All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. Yet most people in resource-poor rural communities in Sub-Saharan Africa are unaware that they even have these human rights. The first step is to learn about these rights and discuss them in terms of the cultural context of each village.
Human rights are not effective if they are abstract concepts; only when they can be related to the way people actually live their lives do they have power and meaning. A human rights framework for grassroots education creates a basis for equality and encourages individuals’ participation in practical, culturally-tailored learning.
Once women realize they have the right to voice their opinions, and men learn that they have the responsibility to protect that right, women begin speaking out for the first time, often on issues that were previously taboo, both with their husbands and in public forums.
Once the community realizes that a man does not have the right to beat his wife, domestic violence can go from being commonplace and accepted to something that is socially unacceptable, and enforced by the community – in a very short time.
Once people are better able to gauge which actions protect human rights and which put them at risk, communities often begin to question long-standing social norms. With a deeper understanding of how to protect human rights, communities are better equipped to make decisions collectively that affect the well-being of each person.
Learning about the right to health leads communities to question the practice of female genital cutting (FGC) and child marriage, because these practices threaten the health of women and girls and result in an increase in infant mortality. To date, over 8,000 communities across Africa have abandoned FGC and forced and child marriages as a result of gaining a comprehensive understanding of their human rights through Tostan’s CEP .
Once communities collectively understand that a deeper awareness of human rights comes with the responsibility to uphold the rights of others, both the powerful and the marginalized can claim their rights and actively promote them for the whole community.
With the knowledge that every person has the right to take part in the government of his or her country — whether directly or through the right to vote — resource poor communities see the value in registering births, taking part in elections, and demanding accountability from government representatives. This facilitates more equal access to public services. Through Tostan, more than 110,000 people with limited access to formal education in rural Sub-Saharan Africa have acquired the essential knowledge and skills needed to make good governance decisions and apply the principles of democracy.
Self-governance and human rights awareness
Through Tostan’s three-year Community Empowerment Program (CEP), communities are introduced to human rights in a holistic way. Every aspect of the three year educational curriculum reinforces universal human rights. Women make up the majority of those attending Tostan classes, and during the sessions, each participant brings their own knowledge and skills to the table — cultivating stronger voices for change through song, dance and storytelling.
Community Management Committees are democratically formed as part of Tostan’s program offering a new structure for village-led decision making, creating many opportunities to put newly acquired human rights knowledge into practice. Empowered female (and male) leaders sit side by side with the village chief and the religious leader of the community, making decisions for the community that will help move them toward their goals, ensuring that human rights are protected.
Building awareness of children’s rights and the various moral, social, and legal norms that affect children is an aspect that is reinforced to empower communities to work together to protect their children. Tostan also organizes awareness campaigns about children’s rights. Human rights education leads the way for youth to improve their well-being and become the engaged community leaders of the future. Tostan also offers youth a range of opportunities to put their leadership and learning into practice through participating in youth councils.
Supporting people to make a lasting impact in their own communities is how Tostan fuels social change. By bridging the knowledge gaps in basic education and addressing many intersecting issues through a human rights lens, communities can set themselves up for success.
With our support, communities can pave their own way to long-term sustainable development, starting with the foundational elements and bringing themselves closer to their own vision of the future. In those villages, leadership does not come from power or privilege — it comes from everyday people knowing their human rights and feeling supported and empowered to develop the tools to create change.
Urgent action is needed to protect the rights of women and children
Give communities the empowering education that helps them change accepted practices that harm women and girls. Intimate partner violence (IPV) in sub-Saharan Africa affects 36% of the population. More women in Africa are subject to lifetime partner violence (45.6%) and sexual assault (11.9%) than women anywhere in the world, with the notable exception of high-income countries in the case of rape (12.6%; García-Moreno et al., 2013). Partner Abuse, Volume 7, Number 3, 2016
Too many human rights violations are affecting women and children. Victims of domestic abuse experience not only a violation of their right to safety but are often further victimized by limiting their rights to education, employment, or political representation.
Testimonial from a beneficiary — Marième
Before, my husband would not let me go anywhere, always having to return home each evening no matter what the circumstance,” Marième says. “If she did not return home each night, she would be beaten,” says her husband, Souleymane. Now, she spends time traveling each month to villages in her region as a Social Mobilization Agent (SMA), promoting social norm change and improved health practices. She completed a six month stay in India as a student at Barefoot College. There, she learned to be a solar power production engineer, gaining the knowledge and skills to install and repair solar panels. She continues to maintain solar equipment in her village and surrounding areas.