At the central square of Rufisque, Senegal, one of the largest towns outside of the country’s capital of Dakar, a sea of people wearing clothes made from matching brown fabric gathered outside of the Women’s Correctional Facility to celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8. The matching colors, worn by detainees and visitors alike, highlighted sentiments of solidarity and emphasized that we are all equal and worthy of the same human rights.
Forty-two of the women detained at the facility are participants in Tostan’s Prison Project. Since 2003, Tostan has run a modified version of the Community Empowerment Program (CEP) in both men’s and women’s prisons in Senegal. The project is now active in five prisons and seeks to help detainees better reintegrate into society upon their release. Like the CEP, class members are guided through participatory discussions by a Tostan facilitator in a local language, learning about human rights, health, hygiene, literacy, math, and project management. At the International Women’s Day celebration, CEP members presented a skit showing how one women was arrested, her initial struggles in prison, how she learned new ideas and skills through the Prison Project, and how she was able to reconcile with her family after being released.
A table at the event piled high with colorful goods was a testament to the skills the women gained through the project. Detainees learn how to make fruit juice, embroider fabric, and process local cereal grains during training sessions given by trainers, often ex-detainees. These skills give many of the women the confidence that they will be able to support themselves financially once released. The goods produced by participants while in prison are sold locally to community members. The funds the detainees earn from this sale are used to buy more materials and finance a social support fund in case of sickness for the detainees. Funds are also divided among the participants, helping them begin savings while still in prison.
Mariama Ndiaye (name changed), one of the detainees participating in the project, gave a speech to the crowd gathered at the event. She said she appreciated the solidarity shown at the event for the rights of women and children and that the gathering helped the detainees to feel that they were not discriminated against due to their status. Later, Seynabou Ndiaye, a member of the facility’s administration, echoed these sentiments saying, “between us and the detainees, it is like a family.”
As the ceremony came to an end, a woman selling vegetables nearby in the square came over to the crowd and placed some lettuce on the pile of gifts being donated to the prisoners. “For you, my sisters!” she said as she smiled and waved at the women.