SOTUMA KANTORA, The Gambia, 23 December 2009—On December 20th, 24 communities from the Upper River Region (URR) of The Gambia joined together to publicly declare their resolve to protect the human rights of women and young girls. Representatives from the participating communities declared, “We, the representatives of 24 Mandinka communities in the Tumana, Kantora, Basse, and Jimira districts of the URR… voluntarily and with full knowledge declare that we are abandoning the practices of female genital cutting and child/forced marriage in our communities.”

Together with the Government of The Gambia and UNICEF, Tostan began implementing its Community Empowerment Program (CEP) in 40 Mandinka communities in 2006.

The CEP provides a platform for participants to discuss democracy, human rights, problem solving, and health and hygiene while class sessions enable participants to build literacy, numeracy and management skills, all of which are crucial to communities’ sustainable development. All sessions use nonformal education, utilizing skits, songs, poems, and dialogue to present information in a way that is familiar and respectful to the oral traditions of the region.

Through the villages’ efforts to empower their communities and abandon harmful traditional practices, the participating Mandinka communities celebrated their decision to abandon female genital cutting (FGC) and child/forced marriage. Speeches, testimonies and remarks were all part of the celebration, along with plays, dances, and songs through which participants explained to the audience their reasons for abandoning these practices.

 To remind the crowd of the purpose of the declaration and to highlight its importance, a group of former cutters sang songs about the importance of abandoning FGC and child/forced marriage (pictured left).

Since 1997 when 30 women in Malicounda Bambara, Senegal, and neighboring villages joined together to be the first communities to abandon FGC, the public declaration has become an essential component of the Tostan program. The public declaration is an essential step in the process to change traditional practices because FGC and child/forced marriage are both social norms—social rules that must be adhered to in order for an individual or family to remain as active participants in the community. The public declaration is important because it enables intermarrying communities to join together and to collectively agree to abandon a social rule or rules. Through the public declaration and the involvement of the media, a declaration also enables other communities that are considering abandonment of those practices to know that they are not alone in their desire for change.

Over 1,000 excited attendees participated in the public declaration in Sotuma Kantora, including delegates from Europe, Senegal, and the URR. Local, national, and international media covered the event and spread the joyful news throughout the region and to audiences abroad.

Prior to the public declaration, a press conference was held to share the news and to explain the decision to abandon FGC and child/forced marriage. Hulay Damba, the former cutter in the village of Simoto Touba, shared her testimony at the press panel: “[Cutting] was my occupation, but with my new understanding and awareness I have given it up.” To show how she now generates income, Ms. Damba displayed improved wood burning stoves and the soap-making project which was initiated by the local Community Management Committee (CMC).

The declaration statement ended with a call for other communities in the region to join the movement to abandon FGC and child/forced marriage. After a long day of celebration, participants returned to their respective homes tired but exhilarated as a result of this historic event.