A hundred kilometers northeast of Tambacounda, Senegal, we make a right turn off the paved road onto a sandy two-track that gives way into a landscape populated by baobab trees, grass-thatched huts, and wooden fences draped with brightly colored laundry drying in the sun.

Forty minutes later, we pause at a hand-painted wooden sign that reads, Tostan Village of Gouta: Defender of human rights.

We are traveling with Tostan’s founder and CEO, Molly Melching, to Gouta on this day to participate in a historic event for the community: Gouta and 30 neighboring communities have come together to make a public declaration of their collective intent to abandon the practices of female genital cutting (FGC) and child marriage. The streets of the village are lined with people clapping, drumming, dancing and celebrating. In the center of the village, where the official reading of the declaration will take place, a leader emerges from the crowd to take the microphone.

Dallo Tounkara is tall and elegant, dressed in an intricately embroidered blue and gold dress.  She carries an air of confidence and authority, and a hush falls over the crowd as she begins to talk about the importance of human rights education in Gouta. Even the local government officials in attendance lean in and listen with interest to what she has to say.

Molly leans over to me and whispers, “I’ve never seen a coordinator so young in any of the communities I’ve visited! And she’s so well-spoken!”

Dallo is young — just 26 years old. She speaks with conviction about the impact of Tostan’s non-formal education program , taught in her own language, and how it provided her with the opportunity to learn about and practice leadership and human rights and responsibilities.

As a participating village in Tostan’s Community Empowerment Program (CEP), Gouta was responsible for electing its own Community Management Committee (CMC) coordinator to take the lead role in facilitating the program. While coordinators in most villages tend to be older, more established members of the community, Gouta instead chose the energetic young mother of two — a young woman who has completed only two years of formal education.

The third child of the village Imam, Dallo tells us that growing up in Gouta had its difficulties. “While I was growing up, the challenges were great, because I was caught between my desire to continue my studies and submitting to the decisions of my parents,” she recalls. “I ended up leaving school to return to my duties in the kitchen and the home.”

But Tostan’s alternative education through the CEP gave Dallo a second chance. She soon became so passionate and actively engaged in the program that the community couldn’t help but take notice. 

“I was chosen to become the coordinator because of my love for the program, my motivation, and my engagement in participating in community activities,” Dallo says. When asked if she ever encounters resistance because she is so young, Dallo smiles humbly and shakes her head. “There has never been any resistance to my leadership. The participants chose me themselves.”

Under Dallo’s leadership, the CEP has helped the community achieve impressive results. Latrines have been built, village clean-ups take place on a regular basis, school enrollment has increased and a successful micro-credit program has been established. The village now offers pre- and post-natal consultations for pregnant women and family planning services, and births are systematically registered with the government.

But perhaps most significant, according to Dallo, are the changes brought about by a new understanding of human rights.

“There is less violence and people are respecting each other. Much of the violence between men and women has stopped,” she says. “Nobody wants to be viewed as a violent person or be criticized for their lack of respect. We have learned how to discuss things together, and have made big decisions like abandoning FGC and child marriage.”

Dallo has an ambitious vision for her community — one that includes clean water, electricity, improved education, and paved roads that provide easier access to health and other services.

She also hopes that what her community has accomplished can be an example to others. “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.

Dallo is living proof that, with opportunities like the Tostan CEP, anything is possible. “The CEP has changed my life and given me a vision for others,” she says. “I understand how to work to make sure everyone’s rights are respected and that peace is a part of everyone’s life.”

As Dallo reflects on the many ways her own life has improved as a result of her participation in the CEP — a better awareness of her own health and ways she can manage the health of her children, more confidence in expressing her thoughts in public and engaging in community decision-making — she makes a simple but profound statement that captures the very essence of why Tostan emphasizes awareness of human rights: “Now I know that my life can change.”  

— Story by Corrie Commisso, Tostan Content Management Officer