Mission: To empower rural communities in West Africa to bring about sustainable development and positive social transformation based on a respect for human rights.
About the Organization: Founded in 1991, Tostan ("breakthrough," in the Wolof language) traces its roots back to 1974, when founder Molly Melching first arrived in Senegal as a graduate student looking to study francophone African literature — only to realize that her true passion was the field of development and the study of national languages. After completing her studies, Melching opened a children's center in Dakar that adapted stories into the Wolof language and created a children's radio program. She also discovered that development efforts in rural villages were not addressing the real needs and realities of people in those communities. Throughout the 1980s, Melching worked with Senegalese cultural specialists to develop the Community Empowerment Program (CEP), which works with communities in their own languages and uses traditional methods of learning, thereby facilitating community ownership over the development process. Human rights-based, respectful, inclusive, holistic, and sustainable, the CEP model has since been implemented in twenty-two languages in Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Mauritania, Senegal, and the Gambia. Tostan was the 2007 recipient of the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize.
Current Programs: Tostan's focus areas include education, health, the environment, governance, economic growth, and cross-cutting issues around gender and social norms. The organization's Community Empowerment Program has two main components: human rights-education classes for adults and adolescents; and the establishment of a Community Management Committee (CMC) comprising seventeen democratically elected members — including at least nine women — who are taught the skills needed to implement community development projects. The committee's activities include health, education, and infrastructure advocacy; oversight of construction projects, and management of grants and microcredit systems. Tostan's community development grants — which typically range between $300 and $1,000 — enable the CMCs to establish a rotating microcredit fund to help villagers, particularly women, start small businesses, invest in agricultural production, or take on other income-generating activities.
Designed to complement the CEP model, the organization's projects and modules range from child protection — including the prevention of child trafficking, child labor, forced marriages, and female genital cutting (FGC) — to the reinforcement of parental practices that support children's early development and learning. With respect to FGC, participants learn about their right to health and to be free from all forms of violence, their responsibility to protect those rights in their communities, and the harmful health consequences of the practice; they also are enlisted in efforts to raise awareness and discuss the issue with neighbors, and encourage community members to draw their own conclusions. Since the organization's arrival on the scene, more than eight thousand communities have publicly declared their decision to abandon both FGC and child/forced marriage.
The organization's solar power project works to empower rural communities by giving residents the skills they need to provide low-cost and sustainable electricity for themselves and their families, while its peace and security project reinforces conflict prevention and management skills and its prison project helps the formerly incarcerated reintegrate back into their communities.
Website: Visitors to the Tostan site can learn more about the organization's areas of impact and programs; read about the organization's work in each of the six countries where it is active; and/or learn more via the Tostan blog. They also can sign up to receive the organization's newsletter or learn how to get involved by making a donation or hosting a fundraiser.
Funding: Tostan is funded by foundations and individuals.