Tomorrow, March 8, Tostan will celebrate International Women’s Day (IWD) by honoring the hard work our partner communities to empower women and girls and support the inclusive development of their communities. The theme of this year’s IWD, ‘Equality for women is progress for all’, embodies what has been a guiding principle in our holistic human rights-based Community Empowerment Program (CEP) since 1991.

During the CEP, Tostan facilitators create a safe and inclusive environment where participants can comfortably interact and share their thoughts on the information being learned. At the onset of our program, many women and girls often do not have opportunities to express their opinions publicly; CEP class sessions provide an opportunity for them to interact with community members – women and men – and add their voice to the discussion. The combination of basic human rights education and the opportunity to actively participate in the CEP helps instill women and girls with the confidence they need to become active voices driving positive change in their communities.

At the start of the CEP, communities also select Community Management Committees (CMC) to lead development initiatives in their community. Every CMC has a majority of female membership, and in 2013, 70% of CMCs in The Gambia had a female coordinator. The CMC members use this unique leadership opportunity to apply their newfound skills and confidence by organizing positive community-designed projects with broad impacts. In 2013 in Senegal, CMCs organized the enrollment of over 2,700 children in formal schools, and in Mauritania, they conducted over 6,800 prenatal visits. In other areas, CMCs organize community clean-up days, coordinate birth registration campaigns, and support the development of local income-generating activities.

Driven by their passion and empowered with new knowledge and confidence, many women fully embrace additional leadership roles within their communities. For example, Bambé Boiro in the village of Lislam in Senegal served not only as the secretary of the CMC, but also as secretary of the village women’s loan group and secretary of an association for mothers of school students. After her community participated in Tostan’s Reinforcement of Parental Practices (RPP) Module, she was also nominated to be an ‘Expert Primary Caregiver’ and conducted home visits with other parents in the village to help improve children’s early development.

As many different organizations dedicate themselves to solving specific issues, it is important to realize that empowering communities to improve the status of women and girls is the first step toward ensuring dignity for all. When women and girls, like those in Tostan partner communities, are empowered to be positive agents of change it only serves to prove that equality for women is progress for all.

Next week, on March 12, we will continue celebrating the empowerment of women at a special IWD event at a women’s prison in Thiès, Senegal. Stay tuned for coverage of the celebration and a Flickr album!