On International Women’s Day (Friday, March 8), we share how our holistic Community Empowerment Program (CEP) contributes to this year’s theme: A promise is a promise: « Time for action to end violence against women.”

Violence against women and girls is one of the biggest barriers to community well-being.  It creates situations where women and girls’ physical security is put at risk, it can stop them from getting an education, from being economically active, and can undermine their ability to make their own choices about the number of children they want to have. In many communities across Africa, violence against women and girls is manifested through domestic violence, child/forced marriage, female genital cutting (FGC) and the lack of power women have in decision making.

Many of the  sessions in Tostan’s three-year Community Empowerment Program (CEP) work towards ending gender-based violence by providing all participants with knowledge and skills they can use to improve the status of women and girls in their communities.

From the very beginning of the program, the participative learning method used in CEP classes encourages women and girls to speak publicly. CEP classes are not taught as lectures, but rather as interactive discussions where everyone’s voice is important. Many women and girls are not used to speaking publicly, especially about subjects affecting their well-being, and these sessions begin to give them the confidence to voice their opinion and become engaged in community decisions.

The content of the early sessions of the Kobi module, the first phase of the CEP, focus on democracy and human rights. Participants learn that every community member has the right to express themselves, be protected from violence and discrimination, security, health, an education, safe living conditions, and legal equality among others. Facilitators explain these rights as they relate to the local context, and encourage participants to discuss aspects of their community life that respect each right and what responsibilities those rights bring. They also discuss which aspects do not bring well-being and dignity to the community and what their collective vision is for their community’s development. They create this as a group at the very beginning of the CEP. 

After learning about human rights, participants learn a simple, five step problem-solving process, which can be applied to everything from interpersonal conflicts to project management. Participants work through examples of how to use the process in daily life, providing them with a simple framework for finding ways to overcome obstacles, such as solving problems in the home or changing aspects of community life. Community members, such as Yama Bathia of Senegal, have used this method to address issues of gender-based violence in their communities.

Many women in these communities apply their gained skills and knowledge through taking leadership roles in their Community Management Committee (CMC). CMCs are very active in organizing community initiatives such as clean-up days, vaccination campaigns, and public declarations for the abandonment of harmful practices, including FGC and child/forced marriage. These leadership opportunities allow women to apply their new skills and their emerging social roles as they direct activities and committee members.

As the knowledge, skills and attitudes found in the CEP spread within the community and in the local area across social networks through organized diffusion, such as community awareness-raising activities and radio broadcasts, a critical mass of people with a desire for positive social change begins to build. Communities unify around a movement for positive change – a process that often culminates in public declarations where many communities come together to promote human rights and publicly declare their abandonment of harmful traditional practices, such as FGC and child/forced marriage. These declarations and the knowledge gained during the CEP bring the once ‘taboo’ subject of gender-based violence to the forefront of discussions, allowing communities to make a promise to end violence against women together.

Photographs by Angela Rowe, Tostan.