Tucked into the northeastern corner of Guinea-Bissau, Pirada is a small, quiet border town. On December 20th, Pirada’s normal tranquility was replaced with excitement and commotion as 301 women, men, and children arrived in the town from 40 surrounding villages to participate in the country’s second ever human rights declaration, closely following the declaration held in Cambadju on December 10th.
By declaring to promote the respect for human rights along with the abandonment of female genital cutting (FGC) and child/forced marriage, the 40 participating villages are spreading their knowledge and creating new social norms in line with human rights principles. Practices that were once accepted, such as not sending girls to school or making children do heavy work, will no longer be seen as a normal part of life in declaring communities, and activities led by the communities themselves will seek to resolve human rights problems existing in the villages.
The day before the declaration, women in the nearby village of Sintcham Laubé explained to spectators and members of the press what they learned about human rights and how that knowledge would be applied in their lives. The women stood in a line holding images representing each human right, which included the right to education, the right to a name and nationality, the right to health, and the right to freedom from discrimination, among 15 others.
Sintcham Laubé was one of the first Tostan partner villages to show the impact of understanding human rights: in 2010 they were the first community participating in Tostan’s Community Empowerment Program (CEP) in Guinea-Bissau to share news of their desire to abandon FGC. Knowledge about the health consequences of the practice along with an understanding of the right to be protected against all forms of violence led the community to seriously discuss the practice. These community-wide discussions quickly led them to the conclusion that the weight of tradition was no reason to continue sending their daughters to be cut.
The understanding of the rights of children inspired Community Management Committee (CMC) member Aissatu Baldé to work with parents and teachers to enroll every child in school in her village of Sintcham Dulo. Aissatu learned about every child’s right to an education and right to be free from discrimination through her participation in human rights discussions in the Tostan class in her village.
In the past, many girls were not enrolled in the local school or left early so that they could help with household chores or be married early. Aissatu went to parents with school-age children and explained to them how important it was for their children to go to school and what a difference it could make in their lives, encouraging parents to invest in the education of all their children. Aissatu follows up with the girls by visiting the school at least two times each month, asking about absences and children’s performance in class.
These community-driven human rights initiatives were highlighted in the declaration. The most visible change that occurred since the villages began the CEP in 2009 was expressed in the personal stories and dynamic speeches given at the declaration: women who had before been shy or afraid to speak publicly gave powerful presentations. According to CMC Coordinator Maimuna Djau, “Before learning about my human rights, I never spoke publicly. Now I see how important it is to be able to express myself and share my opinion. These classes have given us something that can never be taken away – I will have this knowledge until I die!”
Talk about FGC and child/forced marriage figured heavily into the speeches made at the declaration. The imam of the nearby village of Sintcham Tchali spoke about how the abandonment of the practice was a great thing for his community as it removed a form of violence against girls. “There is no religious justification for FGC,” the imam explained.
Muso Bâ Seidi was a cutter for most of her adult life and believed that she was carrying out an important function for the girls of her village. When she learned that FGC had played a role in harming girl’s health, she was horrified. Muso has since become a major grassroots advocate for ending the practice. She is a regular guest on the local radio station, talking about how FGC is harmful and publicly apologizing to everyone she had cut. “FGC ends here! I will bring you my knife, and together we will bury it in the ground!” she said at the declaration.
The communities were praised in speeches by representatives from the United Nations and the Government of Guinea-Bissau. Vicente Pongura, Minister of Education of Guinea-Bissau, presided over the declaration’s closing ceremony. “To abandon a centuries old practice takes courage and vision. You have shown the worth, courage, and strength of the women of Guinea-Bissau.”
This understanding of human rights principles provides communities with a framework for identifying problems in their communities, and the declaration, along with other social mobilization activities, provides participants with examples of solutions developed by other community activists in their social network. The celebratory atmosphere that reigned at the declaration in Pirada showed how comfortable community members had become in taking a leadership role towards the economic and social development of their villages.