Violence against women and girls is a serious human rights violation and a major public health concern.  It can take many forms, such as physical, sexual, and psychological abuse as well as economic exploitation, and women who experience such forms of violence can suffer from a range of health problems.
In many countries, violence against women is widespread and often considered socially acceptable, but it can harm families and communities across generations and can reinforce other violence prevalent in societies. It can be directly linked to a lack of human rights protection, and particularly the protection of the rights of women and girls.
Through the Community Empowerment Program (CEP), Tostan’s grassroots nonformal education program based on human rights, participants learn about their rights to health and freedom from all forms of violence. They also discuss the responsibilities they share to protect these rights in their community.

As we lead up to November 25, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, as recognized by the UN General Assembly in 1999, we look at how the CEP helps participants to address the different types of violence against women and girls in their communities.

Domestic Violence 

The most common form of violence experienced by women globally is physical violence inflicted by an intimate partner, with women beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused.
Most of the victims suffer in silence and the problem stays within the family, even though community members may know that it is occurring.
Empowered by their human rights education in the CEP, community members now often present issues of domestic violence to authorities in their communities, they take action to raise awareness on the problem and make collective decisions, such as sanctions, to put an end to this practice.

Read about Marietou, a young Senegalese girl who convinced her community to abandon domestic violence and set sanctions that collectively became known as the ‘Marietou Law.’

Female Genital Cutting (FGC)

Female genital cutting (FGC) refers to a traditional practice performed on women and girls.  It is the complete or partial removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the genital organs for non-medical reasons  It is estimated that over three million girls are at risk of undergoing FGC in Africa each year.

FGC can cause a range of health problems, both short-term and long-term, which can include: severe pain, infections, shock, and hemorrhage that can lead to death. Some longer-term consequences include infertility and a dramatically elevated risk of labor complications that can eventually lead to maternal death and stillbirth or brain damage of the baby.

In the CEP participants learn about the harmful consequences of the practice and draw their own conclusions about FGC and discuss ways to prevent these health problems in the future. In sessions on health, they learn about the potential immediate and long-term harmful consequences of the practice and discuss ways to prevent these health problems in the future.

Because FGC is linked to marriage opportunities, abandonment requires a collective decision among intermarrying groups. To help foster collective abandonment, our program encourages community members to share the knowledge they gain with their neighbors, friends, and family members. Participants and Community Management Committee (CMC) members travel to other communities to raise awareness about what they have learned. Through this process, whole regions decide to end FGC together without having directly participated in our classes.

To date, almost 6,000 communities from Burkina Faso, Djibouti, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Mauritania, Senegal, Somalia and The Gambia have declared their decision to end the practice of FGC.
Read about the recent declaration in Somaliland where 28 communities abandoned FGC.

Child/Forced Marriage

The practice of child/forced marriage, a form of sexual violence, is common worldwide and it is a deeply rooted practice among many communities in Africa.  Marrying at a young age prevents girls from staying in school and becoming financially independent. Early sexual relations and pregnancies can also cause serious health problems.
Through the CEP, communities learn to think about the right to consent freely to marriage as a universal human right and they learn about the harmful health consequences of giving birth at a young age.
As a result of this, Tostan CEP participants have begun a movement to end the traditional practice of child and forced marriage in their communities and have been at the forefront of campaigns in favor of delaying marriage until girls are mature enough to make their own choices.
Strengthened by the knowledge gained through participation in the CEP, adolescent girls sometimes emerge as true champions of human rights by leading movements for the abandonment of  FGC and   child/forced marriage.
Fatoumata’s parents listened to her when she told them that she wanted to choose her husband after she turned 18. Read Fatoumata’s story on our blog.
November 25 also marks the beginning of the ’16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence,’ which culminates on International Human Rights Day, December 10.  This year, the theme of the ’16 Days’ campaign is ‘ From Peace in the Home to Peace in the World’.

On December 9, Tostan’s Peace and Security Project will hold an event in the region of Ziguinchor, Senegal to raise awareness about how the Tostan’s human rights-based nonformal education can help to address several forms of gender-based violence which can ultimately lead to more peace in the home, community, and beyond.