In this article by Mia Holmgren–originally posted in Swedish in Dagens Nyheter–Mariam Bamba and Fatou Coulibaly of Soudiane, Senegal mutually disavowed female genital cutting and child marriage. Their lives took a new turn after Tostan’s three-year education program focusing on human rights. Since then, the village is equal, everyone’s opinion matters. 

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The huts in the village of Soudiane in Western Senegal are built from clay and have grass rooves. The simple dwellings have looked the same for several generations. As for Mariam Bamba and the other villagers’ day-to-day lives, the situation has been anything but the same. It sounds almost too good to be true.

As a child Mariam Bamba never got to go to school. She was married off at the age of 12, a fate she shares with many women in Senegal. Mareme had her first child as a thirteen year old. As the lowest ranked member of her husband’s family she was treated poorly. “I was a slave. There is no other word for it. I have a memory of when I was doing laundry: I was so short that I could not reach the edge of the well.”

The change happened when Mariam Bamba was in her thirties. At the end of the 1990’s, the organization Tostan came to Soudiane. [As part of Tostan’s program], members of the community went through a three year long education with human rights as the starting point—and ever since then nothing has been the same. The biggest difference is for the women. Suddenly they could talk in front of the men and the whole village.

“I still remember that incredible feeling of being seen. Everyone listened and my opinion mattered. I also realized how discriminated against women had been. We had no worth. Our men treated us poorly, but I don’t place the blame on them, that is how all families lived,” says Fatou Coulibaly, 56.

During the educational program, Mariam Bamba and Fatou Coulibaly learned how to read and write. Now, they have been appointed by the village to work on social mobilization. The two girlfriends are part of the village council, which consists of twelve women and seven men. In several thousand other villages it is similar. 19,000 women have been elected to leading positions in the villages.

An important moment for Mariam Bamba was when she was chosen to go to India to learn how to install solar panels. After six months Mariam came back and has provided her own and the neighboring village with electricity.

In Senegal and several other countries in West Africa, Tostan’s educational program, [the Community Empowerment Program] has developed into a mass movement on a grassroots level. The organization, which was founded by Molly Melching from the U.S. 25 years ago, uses local traditions and the villagers’ own wishes as a starting point. “The reason behind Tostan’s success is that the teachers don’t come to the villages with set solutions. The community members often have clear priorities which determine the focus of the education. With access to the right information people make wise decisions in order to improve their lives,” says Molly Melching, who came to Senegal as an exchange student from Illinois in the 1970’s and stayed.

“This education has given us so much that makes a difference in our daily lives. We take the kids to the hospital when they are ill rather than try to treat them ourselves with leaves and plants. We understand the importance in washing our hands and we have cleared off any branches and water puddles that attract malaria mosquitoes. Now, we clean the entire village once a week,” says Fatou Coulibaly.

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