Tostan’s partnership with the Orchid Project to raise awareness of human rights and the harmful effects of female genital cutting (FGC) in the Fouta and Kolda regions of Senegal has recently begun its second year. On November 12-15, the members of the social mobilization teams of Matam and Podor (areas within the Fouta region) met in Ourossogui for a four-day seminar to discuss the most effective strategies for successful awareness-raising in the hope of improving their monthly social mobilization missions.

Throughout the first year of the project, there was just one dedicated team in the Fouta region of northern Senegal, covering both Podor and Matam.  During that time, the five social mobilization agents from the region and one Tostan supervisor traveled from village to village to raise awareness of human rights issues including the harmful effects of FGC and child/forced marriage. Due to the size of the terrain covered, a second team was added for the extension of the project, which will allow them to double the number of villages they reach.

During the seminar, I had the opportunity to sit down with several members of the Matam and Podor social mobilization teams to discuss their goals, expectations, and concerns for the coming year. The returning members shared stories of their successes and difficulties from the previous year and how they hope to learn from these experiences to better share information with communities during their missions; the new members discussed their reasons for becoming involved in the project. It was clear that all of the social mobilization agents and their supervisors are extremely motivated and committed to working with the local communities, helping them to understand the harmful consequences of FGC and empowering them to make their own decision about abandoning the practice.

Leading the Matam and Podor teams are supervisors Samba Diallo and Amadou Tidiane Sow, who each have years of experience working with Tostan partner communities and social mobilization projects. As a Tostan facilitator leading communities through the human rights-based Community Empowerment Program (CEP) for more than ten years, Samba Diallo thrived on teaching community members the dangers of harmful practices. “All seven of the villages I’ve worked in,” he stated, “have declared their abandonment of FGC… Within the realm of raising awareness, I have a lot of experience. I can speak comfortably with marabouts [religious leaders], village chiefs, and community leaders.” Despite working in conservative regions, Samba Diallo and Amadou Tidiane Sow are ready to face the challenges that may lie ahead.

A common concern for both new and experienced team members expressed during the seminar was the possibility of not being welcomed into communities that do not wish to abandon the practice. In the Fouta region, communities are sometimes encouraged to preserve the tradition through the powerful influence of conservative religious leaders and some village chiefs. Curiously, I asked Adrahamane Ba, social mobilization agent and marabout, for his thoughts concerning the contrasting opinions of conservative religious leaders who are opposed to FGC abandonment and religious leaders, like himself, who are fully on-board with the movement for change. He simply said, “The other marabouts have not had the same opportunity as me to participate in the Tostan classes and learn about the dangers of FGC.”

As participants of Tostan’s three-year education program, many of the social mobilization agents took on leadership roles as members of their villages’ Community Management Committees (CMCs), established during the program to lead local development initiatives, and are now determined to share what their communities gained from the program with others. When asked about his motivations for joining the team, Samba Sy, marabout and influential community leader, responded by saying, “Before, I did not know the dangers of FGC and child/forced marriage. Now that I know, I want to share this information with others. Now I know that everyone has rights and that each person possesses human dignity.” CMC member, Bineta Ndiaye added, “I participated in the CEP, and have a certain level of knowledge that I want to teach other women. It is very important to teach human rights, education, and health.”

Despite the challenges, returning member Abou Ndiaye is confident in the teams’ ability to successfully raise awareness of human rights issues in the communities. The first year “gave us the opportunity to know the village chiefs, religious leaders, and villagers,” Ndiaye said, “we can now continue to speak with communities who are almost ready to abandon the practice.”

Story by Meredith Schlussel, Tostan.