Although Senegal as a nation has a relatively low prevalence rate of female genital cutting (FGC) — around 26% — that figure masks the much higher prevalence rates in certain regional and ethnic communities. In these regions, FGC is often regarded as a social advantage by increasing the perceived marriageability and social acceptance of young girls. Thus, community members see few alternatives and little incentive to change.

The community of Diégoune, Senegal, began Tostan’s Community Empowerment Program (CEP) in 2007, then teamed up with Tostan and Respect for Change in 2008 to try out an innovative approach to changing these perceptions: using film and local narratives to promote the abandonment of FGC in their southern Casamance region. This partnership resulted in the production of the film Walking the Path of Unity.

Art and film are participatory tools that can reframe social practices in order to explore their unintended health consequences and expand dialogue around locally contentious themes, such as FGC. ‘Edutainment’ is an increasingly popular communications strategy that builds educational messaging into entertainment media, like radio, film, or theater, and aims to change attitudes and behavior, or affect social norms by promoting positive local cultural values without shaming harmful ones.

Over the course of nearly 25 years, Tostan has observed that before change can occur, harmful social norms such as FGC must first be understood as a violation of human rights. Second, a critical mass of people must believe that others are also changing behaviors so that hesitant communities do not feel their decision is being made alone, and that they will not be ostracized for breaking from the norm. Social convention theory for the abandonment of harmful practices shows that when ‘enough’ community members witness ‘enough’ people from their own reference groups modeling new behaviors and exchanging new ideas, they are more likely to adopt these new behaviors themselves.

Culturally relevant films that address harmful social norms can offer communities who have not participated in the CEP the opportunity to re-evaluate those practices, their benefits, and the unintended consequences, while also providing visual proof that their neighbors are changing. When added to Tostan’s social mobilization strategy—organized diffusion—film can allow more community members to be seen and heard during social mobilization events. Due to financial and logistical constraints, only a certain number of community representatives are physically able to participate in such events. The use of film can then assist in tipping the scales towards that critical mass.

This is what makes Walking the Path of Unity particularly noteworthy. Tostan participants wrote, directed, and filmed their own narratives, giving space for the key community members who propelled the movement to abandon FGC in Diégoune—an Imam and the village chief, among others—to recount what influenced their decision to break from the tradition of cutting. The filmed narratives allow the community members to elaborate on their experiences, and frame them in culturally identifiable ways and in their own language. This offers local credibility both to the film when being watched by neighbors during community screenings, as well as to the movement for abandonment itself.  

In 2009, in collaboration with Cinema Numérique Ambulant, Tostan’s technical partner, Diégoune’s neighboring communities in the Casamance region gathered in public spaces to watch the film. Over 18,000 viewers in 70 villages participated in the screenings and discussion sections facilitated by Tostan supervisors and/or some of the Diégoune filmmakers. In an initiative led by Tostan France, the film was also screened for diaspora Diola populations in various European cities.  

All of these efforts are a digital reflection of Tostan’s grassroots social outreach model—reaching more people, making more voices heard. When combined, they encourage more communities in West Africa to join the movement to abandon harmful practices, and break from tradition.  

Written by Tim Werwie, Graphic & Visual Design