In the small community of Vélingara Ferlo in northern Senegal, a large tent is erected. The sun rises in the sky and the heat of the day begins to simmer. The village is quiet now, but in a few hours, Vélingara Fero will become the focal point of a historic gathering in this remote corner of the world.
The trucks begin to arrive, filled with men, women and children from neighboring villages, some of whom have traveled for hours just to take part in the festivities. The energy is contagious: children laugh and run, women in brightly colored dresses dance and whirl to the rhythmic beat of the drums. Under the tent, a host entertains the growing crowd with jokes.
But the reason for today’s gathering is no laughing matter. Today, Vélingara Ferlo and 120 surrounding communities are publicly declaring their intent to abandon the traditional practices of female genital cutting (FGC) and child/forced marriage. It’s a day for celebration, for unity, and for looking ahead to a future where girls are free from these harmful practices.
Since the first public declaration in Senegal in 1997, events like the one in Vélingara Ferlo have been instrumental in the movement to abandon FGC. “A declaration is the result of months and months of awareness raising, education, and open and honest dialogue among neighboring communities,” said Valencia Rakotomalala, a Tostan volunteer who attended the declaration in Vélingara Ferlo. “It reflects the courage of the communities to speak out against a 2,000 year old practice that is taboo in many societies.”
The collaborative nature of a public declaration is what truly empowers communities to embrace changing social norms. Communities in Senegal are bound by the weight of their words. When multiple communities come together to make a public statement supporting the abandonment of FGC, it ensures that no one will be ostracized for deciding not to engage in the practice. That’s not to say that 100 percent of the community supports or embraces the declaration…but it is a milestone that signifies a readiness for change and lays a foundation for the community members to continue working together in their efforts to abandon the practice entirely.
In Vélingara Ferlo, the declaration lasts several hours and includes speeches from local authorities and community partners, skits performed by community members, and a public reading of the declaration. But it is the rousing speech of a young girl, Fatou Aidara, that resonates the most. Fatou is the youth representative of the community, and she speaks with authority and conviction about her desire to see young people leading the movement to end FGC. “ Tell me what youth you have,” she says, “and I will tell you what people you will become.”
“That’s when I realized that [the declaration] was about more than just those 2 hours under the tent,” says Valencia. “Making sure that communities keep their pledge after the declaration is just as crucial. It takes time and effort, and when the people speaking up are as young and passionate as Fatou, you realize you have witnessed something historical.”
See more of what it’s like to attend a public declaration by visiting Tostan’s Flickr album with more photos from the event at Vélingara Ferlo.