June 12th marked a pivotal human rights achievement in the Upper River Region of The Gambia. In the city of Basse, 117 communities declared their abandonment of female genital cutting (FGC) and child/forced marriage to an audience of 1,800 supportive community members, NGO and government partners, and Tostan staff. This was the first public declaration to happen on a national scale in The Gambia, although there have been local declarations since 2009. Eighty of the communities involved had participated in Tostan’s Community Empowerment Program (CEP) . The remaining 37 communities had been exposed to the CEP curriculum through organized diffusion , a process where communities participating in the CEP travel to neighboring communities to share the information learned during the program. The declaration involved both Fula and Mandinka communities.
Prior to the public declaration, the Mandinka village of Njum Bakary hosted a press panel, which offered local and national press an opportunity to ask community representatives about their work with Tostan and their decision to abandon these harmful traditional practices. The panel discussion affirmed that knowledge gained from Tostan’s CEP not only inspired communities to declare their abandonment but also motivated individuals to actively seek other opportunities for community growth. For example, respondents expressed a strong desire for grassroots democracy and ways to apply their greater understanding of human rights. Isatu Sankary, a female community leader, spoke on the need she sees for democratically elected officials that will represent the desires of her community. “The government,” Sankary said, “must be elected by the people and it must be active in responding to what the people say.”
Other individuals expressed how their increased understanding of human rights positively affected their interactions with peers and decisions they made with their family. One adolescent present at the press panel committed to continue hosting human rights discussions where he and his peers could learn from one another and expand their knowledge. Another individual shared how the CEP human rights curriculum inspired families to acquire birth certificates for their children.
The actual declaration ceremony was filled with music, dance, and poignant speeches from local and national leaders. During the closing events, the Governor of the Upper River Region (URR), Omar Khan, said: “When Tostan arrived in the URR, I was at first sceptical, but after one month, I realized that it was the best NGO I had seen in this region. Within five years, Tostan has given literacy to this region…Tostan has done so much for the people of this region and the country of The Gambia.”
Following the speeches, the declaration was read in Fula, Mandinka, and English by two adolescents and a 10-year-old girl respectively, thus solidifying the decision of these 117 communities to abandon FGC and child/forced marriage and embrace a new, empowered future.
Click here to see photos on the Tostan Facebook Album.