A girl draped in red walks amongst her peers, the blade of the traditional cutter’s knife in her left hand catching the sun as she moves. She proceeds to the center of the group and pulls away the red cloth to reveal her dress—identical to the girls around her. She wraps the knife in her cast-off clothing, places it on the ground and sets it alight. As she stands back and solemnly watches it burn, I am struck by the gravity of this event. These 52 communities from throughout the Kaolack region of Senegal have come together to publicly declare their abandonment of female genital cutting (FGC) and child marriage. 

This performance by young local people was a high point of the public declaration, held on November 15, 2015 in Médina Sabakh, and it was rendered even more meaningful by the knowledge of what had gone into its preparation. In late 2013, at an inter-village meeting to mark their completion of the Tostan Community Empowerment Program (CEP), 27 communities announced that they had abandoned FGC and child marriage, and affirmed their desire to organize a public declaration. As the Assistant to the Regional Coordinator in Kaolack, I became part of their journey in early 2015 when Tostan and Orchid Project undertook a special collaboration to support these communities in realizing that goal.

The same people that I have seen sharing their experiences and views during human rights workshops and inter-village meetings—who worked tirelessly as Social Mobilization Agents to spread positive social change and increase the number of declaring communities—were looking on, laughing and clapping with joy as their fellow community members read the official declaration. These same people addressed the crowd, sang, and danced, bursting with pride.

The participation and remarks of the Governor of Kaolack and special guests Her Royal Highness Crown Princess Mary of Denmark and Andrea Diagne, Country Director of UNFPA, brought home the broader significance of the declaration. As Senegal’s first declaration in Malicounda Bambara in 1997 continues to inspire change throughout the country, this collective abandonment adds to the example Senegal sets for the rest of the world as a country working toward the full respect of women and girl’s human rights.

Yet standing in the crowd, the sentiment was profoundly local—I was surrounded by familiar faces of community members bustling around to ensure that the declaration ran as smoothly as it did. People were holding placards with names of villages that we continue to partner with so that may continue on a path to realize their goals. I was witnessing the culmination of the hard work and perseverance of those who took part in that very first declaration, almost 20 years ago, all the thousands of communities who have proudly followed in their footsteps, and I was also witnessing the hard work and success of my friends.

Written by Daniel Newton, Assistant to the Regional Coordinator