From June 27-29, Tostan Founder and Executive Director Molly Melching and Bacary Tamba, Tostan National Coordinator of the Diaspora and Regional Coordinator of Ziguinchor, Senegal, shared Tostan’s approach to promoting human rights at The Carter Center Human Rights Defenders Policy Forum in Atlanta, Georgia, USA. The Carter Center, founded by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, is a nongovernmental organization focused on resolving conflicts, enhancing democracy and human rights, and promoting health in more than 70 countries worldwide. The Human Rights Defenders Policy Forum has been held annually since 2003 to bring together human rights activists from around the world. The theme of this year’s forum was ‘Mobilizing Faith for Women: Engaging the Power of Religion and Belief to Advance Human Rights and Dignity’.
Molly Melching spoke on the first day of the forum, sharing the Tostan story with the conference participants. The following day, Bacary Tamba represented Tostan in a panel discussion entitled ‘Aligning Religious Life with Equal Dignity and Human Rights’. The discussion, which was broadcast live online, was moderated by Reverend Dr. Andrea White, Assistant Professor at The Candler School of Theology at Emory University, and also featured Zainah Anwar, Founder of Sisters in Islam, and Sister Simone Campbell, religious activist and organizer of Nuns on the Bus. Bacary spoke about Tostan’s program, emphasizing the importance of education, of both men and women, for development and describing the impacts of the program on women.
Describing his early work with Tostan in the southern Senegalese region of the Casamance, Bacary told the audience about the conception of female genital cutting (FGC) as a sacred tradition and the social norms surrounding it. He confirmed that FGC is neither an obligation of Islam nor of Christianity. When asked about the role of men and his own motivation in particular in the movement for women’s rights, Bacary returned to the question of social norms and how he felt obligated to promote abandonment of this practice as it did not support the wellbeing of those around him. He has spread this message both in his own home – he spoke about his own daughters, who did not undergo the practice – and further afield, throughout the diaspora in Europe.
There were two underlying threads running through each of the participants’ stories. Firstly, it was clear that although religion is often used to justify discrimination, all of the major religions, in fact, support equality. Addressing this point, Zainah Anwar asked, “If we are equal in the eyes of God, how come we’re not equal in the eyes of men?” She stressed the need to open up dialogue about different interpretations of Islam for the purpose of public policy and to include women in such a debate. Secondly, each testimony described, implicitly or explicitly, how the collective action of people with faith can succeed in positively transforming the situation of women.