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Communities Changing Social Norms to End Female Genital Cutting in West Africa

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Tostan’s Community Empowerment Program (CEP) illustrates the transformational power of community-led participatory critical awareness raising and social learning processes to empower people, and support them to change norms, behaviours, and inspire a wider movement. An estimated 5.5 million people across 8,830 communities across West Africa have publicly declared their abandonment of female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) and early marriage, and the movement is still growing. In Senegal, by 2011 5,315 communities had participated in 56 public declarations to abandon FGM/C and it fell by more than half in participating villages. The programme has also had a positive impact across other aspects of gender equality and in governance, education, health, environment, and economy in a range of in a range of communities from eight countries in West and East Africa. (Djibouti, Guinea, GuineaBissau, Mali, Mauritania, Senegal, Somalia and Gambia).


The Community Empowerment Program (CEP) is a three year long, holistic, human rights-based and participatory education programme that aims to empower communities in resource-poor rural areas in West Africa to improve their own lives and wellbeing by identifying and then collectively working towards a vision and corresponding goals. The programme is run by Tostan, an International NGO based in West Africa supported by a range of donors. The CEP has three main components:

• Human rights-based education classes in local languages, which foster group discussions and learning on democracy, human rights, problem solving, hygiene and health (including practices that are harmful to health, especially to women’s health, such as child marriage and teenage pregnancy, and FGM/C) and provide training on literacy, numeracy, project management and problem solving to partnering villages (Tostan, 2011). The classes are facilitated by local Tostan agents who live in the community over the three-year period.

• The establishment of a Community Management Committee (CMC), a local governance body with at least 50% women, set up at the outset of the program and selected by the community to provide leadership to advance agreed upon goals stemming from the common vision, the understanding of human rights and the capacity gained in problem solving. (Tostan, 2018)

• Organized diffusion whereby those attending the classes spread their learning amongst peers, family and community members, and CMC members in their localities, as well as in neighbouring villages, mobilizing others to join the movement to shift harmful social norms and behaviours. In almost all cases, this component would lead to inter-village public declarations in which communities publicly announce the abandonment of traditional practices, such as FGM/C and child marriage. (Cislaghi et al. 2019).

The CEP has had a positive impact across a range of areas including governance, education, health, environment, and economy (Cisse et al. 2018) in a range of West African countries. This case study focuses on its impact on addressing gender injustices, particularly female genital mutilation/cutting and child marriage in Senegal. Evidence from rural Senegal shows that the CEP has:

• Substantially enhanced participants’ knowledge and expression of human rights and gender equality;

• Strengthened women’s self-awareness and sense of self-worth and individual agency;

• Led to less rigid gendered roles with indications of men taking up more caring responsibilities and women entering public spaces and taking on leadership positions with enhanced voice and agency;

• Changed norms sustaining female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) leading to reductions in the estimated rate and frequency of FGM/C and child/forced marriage (CFM) in participating villages, lower social acceptance of the practices as well as other positive gender related outcomes (Diop et al. 2004; 2008, UNICEF 2008, CRDH 2010);

• According to an expert longitudinal study in rural Senegal, the estimated rate of FGM/C fell in CEP villages from 65% to 15%, while for control villages they fell from 86% to 47%;

• A quantitative impact evaluation (Diop et. al, 2004) showed that the CEP had contributed to reducing gender-based violence among participating communities from 86% to 27%.

Quantitative research reveals the programme has contributed to reducing child marriage, though this has impacted girls marrying before the age of 15 and not those marrying before the age of 18 (UNICEF, 2008).

Based on these results and an evaluation carried out by the Government of Senegal in 2008, the Tostan approach was adopted by the Government of Senegal in its National Action Plan for the Abandonment of Female Genital Cutting for 2005-2010 and 2010-2015.

The movement to abandon FGM/C and child marriage continues to grow in West Africa. By 2019, as a result of the dynamics promoted the CEP, an estimated 5.5. million people across some 8,830 African communities in eight countries have joined the movement to abandon FGM/C and other harmful practices, and the momentum is still growing.

Participatory education programmes like the CEP can also play an important role in helping build resilience to and preparedness for health pandemics such as COVID-19 and other possible future shocks. During outbreaks of COVID-19 the local trained committees and leaders are helping to raise community awareness, improve understanding of health and hygiene, (especially for women and girls who may not have had access to formal school), mobilize mutual support and provide information about the virus (what it is, how to prevent its spread and what to do if you get it). This work is backed by regular radio broadcasts and two illustrated booklets produced by Tostan about the COVID-19 pandemic, one of which provides an Islamic perspective. (Melching, 2020, Personal communication, 8th September).