On December 12, over 85 people from 15 different communities in northern Senegal were invited to discuss human rights and health related topics at an intervillage meeting funded by Radio Sweden in Ouro Ndournabé. While ten of the participating villages are currently in their second year of Tostan’s three-year Community Empowerment Program (CEP), the remaining attendees were invited to the event through our process of coordinated outreach called organized diffusion. Through this process, a Tostan partner community adopts a neighboring village and shares with them the information they learned in their weekly classes as well as news on upcoming events taking place in the area. Because of this cross-community dialogue, a greater number of people were aware of and attended the intervillage meeting. 

The meeting began with opening statements presented by the village chief of Ouro Ndournabé, Ahmad Diallo, who welcomed all participants to his village and graciously thanked Tostan for sharing essential information they use in their daily lives. Throughout the event one theme kept resurfacing: noticeable changes were occurring within their communities after participating in the Tostan program. To demonstrate some of these changes, members of the Community Management Committee (CMC) of Ouro Ndournabé performed a theatrical sketch to represent the importance of pre- and postnatal visits. The sketch portrayed a woman who did not visit the health post during her pregnancy, and in turn she had major complications during childbirth. Prior to learning this information, the community members were not aware of the importance of pre- and postnatal visits. However, after learning more about maternal health, the number of pregnant women visiting the health posts greatly increased, improving the health of the mother and the newborn child.

Following the sketch, the participants were then divided into four groups, three of which brainstormed issues that existed prior to the program, and the changes that have been made to improve the quality of life for men, women, and children. Together, the community discussed a range of issues, including an absence of social cohesion, marginalization of women, limited understanding of human rights, child/forced marriage, pollution and the environment, and low attendance at the local health posts. Now, following the start of the CEP, they shared how women are included in decision-making processes within the village and family, they are allowed to choose who and when they want to get married, and they participate in income-generating activities. The men and boys of the communities also demonstrated visible changes in behavior. There has been a reduction in violence against women, a greater emphasis on girls’ education, and an overall respect for the human rights of all members of the community.

The fourth group was given the task of finding solutions to current problems in their communities. This gave them the opportunity to analyze the existing issues and use the tools learned in the Tostan program to take the necessary action to improve the wellbeing of their community. They identified limited access to water as major issue in their area. Many of the villages are very isolated from one another, and community members must travel up to 20 km to retrieve water from the nearest source. Together, the group decided it is time to take action and ask for support from the government to help bring water to their villages. Several members are also in the process of constructing wells to help create infrastructure for the water.

For issues relating to health and education, the group discussed the importance of social mobilization and their commitment to continuing awareness-raising activities. Through these activities they will encourage community members to visit health posts when they are sick and women to attend pre- and postnatal check-ups. In addition, they shared how the awareness-raising activities help reinforce community members decisions to keep their children – girls and boys – in school, which can overall benefit the future development of the region.

As the meeting came to an end, the participants had a clear view of how far they had come since they began Tostan’s Community Empowerment Program and what their vision was for the future of their communities. Equipped with new knowledge and resources, they now realize how much they have learned in just two years and how the power of information can transform their quality of life for the better.

Story by Meredith Schlussel, Regional Volunteer, Tostan.