Davos Meeting 2010: Executive Director of UNICEF Ann Veneman, and NY Times Columnist, Nicholas Kristof, praise Tostan’s role in the global movement to abandon FGC
DAVOS-KLOSTERS, SWITZERLAND, January 30, 2010- During the Davos Debates 2010, Tostan was recurrently mentioned for its success in the movement to abandon female genital cutting (FGC) in East and West Africa, and in particular in Senegal. The organization was praised for its novel and effective approach to development, namely that of empowering communities to lead positive change from within.

The World Economic Forum Annual Meeting held in Davos, Switzerland, brings leading politicians, business leaders, and journalists together to discuss the most pressing issues facing the world today. Launched three years ago in collaboration with YouTube, a competition called the Davos Debates asks viewers to vote on cause-oriented videos to determine which issue should be discussed each year at the meeting. This year, a video on FGC won, and its author, Julia Lalla-Maharajh, was sent to Davos to discuss the issue along with a prestigious panel of speakers, which included Executive Director of UNICEF Ann Veneman, Executive Director of Amnesty International Larry Cox, CEO of United Nations Foundation Kathy Bushkin Calvin, and Nicholas Kristof, NY Times columnist and co-author of ‘Half the Sky.’

It is estimated that female genital cutting affects the lives of three million girls annually in Africa alone, with serious immediate and long-term consequences to their health and well-being, including hemorrhaging, infection, complications in child-birth, and death. As Ann Veneman explained, the practice persists because it is embedded in culture and is sustained by social perceptions. While numerous strategies have been employed in the past to approach the issue of FGC, according to panelists Tostan’s human rights-based approach has proven to be a successful one. Tostan “has a holistic approach: it’s not just issue oriented, but it is issued on the basic rights that everyone needs,” said Nicholas Kristof.

Tostan starts at the community level by bringing a holistic 30-month educational program, the Community Empowerment Program (CEP), to communities that have little or no access to formal schooling. The CEP engages and empowers individuals to analyze and challenge various issues that directly affect them, thus creating change from within.
Speaking at the debate, Ann Veneman explained, “You can’t change the norms, practices of a community unless you listen, understand, and create a dialogue. And Tostan did exactly that: listened to the why, listened to the perceptions, and then also gave information about the health effects, the facts.”

As a result, over 4,000 communities in Senegal have now abandoned FGC, and many believe that Senegal will soon be the first country to completely abandon the harmful practice. Tostan is also working in seven other countries in West and East Africa, and a growing number of communities in The Gambia, Guinea, and Somalia have declared their abandonment of FGC.
Although there have been many successes in recent years in the movement to abandon FGC, a lot remains to be done to reach the UN goal of total abandonment of FGC by 2015. The key to change is raising people’s awareness about female genital cutting. It is important that people see it not just as a women’s issue, but as a human rights. As said by Ann Veneman, “the practice has to be addressed as a whole: both men and women have to look at how it’s going to change.”