Tostan describes its work as a “nonformal, human rights-based educational program.”

But what does that actually mean, and how important is the human rights aspect?

As it turns out–very.

In the beginning, between the late 1980s and mid-1990s (even before Tostan was an official NGO), what is now called the “Community Empowerment Program (CEP)” focused on problem solving, health, literacy, and management. This original curriculum of 6 modules–which was a result of working with rural Senegalese communities and offered in local languages–did not include democracy or human rights.

The philosophy–then and now– was extremely different from formal education models. Teachers were called “facilitators” and students were “participants,”  eliminating the typical hierarchy seen in traditional francophone classrooms. Tostan teaching methods were highly participatory, using dialogue and consensus-building, and included traditional African methods of communication and learning, such as song, dance, poetry and theater. In this way, “nonformal” reflects a focus on the learners’ educational needs and their involvement in the creation of the curriculum.

Early evaluations of the program showed that it was working; community health improved, women were implementing and overseeing their own projects, participants reported higher levels of self-confidence, and local disputes were resolved through dialogue and mediation. In 1994, UNESCO selected Tostan as “one of the most innovative nonformal education programs in the world.”

However, gaps remained. After interviewing thousands of women across Senegal, Tostan’s founder Molly Melching and her fellow researchers were moved to tears when realizing just how little so many women knew about their own bodies and health.  The experiences these women shared, such as being unaware that they could go to the health post whenever needed, to not knowing what menopause was or how to do birth spacing–were an important reminder of what desperately needed to change.

As Molly said: “Women were so accustomed to being mistreated and so often the victims of discrimination that they didn’t believe they were worthy of any other type of treatment. What they needed was not just closer hospitals and better trained medical workers, but a way of envisioning an alternative existence in which they understood their right to be treated with dignity. Only if they believed they were entitled to better treatment could they demand it and bring an end to these harmful customs.”

Molly knew that simply having Tostan facilitators tell communities to change these behaviors wouldn’t work. So what would?

Attending university in the late sixties, Molly was of course familiar with the importance of civil and political rights, but knew little about other human rights instruments.  A Senegalese lawyer and friend of hers happened to give her a copy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights–and other human rights instruments–all of which had been ratified by the Senegalese government.  He said he thought these might provide some ideas to help the program.

Molly was incredulous: Really? These very official-looking documents full of complex legal jargon could help rural women bring about deep and meaningful changes in their lives? After some looking around, it quickly became clear that no other organization–at least none that Molly could find at the time–had tried to use these lofty-seeming documents at the local or village level. Were they too far removed from one another?

An answer to that question quickly presented itself. After a doctor advised a Tostan staff member to have her tubes tied following her fourth delivery, the obstetrician said he required the consent of her husband–who refused. Molly and colleagues approached the director of the hospital to ask how he could have accepted such a situation. They informed the director that according to legal human rights instruments that Senegal had ratified, women have the right to make their own medical decisions–particularly ones that are life and death.  The director immediately agreed, adding that they would no longer request consent from the husband in such situations.

Molly and her colleagues were surprised that these documents could make such an impact.

This was how the new module on women’s health–module 7–came to include many sessions on human rights.

However, of particular importance in Tostan’s approach is that participants discuss not only human rights, but also the responsibilities one has to uphold the rights of others. This creates a context in which all people, both powerful and marginalized, can both claim rights and at the same time actively promote those human rights for all those in the community.

The results were inspiring. Participants began to respond to the discussions and the new ideas in unanticipated ways. Women in particular began to link their newly found knowledge with community organization and social action. For example, learning about the human right to voice one’s opinions led to them speaking out for the first time on issues that were previously taboo with their husbands and even in public forums.  

Most surprising of all was when the community of Malicounda Bambara came together after the sessions and decided to abandon the millenia-old practice of female genital cutting (FGC).

In 2000, as a result of this strong participant and community interest, engagement, and social action, Tostan’s team revised its original curriculum and placed the new interactive module on democracy and human rights at the beginning of the program. Participants in the Tostan Community Empowerment Program now start with human rights and democracy education, using concepts and language they are already familiar with in their day-to-day experiences, allowing them to identify human rights affirming practices they wish to continue, and harmful practices they wish to end.

At Tostan, we have said that Human Dignity for All is our vision as an organization. we often feel that if ‘dignity for all’ is where we are going, then human rights will be how we get there, together. On this day, 68 years after the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we applaud not only this momentous document, and the other documents and laws it has inspired, but we also cheer on all those around the world every day who are standing up for human rights, who are seizing their responsibility to uphold the rights of others, who are, both at points of crisis and in normal, everyday moments, walking the path toward dignity.  


Quotes from However Long the Night by Aimee Molloy.

Click here to listen to Eleanor Roosevelt reading the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.