Bringing in a change, the Tostan Way

Marieme Bamba

Born in Soudiane in rural Senegal in West Africa, Marieme Bamba was 13 when she got married. At 14, she gave birth to her first child. Today she is a solar engineer who has helped set up sustainable and low-cost electricity in many villages in her country. And has trained many other women to do so. Her story, and that of hundreds of women like her in countries in West Africa, is a testament to the efforts of Tostan, an NGO that has helped bring about sustainable development and social change in these parts. In Tostan’s approach, lies a valuable lesson for India, which is grappling with similar problems.

Tostan, in the Senegalese language Wolof, means “breakthrough” as well as “spreading and sharing”. It was founded by American Molly Melching who decided to stay on in Senegal while pursuing her degree in African studies in capital, Dakar. Through its “Community Empowerment Program”, started in 1995, the NGO offers “participatory human rights education to adults and adolescents who have had no access to formal schools.”  It helps them devise their own solutions to their struggles.

Molly Melching

  At the core of Tostan’s approach lies Respect. Essential when it comes to communicating ideas that    involve change. Take female genital cutting, practiced widely across parts of Africa. Melching prefers to call  it  the less judgmental term, cutting. “Cutting”, says Mulching “was practiced because mothers loved their daughters. They did not want to hurt them. There is great social stigma attached to not cutting and mothers wanted to protect their daughters from this.”  Despite the pain, families forced their daughters so they would not be seen as “unclean” or “not marriage worthy.”

Through community meetings on human rights of women and children, the health risks they faced due to cutting were highlighted. Eventually some villages adopted resolutions to put an end to the practice.

To ensure the impact is widespread, Tustin adopts the “social diffusion” approach, the brainchild of Demba Diawara, a respected religious figure and community leader.  African villages are closely linked and Demba realized it was important to create a network of villages for a change to take root. With a team of community leaders, he visits different villages to talk about the benefits of banning FGC . Today 6000 communities in six countries in Africa, apart from Senegal, have abandoned the practice.

Young girl at Kieur Simbara village, Senegal

Tostan’s efforts in other areas like ending child marriage, community micro credit programs, promoting maternal and child health have been widely acknowledged. Issues large parts of India grapple with even today.  There are a few NGOs in India whose approach is similar to that of Tostan, and their successes are acknowledged worldwide. Organizations like SEARCH in Gadchiroli in Maharashtra and the Comprehensive Rural Health Project in Jamkhed, Maharashtra have been able to make a breakthrough where government programs have failed.  Rather than a blanket Central scheme which benefit a few, engaging with communities to understand their specific needs could help find a long term solution.

To learn more about Tostan, visit


One thought on “Bringing in a change, the Tostan Way

  1. whats sad is not that that kids get married off at a very young age. whats sad is that many use society and economic conditions as an excuse to justify their crime.

    great work by Marieme and Molly.

    and thank you Shai for bringing their story to the fore.

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