The theme of this year’s Day of the African Child, celebrated internationally every June 16th, focused on the need to end social and cultural practices that are harmful to children and the collective responsibility we all have to do so. A very apt day, then, for 242 communities who gathered in Ndorna, a village in the Kolda region of southern Senegal, and 42 communities in Basse, The Gambia to publicly declare their abandonment of two harmful practices affecting children: female genital cutting (FGC) and child/forced marriage.

At a press panel held to provide an opportunity for journalists and other community members to ask questions of participants ahead of the declaration, Hawa Jabbi, Coordinator of the Community Management Committee (CMC) in Bajonkoto, The Gambia, said  “for so long, we have been violating the rights of children.”  She continued to explain to the group that now community members know the harmful consequences of FGC and child/forced marriage, they are ready to say “no, we will abandon it!”

The same sentiment was heard in Ndorna. Rugui Kannde, a Tostan program participant, said that communities should ensure that the rights of children are not violated; “Child marriage,” she explained, “is a violation.” FGC and child/forced marriage are not the only social and cultural practices that harm children though. She clarified that “not enrolling your children in school is also a violation.”

The communities represented at the two declarations had participated directly or indirectly, through social mobilization efforts, in Tostan’s nonformal education program, the Community Empowerment Program (CEP). The CEP provides a holistic human rights-based education to remote and rural communities over three years. The program and the declaration were made possible in Senegal with the collaboration and generous support of The Government of Senegal, UNICEF, UNFPA, Johnson & Johnson, and Orchid Project and in The Gambia with The Government of The Gambia, Swedish Postcode Foundation, and Nike General Managers.

Applying the skills and knowledge gained during the program, the community of Ndorna has set up a child protection committee to help support the rights of children in their village. CEP participant Mariama Salaby shared that the committee leads child protection initiatives including “small, in-home inspections to ensure that the children living there are protected.” If the environment can improve, the committee works to support parents with information on the importance of respecting children’s rights and what they can do to better protect their child.

The theme of this year’s Day of the African Child highlighted not only the harmful practices but also the collective effort needed to overcome them. The declarations in Ndorna and Basse provide an example of how entire social networks of connected communities – even across national borders – can be mobilized to reach a collective decision to bring about social change..

The Day of the African Child was established to honor the school children of Soweto, South Africa who in 1976 stood up and called for their right to education in their own language, many being killed as a result. This year, 284 communities stood up to show their commitment to their own children’s rights, ensuring that children, and girls in particular, born in these villages will no longer face traditional practices that are harmful to their wellbeing, but will be free to go to school, develop fully, choose if, when, and who they want to marry, and in turn, reach their full potential.