Tostan sister organization, Tostan France, organizes monthly knowledge-sharing workshops in Montreuil, France in collaboration with neighborhood organizations and associations, including a local social center (SFM-Montreuil) and women’s group (l’Association des Femmes de La Boissière).
These workshops provide a forum for participants to discuss individual or collective problems and topics pertinent to community life, such as education, gender relations, and multiculturalism. Just as in the Tostan Community Empowerment Program, participatory techniques such as theater, role play, and visual learning support the discussion. Discussions are free of charge and are open to everyone, notwithstanding their level of education, and those who are not fluent in French are welcomed.
As a result of their participation in these workshops, seven women living in the neighborhood of La Boissière in Montreuil, have formed their own Residents’ Management Committee, inspired by Tostan’s work with communities across West and East Africa and the setting up of Community Management Committees in Tostan partner communities which help them to develop projects and encourage collective wellbeing.
The setting up of the committee has proved to be a source of learning for the participants – a process of empowerment not entirely different from that which takes place for women in many of Tostan’s partner communities. The women have acquired skills in planning and organizing, internet usage (they have set up a dedicated email account), and have become more comfortable in debates and public speaking. Joining the committee has also given members the opportunity to engage with formal institutions. Two members approached the Conseil de quartier – a space established for exchange between residents and elected officials – to share their reflections on issues affecting the local community and offer updates on their projects.
The committee’s first collective undertaking was to set up a free fitness program to improve the health of the community. The committee members had noticed that women in the area did not have options available for exercise that suited their needs, a problem, which one of the members of the committee, Souaad, brought to the attention of the Conseil de Quartier. They then took it upon themselves to address this issue and decided to set up weekly sport sessions for local women who may not be in the habit of regular physical exercise. Fatima, one of the committee members, approached a friend who was on maternity leave from her job as a gym instructor. The friend agreed to volunteer with the committee, and they decided together that the classes should be suitable for everyone, no matter their age or level of fitness. With the support of Tostan France, the committee presented their idea at a local council meeting.
Speaking of the many obstacles to putting their plan into practice – organizing the timetable, finding a room, obtaining insurance and medical certificates – one committee member said “we didn’t think we would get there this year”. However, due to the hard work of the members, the problems were overcome, with the local council agreeing to provide a venue, and the SFM-Montreuil Social Center arranging the necessary insurance. As participants required medical certificates, women who were not registered with a doctor were encouraged to make use of a free clinic. Souaad described this as an incentive which “pushed the women to go for a consultation”.
The next step, finding people to sign up for the free classes, proved to be easy.
Now, every Tuesday afternoon, 20 or so participants follow the directions of two volunteers for nearly two hours, moving in time with the music. At the end of the class, the women are sweating but smiling: “It’s good, it’s a long time since I’ve moved like that, and it gets me out of the house,” explained Atika, one of the local women participating.
The work of the Residents’ Management Committee towards collective change at a local level is improving the fitness of women in the area, raising important community issues with local officials and empowering the committee members themselves.