On February 15, 2014 in the village of Saré Yoba Diéga, a group of 26 community leaders gathered to talk about social norms and practices. They had been invited to participate in a seminar organized by Tostan, whose objective was to create dialogue on social norms and practices that exist in their society. These leaders in the Kolda region of Senegal represented a wide swath of the population: there were village chiefs, educators, government officials, religious leaders, presidents of women’s groups, a president of a youth organization, and many health workers.

Harmonizing the efforts of all of these individuals was a key goal of the meeting; each of these leaders influence different segments of the population, and together they have enormous potential to raise awareness in their communities about harmful social norms and practices that can hinder development and harm the health of their society.

The Assistant to Tostan’s Regional Coordinator in Kolda, Mamoudou Camara, opened the first portion of the seminar with a presentation on the work and mission of Tostan. Most of those in the room already knew about Tostan: throughout the meeting various individuals testified that they knew people participating in Tostan’s Community Empowerment Program (CEP), or that they had experienced firsthand the impact that this program has had in their community. The President of the District of Niagha, Yero Mballo, shared that he had witnessed significant social changes after communities in his district began participating in the program in 2013: “Now, women can express themselves freely and resolve issues themselves rather than having to seek out their husbands. And the situation for adolescents has changed as well; before, they did not dare speak out in front of adults, but now they do.”

The head nurse at the health post in Saré Yoba Diéga stated that with the arrival of the CEP in many of the surrounding communities, she has noticed a significant increase in the number of people coming in for consultations at the health post. She attributed this to the program’s emphasis on promoting health and encouraging people to promptly seek treatment for health problems. Ibrahima Baldé, the principal of the middle school in town, said “Tostan has helped keep girls in school and has saved two girls from early marriage. They spoke with the parents of these girls and addressed their fear of the girls becoming pregnant if they were not married early.”

Child marriage is one of the practices that led to the organization of the sharing seminar. After a question and answer session following Mamoudou’s presentation, the Tostan Regional Coordinator in Kolda, Abdoulaye Diao, began the second half of the seminar. He talked about the three types of norms that exist: legal, moral and social as well as social practices. He also indicated that not all norms are negative, that there are many positive norms as well and that Tostan’s work can help lead to the creation of new social norms, such as community agreement that a girl will not be married before age 18.  .

When asked afterwards what he thought of the seminar, Yero Mballo said it was, “Amazing. We learned so much about the kinds of norms and practices… Many different social norms exist that do not promote the health of an individual, and these should be abandoned.” Moussa Sabaly, the president of the youth association, said that the very next morning he planned to convene a meeting with his association’s members to share everything that he had learned from the seminar. He said that he wanted to use the same small group exercise from the seminar during his meeting to help solidify the differences between the types of norms and practices.

The reaction to the seminar by participants was overwhelmingly positive. Tostan hopes that like Moussa, the other community leaders will also share the information that they took away from the meeting.