Rose Diop, the newly selected National Coordinator of Tostan Senegal, is a walking example of Tostan’s most fundamental principles—respect, collectivity, and creating a vision for a better future. She will go down in history as the first woman to serve as Regional Coordinator, and now the first female National Coordinator, as Rose continues to add to her robust legacy at Tostan. With serious eyes and a gentle smile, her commitment to our partner communities and her ability to exude calm authority have remained constant throughout her career.

Join us as Rose describes her journey from unlikely beginnings to the opportunity to set a new tone of leadership for Tostan Senegal.

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What was it like growing up?

I was born in a village called Lalane, about 6 kilometers from Thiès [in Senegal]. My father had passed before I was born. I was the third of eight children. My mother was always supportive—she didn’t have the chance to go to school, so she wanted a better life for me. But I was actually raised by my maternal grandparents. I was always very close to them, especially my grandfather. He was active in the church and found education very important. He encouraged me the most—when I got home from school, he encouraged me to study and practice my lessons. When there were meetings at school, he was always there.

I left my village when I was 10 years old. There weren’t enough classes at the primary school, so I went to Thiès to complete my studies all the way through high school. I went to university for two years. I was in the English department, but I fell behind because the students and teachers were striking, so I couldn’t support myself and continue my studies. That’s when I started working with Molly [Melching] as her daughter’s babysitter. I was with her from 1995-1997. 

How did you meet Molly?

My brother-in-law was a driver at Tostan, so that’s how I met Molly. Her babysitter at the time got married, so she left to be with her husband. Molly agreed to take me on as her new babysitter. She supported my studies and allowed me to do a concours [accelerated studies program]. 

One day, she suggested that I become a facilitator for Tostan. I said, “Why not?” I was a facilitator from 1997 to 2000 in Keur Simbara and other villages around Thiès. This was before the CEP [Community Empowerment Program] was how it is today. You know, some of the things I learned at Tostan, like human rights, I understood much better than anything I learned with formal schooling.

How did you go from facilitator to National Coordinator?

From 2001-2005, I was a supervisor in Dakar and Kaolack [in Senegal]. In 2006, I returned to Thiès as part of the support and development program. From 2007-2011, I coordinated the social mobilization activities for Senegal. Then I was Assistant to the National Coordinator of Tostan Senegal from 2011-2012. Starting in 2013 through last month, I was Regional Coordinator in Kaolack.  

What reactions have your colleagues, partners, and those close to you had since receiving the news that you’ve become National Coordinator? 

Their reactions really encourage me. If it was just from people in Kaolack, I’d think that maybe it’s just because they’re my close colleagues. But all the regional offices, the other National Coordinators, they called and wrote saying that I deserve it and encouraged me to continue. I really grew up around the national office, so it feels good to be well received there. It’s encouraging when people have confidence in you. Lots of facilitators and supervisors called me when they heard the news. I know some people in the field still don’t know and I imagine they’ll call later. Even partners here in Kaolack, like some government officials, have called to say that they know how hard I’ve worked. It makes me feel really courageous. I promise to do my best to prove them right. My husband and our families are also really supportive. 

How did your life change once you started taking leadership positions?

When I work, wherever I am, I can help—I must help and bring something [to the table]. Whether it’s a facilitator or a National Coordinator, what’s essential is to give your best so that people are pleased. We must have collaboration with the people we work with. It makes me really happy that I’ve now had almost every role in Tostan. 

Even when we’re a leader, we can still learn. Where I learned the most was with the social mobilization activities. With social mobilization, I was able to collaborate with a great team. It was important for me to go to each community, each office, to get to know them. “What works well? What can we do to avoid problems?” A single person cannot succeed; a single person cannot do everything. You need a team. That doesn’t mean that if there’s an error, you avoid hurting feelings: you have to say things how they really are. We know it’s work—and we want to get better.

Do you think your life will change with your new role as National Coordinator of Tostan Senegal?

Life might change a bit. Now, this is more responsibility. When I was a facilitator, it was less work than when I was a supervisor. When I was an assistant, it was less work than when I was Regional Coordinator. I expect to have to make more time for work, more sacrifices. I’ve never had a problem working outside office hours. Sometimes I come in on Saturdays, or stay until 10 at night to make sure everything gets done. 

But from a personal point of view, I am still the same person I was when I was a facilitator. I would like to find more time for personal development.

As a female leader, have you met resistance in the field or professionally? If so, how did you overcome this?

Since I started working, I haven’t really noticed opposition regarding my gender. With government officials and partners, I don’t see any difference [in how they treat me]. Even in communities, I haven’t noticed any problems. People understand that I have a role of authority and people respect that. 

There’s no one in the world who is lucky enough to have everyone on their side. But even if someone is jealous or isn’t supportive of me, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. You can try to find the source of the conflict. Together, we can work through our challenges.

I don’t treat people differently based on their gender. A lot of people are saying that I’m promoting women with my new role. Not only are they happy that I got it, they’re happy that a woman got it. I don’t necessarily want to represent all women—I just want to stay dignified and represent myself well. When I was a supervisor, I mostly supervised other women. With social mobilization, I mostly supervised men, but we discussed and exchanged information with no problem. Even some of the people who trained me, [who I’ve since outranked,] they’re the ones who respect me the most. I think it’s the way you treat people that determines the relationship.

What issue do communities face that you are most passionate about?

In the communities, FGC [female genital cutting] makes me really passionate. It’s with Tostan that I first heard about FGC. My family and ethnic group don’t practice FGC. I understand that it’s important to want to bring people to stop something [harmful], but the approach we take to make people change is the most important part. Tostan has a way of making victims become the real changemakers in their lives. 

Child marriage also impassions me. Schools are really interested when we come to discuss this topic. This is often what makes girls stop their education. Lots of things make me passionate! Really, it’s the holistic part of the program that is good—when communities say, “Now it’s us who have to take charge”. They start working on getting vaccines, pre-post natal visits, access to medicine, doing advocacy with neighboring communities. For me, that’s fantastic. When communities form federations and meet with local government and want to have a formal partnership, those are the extraordinary things that the program brings. 

What is your contribution to Tostan that you are most proud of?

My contribution to Tostan I’m most proud of—there are lots anyway—is the community engagement ceremony for the abandonment of violence against children. And the declaration [for the abandonment of FGC] at Medina Sabar. Even though Medina Sabar is far from Kaolack and sometimes we got back at midnight, then had to wake up the next morning and go back, it was a great collaboration that took so much commitment. Sometimes we’d go all day without eating and resting, but we didn’t even feel it.

And finally, I am thankful to the staff and to the Executive Team who had faith in me.

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Rose’s life did not turn out as she imagined when she was a young girl. She dreamed of becoming a nun, and later—when she decided she wanted to help support her family—an interpreter. Now, at 44, Rose has spent nearly half her life committed to working with Senegalese communities. People like Rose, who are very much part of the the Breakthrough Generation—the backbone of Tostan’s first 25 years—are paving the way for a new wave of women leaders and human rights advocates. 

Interview and translation by Ashlee Sang, Internal Communications Officer