Velingara Ferlo is a community located in the Matam region of Northern Senegal. The village was founded in 1939 and has seven neighborhoods. Each neighborhood has a chief who reports to the administration. The village chief of Velingara Ferlo, Abdoulaye Niang, estimates that there are around 10,000 residents whose subsistence comes primarily from raising livestock, farming, and running small businesses. In the Ferlo zone, widespread harmful social norms include Female Genital Cutting (FGC) and child/forced marriage.
On a cool Friday in December, there are barely any signs indicating that the community of Velingara Ferlo is preparing for an important event: a herd of cows are lazily trotting in the sand while school children amble home for lunch.
A classroom in what used to be the community middle school hosted an important meeting to form the steering committee for the upcoming declaration this December 21st. Those in attendance included the sub-prefect, village chief, head nurse, the village imam, the president of the youth association, the president of the Women’s Advancement Group, Community Management Committee (CMC) members, and a few Tostan staff.
Back in October 2011, Velingara Ferlo was one of 20 communities to participate in the Community Empowerment Program (CEP). Each week, 50 women met for two to three CEP sessions led by a facilitator.
Coumba Camara, a CMC for three years, said that many changes had taken place since the beginning of the program, “A majority now know their human rights, their rights as citizens, and they know about democracy […]. Women could not attend meetings before, but now women, children, and men are openly participating by speaking in public and sharing their opinions.” She insists on the importance of the second phase of the CEP, the Aawde, where participants learn literacy and numeracy. There had also been notable changes in women’s and girls’ health: pregnant women regularly attend pre-natal and post natal check-ups at their local health post, children are vaccinated, and most people are conscious of the harmful effects of FGC and child/forced marriage.
Coumba demonstrates her CMC’s enthusiasm for change: they meet twice a month to design an action plan and discuss their progress. The committee is currently building improved stoves, a village clean-up is held every Sunday, and soap making is encouraged as an income generating activity. Their work also enables around 1,000 people to register for birth certificates.
Ibrahima Sow, Velingara’s imam, established a relationship with Tostan after participating in an intervillage meeting organized by the Tostan office in the Fouta. When asked about this, he says “When we address FGC and child/forced marriage, the values of Islam align with those of Tostan.” He is familiar with Tostan’s work and has cross-checked the legitimacy of Tostan with Islamic texts. “I travel a lot, I see Tostan signs in communities throughout the Fouta, and can observe that those who used to resist are now those who are aware. They re-read religious texts and found that FGC is not condoned by Islam.”
In each town or community he visits, imam Sow tries to raise awareness with other imams and village chiefs. He’s even held discussions with imams returning from Mecca, and when faced with their distrust, he asks them, “Can you give me a single Islamic text that recommends FGC?” He also repeats that Islam does not support harming women and girls. Health, hygiene, keeping girls in school, and open dialogue in meetings, is truly what Islam stands for. After having proved his motivation, imam Sow joined the planning committee for the declaration.
Abdoulaye Niang says that this declaration makes it possible for communities to demonstrate their commitment. But first he briefly revisits how this decision was made: he explains that before, cutters would travel from village to village to look for work, but since they started participating in the CEP, they’ve learned about the harmful effects of FGC on girls’ health. Now, instead they do door-to-door awareness-raising to ensure that people understand the decision that is being made this coming Sunday.
Paul Bernard, the head nurse in Velingara Ferlo, who has worked with Tostan since the beginning of the CEP, recounts a time when people did not understand Tostan’s work. Now, thanks to the field staff, they are more receptive. He says,“The village is cleaner, the number of children who are vaccinated has increased, and pre and post-natal appointments have also increased.” When speaking about the upcoming declaration, he says, “It has arrived at the right time. I am very optimistic that it will have an important impact in this area.”
Story by Celine Gendre, Communications Volunteer, Tostan