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Tostan’s community empowerment training: “Wisdom is like a baobab tree. No one individual can embrace it”

Girls Not Brides members Koshuma, Abass, Charles, Debbie, Racheal and Saima with Kate from the Girls Not Brides secretariat at Tostan’s training centre in Thiès. | Photo credit: Kate Whittington | Girls Not Brides.

It was not, perhaps, the most auspicious of starts. Girls Not Brides member Saima had flown all the way from Pakistan to Dakar, on Senegal’s Atlantic coast, to learn from Tostan’s work with communities to change harmful social norms like child marriage.

The journey was long enough without a two-day wait in Leopold Sedar International airport at the mercy of Senegal’s impressively thorough visa officials. Only late on Monday night, a few hours before the training was scheduled to start, were papers signed and passports stamped and Saima told that she was free to join us at Tostan’s training centre in Thiès.

The training took an in-depth look at Tostan’s Community Empowerment Programme which places human rights front and centre and works with communities over several years to help them change harmful social norms around practices such as child marriage or female genital cutting.

Girls Not Brides sponsored Saima, along with five other Girls Not Brides members, to take part in the training so they could explore Tostan’s approach and apply new knowledge and skills to their own child marriage work at the community level.

Saima would have been forgiven for arriving exhausted, but any frustrations she may have felt were overwhelmed by a sense of camaraderie that was soon to become infectious in our group – or the Baobab village, as we later became known. The name taken from the strong, imposing Baobab tree found in Senegal to reflect the strength of our participants and the impressive work they do with communities all over the world.

Our group brought a wealth of experience from Uganda, Zambia, Pakistan, Malawi, Ghana and Tanzania and helped to make up this learning community of 22 participants from 17 countries. Many of the participants worked on child marriage and female genital cutting as well as related issues of childhood development, sexual reproductive health and poverty alleviation.

This diversity is what led Girls Not Brides to facilitate this learning experience: so that our members would be able to meet likeminded individuals working for social change and exchange ideas and learning to help strengthen their own work at the community level.

Tostan training, April 2016. Participants meet community members. Credit Kate Whittington 2

Participants meet with community members in Keur Simbara on the outskirts of Thies to learn about the Tostan human rights modules they have taken and hear the incredible story of Doussou Konate who trained to be a solar engineer later in life.

Over ten days, Tostan facilitators Gannon and Birima guided us through an exciting journey to help us understand Tostan’s ever-evolving approach to community-led development and how and why human rights, community wellbeing, and aspiring to a collective vision have become so central to their work.

Along with other members of the Tostan team, including founder and CEO Molly Melching, we explored concepts such as ‘organised diffusion’ to understand the nature and dynamics of social norm change, the importance of working with the whole community, as well as acknowledging the centrality of social networks in the process of social change.

Most importantly, we learnt by doing what Tostan communities do so well: we sang, danced, acted, read poetry and proverbs, laughed and celebrated our way through the training to get a sense of what it’s like to participate in Tostan’s Community Empowerment Programme.

During the course of this programme, the local community facilitator draws on non-formal education techniques to cover a broad curriculum centred on human rights and complemented by classes in literacy, numeracy and income-generating activities.

Classroom learning was interspersed with village visits and meeting community members who have been agents of social change on issues such as girls’ education, improved health care and harmful practices such as child marriage and female genital cutting.

In Keur Simbara, a village of approximately 350 people on the outskirts of Thies, we met with village chief Demba Diawara , an inspirational figure who, as an Imam and former cutter, became an unlikely champion of change and has since worked with hundreds of villages to help them understand the dangerous consequences of female genital cutting.

Despite returning home and back to work, the Baobab village continues to share learning and provide support for each other as we work with communities across the world to help them realise their own vision of empowerment.

Keep an eye on this space! Over the next few months, Girls Not Brides members will write about their experiences in Senegal and how the learning from this training will help to shape their work to end child marriage and support married girls in their communities.