On the morning of Wednesday, July 25, four representatives from the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women) were able to see, firsthand, the difference that Tostan makes in the lives of rural Senegalese women. UN Women representatives, including Deputy Regional Director, Maxime Houinato, and Senegal Program Coordinator, Marie-Pierre Raky Chaupin , travelled to Keur Simbara with a team of Tostan staff. Keur Simbara partners with Tostan on a wide variety of programs, including the organization’s award-winning Community Empowerment Program (CEP), and the Solar Power! Project.
The delegation arrived to find community members already gathered in the centre of the village. Men, women, and children of all ages welcomed the visitors with enthusiastic handshakes and greetings before eagerly launching into the morning’s itinerary. Dame Gueye, Tostan’s Head of Development and Community Management Committee (CMC) Support introduced “the man of many titles”, Demba Diawara, who is not only Keur Simbara’s village chief and imam, but also a long-time Tostan collaborator and social mobilization agent. Demba shared his village’s experience in the abandonment of female genital cutting (FGC) and child/forced marriage, answering important questions posed by the UN Women delegation about Keur Simbara’s motivations, challenges, and successes.
After lively skits and songs on democracy and the abandonment of child/forced marriage, CMC coordinator and local solar engineer, Doussou Konaté, addressed the delegation. Doussou shared how she studied solar panel installation, maintenance, and repair from March to September 2009 in India, where, despite little prior former schooling, she was the top student in her class at the Barefoot College. Upon return to Keur Simbara, she lit up 32 houses in her village, each with a solar panel, solar lantern, telephone charger, and two lightbulbs. Interested community members pay a fee of 3,000 CFA (approximately $6 USD) per month to benefit from these solar services in their homes. This fee, 50 percent of which goes to Doussou’s salary and 50 percent of which goes into the community fund for repairs and replacement costs, represents only one-third of the 9,000 CFA community members formerly spent to buy candles and traditional lanterns per month.
Doussou is sharing her expertise by training two women and two young men in the village. Together, the solar team maintains and repairs equipment, collects fees, and buys replacement parts when necessary. Community members showed the delegation how the Solar Power! Project, which is in eight other Senegalese communities, has already improved educational, health, and economic outcomes in their village. For example, the health post has electricity around-the-clock for emergencies, and students can now study at home at night instead of having to stay late in a nearby city with electricity.
Keur Simbara has plans to light up other villages in their region and across the country. They have already provided 18 houses in a neighboring village with solar services and they are currently partnering with Tostan, the Barefoot College, and the Government of Senegal to propose the construction of a low cost community-based training center. This center will facilitate the transfer of competencies from the nine female Senegalese trained as solar engineers in India to rural Senegalese women who are committed to developing solar power in their own communities.
The UN Women delegation listened to community members’ stories and presentations, then visited the local solar workshop and the health post. Maxime Houinato, Deputy Regional Director, UN Women, thanked the community for their openness and eagerness to share, wishing them success in their continued community-led development. He concluded by commending them for their leadership and commitment to women, saying that “a community that doesn’t use the expertise of its women is like a person trying to walk on one leg instead of two…When you decide to use two legs, you see that you can go twice or even three times the distance…Your community has gone far because you are wise enough to work together, men and women, to get where you want to be.”