives, and local associations discussed ideas to accelerate the movement to abandon FGC. Some of the ideas posed were to implicate religious leaders and women’s advancement groups, raise awareness in markets, and door-to-door social mobilization. Overall, the combined efforts of over 30 of Tostan’s partners— including ChildFund and Action against Hunger—played a key role in raising awareness amongst communities.

Finally, on October 23rd, a sharing seminar took place with several religious leaders from Ranerou to discuss the upcoming declaration.  Ousmane Ba, the vice-president of the Departmental Council, opened the seminar to remind guests that Tostan’s work complies with the government’s work and supports communities to preserve their human rights.

Shortly thereafter, Abou Diack, the regional coordinator of the Tostan office in the Fouta, presented the details of the CEP program, followed by an explanation of social, legal, and moral norms. A heated debate ensued after these two presentations, where two of the 33 religious leaders at the meeting defended the practice of FGC, saying it is written in the Koran that FGC is a requirement of Islam. Thierno Hamet Fadel Dia had a different opinion, “I see that we share the same concern to help our communities. In discussing this issue, we can find a common solution. For us, FGC is a community health concern and we must abandon this practice.” The imam from Velingara, Thierno Ibrahima Sow reiterated this statement saying “We must recognize that FGC is not recommended in Islam. It is just a tradition and we must abandon it. We must not inflict suffering upon our girls.” Following the debate, Alassane Diallo, the chief of Community Development in the region, reiterated the government’s ban on the practice of FGC because of its negative effects on women and girls health.

With this, each person promised to think critically about these issues. More meetings will be held in December to ensure that communities will reach a consensus themselves on a declaration to abandon FGC.