DAKAR, SENEGAL, March 8, 2010– There are about 100 women held in the women’s prison in Dakar, Senegal but on Monday, March 8, the facility’s courtyard did not seem to be full of prisoners. Instead, the open space was filled with incarcerated women who were also daughters, sisters, and mothers. On International Women’s Day, Tostan’s Prison Project organized a day-long event of music, food, and entertainment to honor these women who, through Tostan’s Community Empowerment Program (CEP), are taking their future in their own hands.
The entrance to the Dakar women's prisonCurrently, fifty women in the prison have chosen to engage in Tostan’s Community Empowerment Program (CEP), which involves three years of non-formal education courses on human rights, democracy, literacy, numeracy, and problem solving. Since 2003, Tostan’s Prison Project has been in place in institutions in Thiès, Dakar, and Rufisque, Senegal, in both women’s and men’s facilities. All of these programs are led by four facilitators and one supervisor, Aïssatou Kébé. Aïssatou explained that before the program was implemented in the Dakar women’s prison, the women did not cooperate with each other. As a consequence, many didn’t eat and fights constantly broke out over food. The Tostan CEP has brought more than a system of human rights-based education to the prison, it has ushered in an atmosphere of collaboration and harmony.
Diarra Fall*, a CEP participant with large eyes and an enchanting smile, said that learning about human rights enables individuals to become more conscious of how to act in society. Fall joined the Tostan program in 2007 because she wanted to learn to read and write (many of the women, when they first arrive at the prison, do not know how to hold a pen).

Clothes and embroidered table cloths crafted by inmatesA devastating combination of poverty and lack of education is at the root of why the majority of these women are serving prison sentences. 90% of the inmates have committed infanticide (intentionally killing an infant), a crime often committed because of economic and cultural factors that leave new mothers with few options. While discussing what she has learned from the CEP, Fall explained she now understands that children have rights, especially the right to live in a loving family.

While helping women to change their outlook of the present situation, the Tostan program also helps to create a hopeful future for its participants. Fall, like many other inmates, now wants to learn how to manage money and run her own business making and selling tie-dyed fabrics, a lucrative industry in Senegal. While similar to the iteration of the Tostan CEP that is implemented in villages across West and East Africa, Tostan’s Prison Project includes skills training which enables women to reintegrate into society after they complete their prison sentences. Participants learn to dye fabric, make bleach, sew clothing, style hair, garden, and fabricate artisanal crafts. Upon leaving the prison, Tostan helps former inmates establish income generating projects with micro credit. These small loans come from money that the women themselves earn through the sale of their crafts while they are incarcerated.

Beyond helping to prepare participants financially for their future life outside of prison, Tostan also provides mediation for inmates and their families. The five Tostan staff members leading the Prison Project are deeply committed to their work as they travel across Senegal, meeting with the families of each inmate in an effort to make the transition back to family life possible.

During the celebration on Monday, women in the Dakar facility performed a skit for the audience which expressed the sorrow and shame felt by many of the women as they attempt to return to their families. Some of the actors began to cry, as did some of the Tostan staff, many of whom remain in contact with former inmates long after they have finished their sentences. Inspired by the personal relationship she felt with the Tostan facilitator Fatou Faye, Fall wishes to become a Tostan facilitator herself and help other incarcerated women.

“It’s a big day for all women,” she said about the festivities surrounding International Women’s Day. “It’s a day for women to know what they’re worth; what a man can do a woman can do and it’s good to be aware of that fact.”

Monday’s celebration took place in a white-walled prison courtyard, but the atmosphere was that of a family gathering as women genuinely thanked each other, the prison director, and Tostan. While the program has had positive impacts, a lack of funding has kept the program from extending into more correctional facilities in Senegal, despite repeated requests from prison directors. Beyond this, Prison Projects currently in existence will be forced to end in seven months time if more funding is not found.

Despite the impending funding cut, supervisor Aïssatou Kébé’s enthusiasm was almost palpable as she explained why the Prison Project is so important: it enables participants to have a sustainable lifestyle in society and to never return to prison.

Clothes made by female inmatesUnder the afternoon sun at the Dakar women’s prison, a drummer beat out a quiet rhythm and a singer quieted the crowd, explaining to the audience that International Women’s Day was an afternoon of poetry. It was a day for the women to celebrate their strength and the work they have done to create a better life for themselves and for their families. An incarcerated woman adorned in a flowing pink dress and shining gold earrings bravely took the microphone and spoke to her fellow women in Wolof.           
“You are a baobab,” she said in poetic allusion to the strong trees in Senegal renowned for their beauty. “People should kneel before you. Thank you women. You are everything.”

*Name has been changed

Text and Photos: Sydney Skov