On Aug. 5, in the Senegal village of Malicounda Bambara, I witnessed the celebration of the 10-year anniversary of this village's public declaration to abandon female genital cutting -- the first such declaration in West Africa.
Thousands of Africans from four countries commemorated the historic event and announced a five-year campaign for the total abandonment of FGC in Senegal and significant reduction in other African countries. Among the celebrants were participants from the Dec. 3, 2006, declaration in Lalya, Guinea ("Villagers agree to end female genital cutting," Jan. 19).
The peaceful revolution to end FGC began in Senegal a decade ago when 35 mothers from Malicounda Bambara announced to journalists that they were abandoning the traditional practice. They had studied with Tostan, a Senegal-based non-profit that offers a 30-month human-rights-based education program to adolescents and adults in national languages. The women told reporters that the sessions on the human rights and responsibilities related to health and the adverse health consequences of FGC immediately drew their interest. Because they underwent the most severe type of the practice, they realized many of their and their daughters' health problems could be traced to FGC.
Tostan first introduced democracy and human rights in Malicounda Bambara because it discovered villagers' descriptions of their future hopes seemed to resonate deeply with human-rights concepts. When villagers learned their hopes were part of a global human-rights movement, they became emboldened.
After publicly announcing their decision, the women of Malicounda Bambara faced angry responses from other practicing villages. Reflecting on those reactions, Demba Diawara, an Islamic religious leader from a neighboring village, told Tostan that since marriages occur across communities, villages could not stop practicing alone: Their daughters would be scorned and rejected as marriage partners.
Inspired by Demba's analysis, Tostan helped graduates of its program educate their intra-marrying communities so that, as a unified extended family, they could collectively abandon FGC. Over 10 years, through intensive outreach to their social networks, Tostan-educated villagers have taught their neighbors what they have learned in their classes.
The 1997 public pledge set a powerful example in Senegal. Today, 2,657 villages from three African countries have publicly declared abandonment. A recent evaluation by Macro International found significant reduction in FGC in the first communities making declarations.
During the 2007 commemoration, Mayamouna Traore, president of the Women's Group of Malicounda Bambara, said, "We abandoned a harmful practice that violated our human right to good health. Today we are even more in harmony with our traditions and culture. We are more Bambara than ever!"
Tostan's results emerge not from focusing on a single issue but from its holistic educational approach. Early in the program, villagers engage in lively discussions about democracy and human rights and continue to apply what they have learned to the information they study in later sessions about health, environmental protection, problem solving and management skills. They easily make the connection between human rights and democracy: Their daughters had no say in the decision to be cut.
Malicounda Bambara's story provides a powerful message for an international community facing countless challenges: Human-rights education, grass-roots consultation and community-led empowerment can foster positive democratic social transformation leading to a more peaceful world for us all.
Diane Gillespie is professor in interdisciplinary arts and sciences at the University of Washington-Bothell. Tostan recently won the 2007 UNESCO King Sejong Literacy Prize and the 2007 Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize; Tostan.org.
© 2007 the Seattle Post-Intelligencer