Tostan (meaning “breakthrough” in the West African language of Wolof) is a US-registered 501(c)(3) international nongovernmental organization with operations in over 500 communities in Senegal, Guinea, The Gambia, Mauritania, Somalia, and Djibouti. Tostan’s mission is “to empower African communities to bring about sustainable development and positive social transformation based on respect for human rights.” It employs approximately 370 people, and works in mostly rural regions to promote literacy and increase community engagement in projects to promote health and hygiene, child welfare, human rights and democracy, the environment, and economic development.
In 1997, women who had participated in Tostan’s classes in the village of Malicounda Bambara, Senegal decided to apply what they had learned in the program about health and human rights and declare an end to female genital cutting (FGC). The women decided to stop this practice in order to protect the human rights and health of their daughters. On July 31, 1997, these villagers gathered journalists to announce their decision—a first in the history of Senegal.
Other villages reacted with hostility, but a local imam named Demba Diawara explained that such social change could never be achieved in one village alone. Where FGC is practiced as a tradition, it is required for a girl to marry into another family. So ending the practice requires agreement among groups whose children marry one another.
Diawara therefore decided to walk from village to village to raise awareness about the dangers of FGC in the surrounding communities. On February 14, 1998, 13 neighboring villages declared their decision to join the Malicounda Bambara pledge.
Since then, Tostan’s approach has encouraged over 2,600 villages in Senegal (over one half of the estimated 5,000 Senegalese villages that practice FGC) to abandon both cutting and another harmful practice with which it is often associated: child/forced marriage. The movement has spread to 298 villages in Guinea and 20 in Burkina Faso.
The origins of Tostan can be traced to 1974, when an American student named Molly Melching came to Senegal as an exchange student. After completing her studies, Melching stayed to work as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Dakar, creating the first radio program for children in African languages. Her work began to take her to rural villages outside of Thiès, where she observed that many development efforts were not addressing the needs and realities of the communities.
Relying on community feedback, Melching and a team of Senegalese cultural specialists developed a new type of educational program, one that engaged communities in the process by working in their own language and using traditional methods of learning, such as dialogue, theater, dance, etc. Their efforts grew throughout the 1980s. Melching founded Tostan in 1991 to continue this work.
Tostan’s international headquarters is located in the capital of Senegal, Dakar. Tostan’s US office is located in Washington, DC. Tostan maintains national offices Senegal, Guinea, The Gambia, Mauritania, Djibouti and Hargeisa, Somalia.
The Community Empowerment Program (CEP)
The Community Empowerment Program (CEP) is a human rights-based curriculum that provides participants with a strong foundation of knowledge and skills to improve their lives and generate solutions to community problems. The program includes modules on democracy, human rights, problem solving, hygiene, health, literacy, and management skills. Tostan trains local women and men to facilitate in the local languages the 30-month program. A specially designed CEP for youth promotes a multigenerational approach to development and fosters adolescent leadership. Tostan centers are established in each community to provide the physical environment necessary for dialogue, exchange, and development.
The Community Empowerment Program is
It contributes to the overall development of participants as they work with their community in designing, carrying out, and sustaining community-led activities.
Learner-centered and Participatory
Tostan’s program actively engages adolescent and adult learners in deciding goals for their future and moving forward in partnerships with others to achieve those goals. Tostan teaches its participants the knowledge and practical skills necessary to become self sufficient and productive. Teaching methods consist of interactive exercises, such as small-group work, case studies, and action-research projects. These methods draw on modern and traditional African oral techniques, including theater, storytelling, dance, artwork, song, debate, and the sharing of personal experience.
Respectful and Inclusive
Tostan works with learners, listening carefully to their experiences and ideas. It also listens to and works closely with religious and village leaders, incorporating their ideas into the program. The program encourages dialogue and consensus among members of all groups: men and women, elders and youth, different social classes, ethnic groups, castes, and religions.
At the beginning of the program, participants identify goals for the future of their community. The knowledge gained in class sessions helps them to achieve their goals in an organized manner. Instead of focusing on what is lacking or making value judgments, Tostan asks participants to think about existing community resources and how to build on them.
Tostan uses the feedback it receives from communities and participants to regularly update and revise its programs. The organization carries out systematic evaluations and helps external reviewers carry out their evaluations.
Tostan believes that the collective changes made by villagers must be self sustaining. As a result, Tostan helps establish democratically chosen Community Management Committees that continue community-led development efforts after the education program ends. Trained by Tostan, these committees also use participatory decision-making methods.
Female genital cutting in Senegal
Female genital cutting has existed in Senegal for approximately 2,000 years. Though not all ethnic groups practice FGC (the Wolof, for example, do not), many do, and the practice is mandatory for girls in order to marry. In general, FGC is performed on young girls between the age of two and five. Type II is the most common type of FGC in Senegal though Type I is also performed (see female genital cutting#Different types). Sealing, the most severe type of FGC, does occur sporadically in Senegal. In 1997 UNICEF estimated that there were approximately 5,000 villages in Senegal that were practicing FGC. As of 2007, 1,679, or roughly one third, of the practicing villages have publicly abandoned FGC.
As Gerry Mackie, a University of California, San Diego researcher analogized in a 1996 American Sociological Review article, FGC, like the practice of foot-binding in China, would end very quickly once people began ending the practice collectively in order to preserve a woman’s ability to marry within their ethnic group.
Starting in 1997 participants in the Tostan education modules have prepared and recited public declarations promising to abandon female genital cutting. FGC has persisted in Africa in large part due to the inability of a girl to marry if she had not been cut. In order to realistically end the practice, groups of villages of the same ethnicity all agree to abandon the practice, thereby supplying a group of people who can intermarry without the need to undergo FGC.
Partners and recognition
Tostan's donors include UNICEF, the American Jewish World Service, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, USAID, the Wallace Research Foundation, and the Wallace Global Fund. In August 2007, Tostan received the UNESCO King Sejong Literacy Prize. In September 2007, Tostan was awarded the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize for its “extraordinary contributions toward alleviating human suffering.”.
- Tostan 2003 Annual Report, p. 15
- Grass Roots African Organization wins Prize
- Tostan | About Us | History
- Tostan | About Us | Where We Work
- Tostan | Our Programs | The Community Empowerment Program
- U.S. State Department 2006 Human Rights Report - Senegal
- Template:Cite paper
- "From Idea to breakthrough, the inspiring story of Tostan". http://portal.unesco.org/en/ev.php-URL_ID=39025&URL_DO=DO_TOPIC&URL_SECTION=201.html. Retrieved 2008-01-02.
- Tattersall, Nick (2007-08-12). "Grass roots African group wins top world aid award". Reuters online (Reuters). http://africa.reuters.com/country/DJ/news/usnL12256053.html. Retrieved 2007-08-30.
- Tostan Homepage
- Video of Molly Melching
- Human Rights in Development: Tostan's Community Empowerment Program in The Gambia
- UNICEF Technical Note: Coordinated Strategy to Abandon FGM/C in One Generation
- UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre Digest on FGM/C (2005)
- The Tostan Program: Evaluation of a Community Based Education Program in Senegal, Population Council, August 2004 accessed at 
- 2007 Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize Winner: Tostan 
- Chicago Tribune Sunday: Walking Away from the Past
- UNESCO King Sejong Literacy Prize