KOLDA, Senegal November 28, 2010 – Swirling colors and stamping feet swept across the field, heralding an important day for the department of Kolda in southern Senegal. The buzzing crowd of more than 3,000 had come together to declare their abandonment of female genital cutting (FGC) and child/forced marriage.

Villagers from throughout the department traveled hours to attend the event, where they were joined by government officials and delegations of fellow Tostan participants invited from as far away as The Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, and Mali. “We are forever abandoning FGC and child/forced marriage,” affirmed the Kolda village representatives as the declaration was read in Kolda’s local languages, Pulaar and Mandinka. Some of the 700 communities had declared their abandonment previously, but reaffirmed their commitment by joining in with the new communities of their department that were declaring for the first time.

Aset Mballo, a mother of four from Saré Bidji, declared with her village for the second time. Like many of those present, Aset had participated in Tostan’s Community Empowerment Program (CEP), hailed a “revolutionary approach” by Senegal’s Director of the Family – Ndeye Soukkeyna Gueye – in her speech at the declaration.

The three-year-long Tostan program is taught in local languages and offers human rights-based education focused on democracy, problem-solving, health, literacy and management skills. “I’m here today to teach children and parents about the health problems that are caused by female genital cutting and child marriage. My daughters will not be cut, and I want to bring an end to these practices everywhere!” said Aset.

The crowd’s enthusiasm was often barely contained. Children and adults alike spilled over onto the field to join the enthusiastic dancing and rhythmic clapping accompanied the celebration’s youngest girl performers. The group of 50 adolescents had traveled from villages throughout Kolda to spend a week together rehearsing theater and traditional dance with Tostan’s youth organizer. “The girls had the chance to talk together about what they had learned in the program and the changes they were making in their villages,” said Abdoulaye Kandé, Regional Coordinator of Tostan in Kolda.

For many of those present, the skits resonated on a deeply personal level. Kabba Mballo of Sare Kédjan recounted how her daughter had died in childbirth at age 12 after being married to a much older man. The experience convinced Kabba to join the Social Mobilisation Commission of Sare Kédjan’s Community Management Committee (CMC), which is established by Tostan participants in every community. “We’ve educated everyone in the village now and we’re going to ensure the end of child marriage so that this never happens again,” said Kabba.

Kabba and her CMC also reached out to nearby villages to share information and encourage them to take part in the declaration as a united family. “These communities have initiated an extended education network,” said Gallo Kebe from UNFPA, representing the United Nations System. He was referring to the “organized diffusion” strategy developed by Tostan. Of the 700 villages declaring on November 28, 23 are currently participating in the CEP and more than two hundred have already been through the program with support from UNICEF, UNFPA, Sida, and AJWS. Thousands more villagers had decided to abandon FGC and child/forced marriage after learning about human rights through outreach efforts of the CMCs.

The CMC activists have not only held intervillage awareness-raising meetings on the consequences of harmful traditional practices and domestic violence, but also have organized community clean-ups, vaccination days, birth registration and school enrollment campaigns, in their own and neighboring villages. Many of the CMCs have registered as official Community Based Organizations and have opened bank accounts for their micro credit projects.

The results of the CMCs’ work were enthusiastically celebrated in numerous speeches at the declaration. Sekou Balde from Kolda’s Department of Health noted: “With Tostan, we have lowered the rate of maternal mortality and initiated talks with young girls about unwanted pregnancy.”

These community-driven changes fueled the smiles and enthusiasm that participants brought to the declaration. Representing the Senegalese Parliament, Deputy Alpha Koita described the success behind the partnerships Tostan has built with Senegal’s villages, saying, “Tostan understands that it is necessary to listen to, support and encourage the communities. It is a strategy that works.”

Today, Kolda’s communities are equally supporting and encouraging one another. Mama Diallo of Thiety left the declaration convinced of her community’s decision to participate. “I would tell any mother never to cut her daughter. I would tell her what we have learned about girl’s and women’s health and I would teach her about human rights until she understood.”

Reporting and Photos By: Caitlin Snyder