55 year old Manyansa Jabbie lives in the Dampha Kunda village in the Upper River Region (URR) of The Gambia. Prior to her participation in Tostan’s Community Empowerment Program (CEP) in 2011, she served as lady president, or leader of the women’s group in the village, for seven years. During the CEP, she was elected coordinator of the Community Management Committee (CMC), as well as the President of the Gambia Women’s Federation for the URR.

Manyansa has never attended formal school and only studied for three years at a Madrasa, a formal Islamic school. At 10, Manyansa was married off to an older man, and by the age of 11 had her first child.

In the early 2000s, the women in her village asked her to represent them as lady president for their village. The lady president, along with the Alikalo (Village Chief), Village Development Committee (VDC) Chair, a Youth representative, and the village Imam make up the village leaders.

Manyansa points out that before Tostan’s arrival in Dampha Kunda, women were excluded from decision making processes. It was when participants began to learn about their human rights that general attitudes began to change. Women were then included in the decision-making process and began to be treated equally.

When the Tostan CEP facilitator in their village spoke about the creation of the CMC and read off the roles and responsibilities of the CMC Coordinator, the village unanimously agreed that she was the only person who met the criteria. Manyansa said the community realized the sacrifices women make for the welfare of their community—a sacrifice that the men often do not make—and so they wanted a woman to lead.

As CMC Coordinator, her job was to make sure the other members of the CMC were carrying out their responsibilities effectively. She would organize meetings to discuss different issues affecting their community and made sure that adolescents, as well as adults, were attending Tostan classes regularly.

In 2010, the Gambian government created the Women’s Federation, which is represented by a female president in each district. In 2011 Manyansa ran for the position of President for her district and won. She said that thanks to the Tostan classes, she knew she had the right to participate, and to have her voice heard. Most of all, she ran because she wanted to improve the livelihoods of the women in her district. She did not stop there; when it was time to elect a President for the URR in which her district belonged, Manyansa decided to run, and won again.

She has been the president of the Women’s Federation in the URR for three years. Her job has been to facilitate village meetings throughout the district and to help oversee Kafo (group) farms, including taking care of the procurement of farm fertilizers. These farms are youth-led initiatives that bring people from different communities together to raise funds for collective use.

According to Manyansa, one of her greatest accomplishments was the successful lobbying of tractors for her district. They were given three: one for herself, one for the Vice President and one for the women’s counselor. At first they were instructed to only use the tractors for plowing, but were eventually told they could use them for transport, which helped to bring in a lot of money. They have collected almost 100,000 Dalasi ($2558 USD) from transporting goods on their tractor and they are saving this money in the bank.

However, she believes that the biggest concern facing her community is teenage pregnancy, child/forced marriage, and female genital cutting (FGC). She said that not all communities have learned the consequences associated with these practices. It was through Tostan classes that many had learned about the importance of dialogue around the negative effects of these practices, and how through dialogue they can make change. She personally knows the difficulties associated with child/forced marriage. Now, with her position of authority, she can influence her district and region to advocate for girls’ and women’s rights.

Her vision is to see the women in the URR move up, to have a better income, better living conditions and equal rights. She believes that this can be accomplished by giving out microcredit loans to women and building partnerships with NGOs and donor agencies for support. Manyansa desires for all of her children to be educated and for the youth of her region to have access to higher education. For herself, Manyansa plans to continue leading and empowering women.

By Beth Roseman, Regional Project Assistant in Tostan, The Gambia