Researcher Antonia Morzenti conducted the following interview to get a closer look at the life of Mariétou Diarra, a Social Mobilization Agent who was trained through Tostan’s Community Empowerment Program. Mariétou’s story was also recently featured in Demba and Oureye: Unlikely Allies in the Movement to End FGC, a short film about the grassroots effort to end FGC in Senegal and beyond.
Mariétou Diarra grew up in the village of Soudiane Dialla in the Fatick Region of Senegal. Her childhood revolved around the seasons. During the rainy season, she would go to the field to help with the rice, millet, and groundnuts. In the dry season, she helped around the house, always in preparation for the next rainy season.
I asked her a little bit about family dynamics: Who made decisions in the family and how? She recalled, “It was always my father who would make decisions. Sometimes he would tell my mother the decision that was made, sometimes not. It was common for wives to hear something like, ‘Your daughter was married last Saturday and tomorrow she will move with her husband.’” She added, “He [her father] would always consult his younger brother before making a decision.” According to Mariétou, it was Bambara (her ethnic group) tradition that the men made the decisions—if a woman was consulted, it was a sign of weakness.
Mariétou explained that traditionally in her family, girls waited until they were 15 years old to get married, but because she had so many marriage proposals—14 to be exact—she was married at the age of 13. She gave birth to her first child two years later. “I learned what it meant to be a ‘good woman’ in two different contexts. First, when I went through the tradition [female genital cutting (FGC)] as a young girl. Second, I learned from my mother when I was growing up,” recounted Mariétou.
After 15 years of marriage, her husband passed away. Following the traditional mourning period (about 40 days), she was remarried to her husband’s younger brother. This tradition of marrying the brother of a deceased husband is a testimony to the importance and value of family in Senegal. Marriage is often seen as a tool to ensure physical and economic security and Mariétou’s in-laws took her in to make sure she and her children were taken care of.
By the age of 30, Mariétou started classes with Tostan. She was keen on oral communication and began to excel in this domain. When the classes first started in her community, they held separate classes for men and women because “the men were too proud to learn alongside the women—it would have been shameful.” She explained happily that the men became increasingly open to being with women in public settings, so by the end of the three-year Community Empowerment Program, the classes were held together.
Mariétou later became a Social Mobilization Agent (SMA), acting on behalf of her community to share the knowledge she learned through Tostan classes. She explained that the selection of communities for awareness-raising activities begins by collaborating with the President of the Rural Community who gives the SMAs a list of villages that are still practicing FGC. From there, the SMAs work with Tostan regional offices and their supervisors make an action plan. After this, the teams travel to each community and speak to community members who are willing to discuss themes centered on health and human rights.
The issue of FGC is near to Mariétou’s heart. Not only was she herself cut, but she also lost her first two daughters to medical complications after they were cut against her will. According to Mariétou, the role of a SMA is to: “Raise awareness to people who follow a tradition that has harmful consequences. Tostan is not forbidding it; we are only bringing information. The goal is awareness-raising and information sharing.” Basic human rights like the right to health, life, and to be free from violence are directly related to FGC. Meanwhile, she’s driven by the effort to “promote children’s rights and child protection.” Mariétou, like the vast majority in Senegal, is Muslim. She feels the work she does is in line with her beliefs because “Islam protects children.”
Although Mariétou’s life has been sprinkled with hardships, she’s determined to move forward and continue to work with her neighbors near and far to create positive change together.
By Antonia Morzenti
*Click here to watch Mariétou tell her story in her native Wolof language, translated by Tostan’s Founder and CEO Molly Melching.