Upper River Region, The Gambia—In January, 51 communities participated in one of two public declarations for the abandonment of female genital cutting  (FGC) and child/forced marriage .

On January 16, over 800 people representing 27 Fula communities participated in a public declaration in the village of Sare Alpha. 20 of the participating communities participated directly in Tostan’s Community Empowerment Program (CEP), while seven villages had learned about human rights, health, and the risks of FGC and child/forced marriage through organized diffusion , a process by which CEP participants share what they learn throughout the program with their social networks. Many CEP participants traveled great distances on foot in order to share information about human rights with remote communities in the area.

The declaration was a lively celebration, filled with dancing, singing, cheers, and skits about FGC and child/forced marriage. A group of former cutters symbolized their pledge to abandon FGC by holding up before the crowd the instruments used in the cutting ceremony and subsequently breaking them into pieces, prompting enthusiastic applause from the audience.

This ceremony was followed by a public declaration in the village of Sare Ngai on January 30.   Twenty-four Fula communities–20 of which participated in the CEP–declared their abandonment of harmful practices. The ceremony included prayers, speeches from community leaders and former cutters, and skits.  

Speeches during the declaration ceremony focused on the importance of communication. Throughout the CEP, participants learn skills to identify causes of conflicts within the community, as well as strategies to address them.   Participants also learn of the human rights guaranteed to all human beings, men and women alike, by international treaties.   As a result, women gain the confidence to share their opinions and speak publicly, and men in turn learn the value of their perspectives. Evidence of this social shift was seen at the public declaration.   Female community leaders delivered many of the speeches, which were met with great applause from the crowd.  

Tako Bah, the representative of former cutters, explained how her perceptions had changed as a result of the CEP: “Before we would wound the children. We would see the complications like blood loss, but we didn’t know how this affected a child’s health. We learned that from Tostan, and we were not begged, bribed, or forced to abandon cutting.”  

Both declarations were possible because all members of the communities participated in open and honest dialogue about FGC and child/forced marriage, issues which in the past were rarely, if ever, discussed. Such dialogue led the communities to realize that the practice was not only a violation of the human rights of their daughters, but detrimental to their health. Once participants shared this knowledge with their communities as well as neighboring villages, they were unwilling to continue the practice.

January’s public declarations marked the beginning of a series of mini-declarations that will take place in the area leading up to a larger declaration planned for May 2011 in the Upper River Region.