On screen, a 13-year-old girl is singing and dancing, her eyes bright with laughter. Microphone clipped to the back of her dress, she picks up her video camera and moves through her village to the next location for the film she is making.
In the audience, now 15-year-old Ndeye Fatou Fall watches her past self on the screen and grins, excited to be at the first screening of her documentary Walk on My Own, in her own community of Keur Simbara, Senegal.
Ndeye Fatou directed her film in 2016 in collaboration with BYkids, a nonprofit that mentors young people to create films that inspire action for social justice. Walk on My Own tells the story of Ndeye Fatou’s community and the profound decision they made in 1998 to abandon child marriage and female genital cutting (FGC). The film premieres publicly on March 13, 2019, in New York City, coinciding with the 63rd UN Commission on the Status of Women.
There is an atmosphere of optimism throughout the film, particularly for girls – lots of laughter, young children running up to the camera with curiosity, dreams for the future shared by girls just like Ndeye Fatou.
But Keur Simbara has not always been this way.
“If I had been born in 1990, I would be married by now,” then 13-year-old Ndeye Fatou shares in the film. Keur Simbara was among the first communities to publicly abandon FGC and child marriage in 1998. Ndeye Fatou was born five years later, into a family that no longer practices these traditions.
“As women, we feel proud of these changes, because what our elders have told us about their past seems very hard,” she says.
The catalyst for this remarkable change? Tostan. We empower local communities to develop and achieve sustainable change for themselves, envisioning a future of dignity for all women, men, and children.
As a result of Tostan’s work, 9,000 communities in Africa have publicly abandoned of FGC and child marriage, since 1991, positively impacting an estimated 5.5 million people.
Tostan has shown that community engagement and dialogue in local language is more effective for creating change than passing a law.
“You can tell people that it is illegal, but they will do what they want when you are gone,” says a woman who runs her own health clinic to raise awareness of the risks associated with FGC. “When you hold discussions, everyone can get involved.”
And in Tostan’s approach, that really means everyone: not just women and girls, but men, elders, and religious leaders too. After all, men hold up the other “half the sky”, and communities cannot truly move towards positive change if anyone is left out—not only in the discussion of change, but also in the proactive implementation of it.
In Walk on My Own, Ndeye Fatou interviews Demba Diawara, the Village Chief and Imam who was one of the pioneers of the abandonment movement in Senegal in the 1990s. Diawara tells of when he learned that practices of FGC and child marriage came from tradition rather than religion. “We brought this knowledge home. The discussion opened things up. I helped raise awareness for 16 years,” Diawara says. “I went to 347 communities and did six public declarations to abandon the traditional practices.”
This month, the 63rd convening of the UN Commission on the Status of Women is expected to adopt this important position statement: “Gender equality and the empowerment of rural women and girls and women’s full and equal participation and leadership are essential for achieving sustainable development, promoting peaceful, just and inclusive societies [. . .] and ensuring the well-being of all.”
Tostan proudly embodies this CSW principle. Through our human-rights centered model, we have achieved remarkable breakthroughs for girls and women, but it is important to note that Tostan is not an organization whose mission it is to end FGC or child marriage. Rather, these are changes that come organically when communities are encouraged to think about human rights; when women and girls are lifted up so they can lift up their communities; when men are encouraged to become champions of gender equality and to love women as partners; when communities thrive on dignity and mutual respect for all.
Tostan is extremely proud of the progress being achieved for young women across Africa. Particularly for Ndeye Fatou.
In her film, she brings her camera to school and interviews her teacher.
“For you, this is what we pray,” he says. “We pray for you to be helpful to your community, and eventually, to the world.”
“When I finish my studies, I can start doing work that is good,” Ndeye Fatou smiles, eyes bright. “I can be the president.”