Relaxed discussion, popular songs blasting from speakers, a cheerful atmosphere in a sea of matching outfits: my first impressions of the place I had just entered did not align with the perceptions I held about prisons. It was International Women’s Day, at La Maison d’Arrêt et de Correction in Thiès, Senegal–a prison for both male and female detainees that has partnered with Tostan’s Prison Project since 2003.

It has become a tradition to celebrate March 8 at one of the five Senegalese prisons that collaborate with Tostan. Upon arrival, we were greeted by the prison administration and seated in the courtyard, where, despite the heat, a crowd of around 250 people—detainees and their families, visitors, and officials—had gathered.

The morning program included insightful speeches delivered by the Mayor of Thiès, detainees, the prison administration, and Molly Melching, Founder and CEO of Tostan. Speakers focused on both the challenges and successes of women in Senegalese society and Tostan’s Prison Project. Representatives from the U.S. Embassy and UNFPA, Tostan’s implementing partner for the Prison Project, noted: “The eighth of March marks the celebration of all women, without exceptions.” Our brightly colored matching outfits—shirts, pants, dresses, and skirts made from traditional Senegalese wax fabric—exemplified this notion; it was not possible to distinguish between detainees and visitors. Our clothing also served as a reminder of the human rights foundation of Tostan’s work, symbolizing that we are equal and more connects than separates us.

In between the speeches, a skit and a rap performance kept the audience engaged and resulted in reflection as well as laughter. Most impressive to me was the performance of a moving poem written by detainees, celebrating women and their struggles.

Woman, oh, woman!

A woman is a mother, a big sister, a wife, she is everything. A woman is a gatekeeper of God’s treasures, she gives birth to saints; she gives birth to good people. She is the one who gets married too young, she is the one who gets up when everyone else is asleep, just to bring her honor.

A bad day could come along, the darkest you’ve ever known. You come face to face with a tribulation, your tears fill your entire being, and you never forget it. Sometimes, it’s something you haven’t even done, and they take you to jail. Sometimes your husband, your father, your mother, your friends, even your children turn their backs on you, and it’s an indescribable pain.

Thank you to UNFPA, to the US Embassy, to the Senegalese government, for partnering with Tostan, an organization that elevates us in public and in private, that teaches us about our capabilities as human beings, our responsibilities, our rights, teaches us about health, and also about leadership and kindness.

After the official celebration was over, visitors were invited to purchase goods made by the prisoners such as handbags and hand-dyed fabric. These practical skills are a key component of Tostan’s Prison Project and will serve these women long after their release from prison.

Despite my cheerful first impressions, conditions in Senegalese prisons can be difficult—they are often filled beyond their capacity, resulting in a lack of attention to detainees’ recreational and educational needs and poor sanitation facilities.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of prison life is the personal stigma. In a skit produced by detainees, one woman lamented:  ”My parents left me, my children left me, my husband left me. I feel alone.” Although it was a performance, it represented a reality for many of the detainees. The social exclusion resulting from a prison sentence in Senegal often prevents them from reintegrating into their communities. The Prison Project is addressing the social aspect of life in prison through a modified version of the Community Empowerment Program. First of all, the mostly female participants are educated about their human rights—new knowledge to many of the women. Secondly, they are taught skills that can lead to income generating activities, such as raising chickens and soap-making. Lastly, the program mediates between detainees and their families, facilitating the detainees’ return and reintegration to a post-prison environment.

Visiting the prison was a great opportunity for me to see the results of the project first-hand. The gratefulness and positivity spread by the women in the prison was remarkable and reminded me of the greater causes Tostan’s staff commits to advancing.

For me, the day ended in a very Senegalese way: with laughter, dance, and delicious food. I will not forget the smiling faces of the prisoners and Molly’s words: “We won’t stop here.” It is with a feeling of hope that I left the prison that day, considering the long way the Prison Project has come and encouraged by the possibilities ahead.

By Tilmann Herchenroder, Intern

*Poem was shortened for this blog post.