Tostan (meaning “breakthrough” in the West African language of Wolof) is a US-registered 501(c)(3) international nongovernmental organization with current operations in over 450 communities in Senegal, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, The Gambia, Mali, and Mauritania. Tostan’s mission is “to empower African communities to bring about sustainable development and positive social transformation based on respect for human rights.” It employs over 1,000 people and works in mostly rural regions to promote literacy and increase community engagement in projects to promote health and hygiene, child welfare, human rights and democracy, the environment, and economic development.
Tostan takes a holistic approach to development by facilitating a human rights-based, nonformal education program, called the Community Empowerment Program, that aims to empower communities to lead their own development. Although Tostan is well known for its success in accelerating the abandonment of female genital cutting, the program has also achieved results in the impact areas of governance, health, economic growth, education, and environment, as well as four key issues: child protection, empowerment of women and girls, early childhood development, and abandonment of female genital cutting.
The origins of Tostan can be traced to 1974, when an American student named Molly Melching came to Senegal as an exchange student. After completing her studies, Melching stayed to work as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Dakar, creating the first African language radio program for children. Her work began to take her to rural villages in Senegal where she observed that many development efforts were not addressing the needs and realities of the communities.
Relying on community feedback, Melching and a team of Senegalese cultural specialists developed a new type of educational program, one that engaged communities in the process by working in their own language and using traditional methods of learning, such as dialogue, theater, dance, etc. Their efforts grew throughout the 1980s. Melching founded Tostan in 1991 to continue this work.
Tostan’s international headquarters is located in the capital of Senegal, Dakar. Tostan’s US office is located in Washington, DC. Tostan maintains national offices in Senegal, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, The Gambia, Mali, and Mauritania.
The Community Empowerment Program (CEP)
The Community Empowerment Program (CEP) is a human rights-based curriculum that provides participants – women and men, adults and adolescents—with a strong foundation of knowledge and skills to improve their lives and generate solutions to community problems. The nonformal education program is based on human rights, and is divided into two phases: the Kobi (meaning "to till the soil"), covering democracy, human rights, problem-solving skills, health and hygiene; and the Aawde (meaning "to plant the seed"), covering local language literacy, small enterprise development, and mathematics.
In addition to the CEP classes, communities establish a Community Management Committee (CMC) that is responsible for implementing development projects designed by the community. Trained by Tostan, these are democratically-selected 17 member committees, of which nine members are women.
Tostan trains local women and men to facilitate the three-year program in local languages 
The Community Empowerment Program is
It begins with human rights learning adapted to the local context and continues to refer back to human rights throughout the entire program.
It contributes to the overall development of participants as they work with their community in designing, carrying out, and sustaining community-led activities.
Learner-centered and Participatory
Tostan’s program actively engages adolescent and adult learners in deciding goals for their future and moving forward in partnerships with others to achieve those goals. Tostan teaches its participants the knowledge and practical skills necessary to become self-sufficient and productive. Teaching methods consist of interactive exercises, such as small-group work, case studies, and action-research projects. These methods draw on modern and traditional African oral techniques, including theater, storytelling, dance, artwork, song, debate, and the sharing of personal experience.
Respectful and Inclusive
Tostan works with learners, listening carefully to their experiences and ideas. It also listens to and works closely with religious and village leaders, incorporating their ideas into the program. The program encourages dialogue and consensus among members of all groups: men and women, elders and youth, different social classes, ethnic groups, castes, and religions.
At the beginning of the program, participants identify goals for the future of their community. The knowledge gained in class sessions helps them to achieve their goals in an organized manner. Instead of focusing on what is lacking or making value judgments, Tostan asks participants to think about existing community resources and how to build on them.
Tostan uses the feedback it receives from communities and participants to regularly update and revise its programs. The organization carries out systematic evaluations and helps external reviewers carry out their evaluations.
Tostan believes that the collective changes made by villagers must be self-sustaining. As a result, Tostan helps establish democratically chosen Community Management Committees that continue community-led development efforts after the education program ends. Trained by Tostan, these committees also use participatory decision-making methods.
Innovations in the CEP
As the program has evolved, new projects have been incorporated within the CEP. Since 2009, the Jokko Initiative, which teaches participants how to use a mobile phone to send messages as a method of practicing new-found literacy skills, has been integrated into the CEP in all communities with adequate phone access. Mobile phones and SMS texting are seen as a tool to accelerate positive social transformation by connecting communities, amplifying the voices of women, youths and marginalized groups, and providing a platform for the exchange of ideas.
The Child Protection module, designed in 2010, provides special training for Community Management Committees (the 17 member democratically-selected committees established during the CEP to lead development within their communities) in issues of child protection. It aims to grow consensus around children’s rights while building awareness of the various moral, social, and legal norms that affect children.
The Peace and Security Project was launched in April 2012 and seeks to establish links between community-led initiatives promoting peace and regional policy makers, in order to contribute to peace and security at all levels. This module will expand the CEP’s core program to include conflict analysis and prevention, mediation and communication techniques, and the role of women in peace and security.
The Reinforcement of Parental Practices module, which aims to help parents and the wider community stimulate early childhood development in order to better prepare children for school, will be implemented in 232 communities in Senegal in 2013. The module tries to overcome certain social norms and traditional practices which have been shown to hinder the brain development of infants. For example, according to some beliefs held by people in both rural and urban Senegal, infants must be protected from dangerous spirits: to protect them, certain parents avoid looking newborn babies in the eye and speaking regularly and directly to them, actions which recent advances in neuroscience have shown to be crucial to the development of intellectual faculties in young children.
In 2013, a new project, called Ndimaagu (Pulaar word for ‘dignity’) and working to reduce rates of gender-based violence, is being piloted in 55 communities in Tambacounda, southern Senegal.
Since 1999, a modified version of the CEP has been implemented in five Senegalese prisons. By giving detainees the opportunity to take part in the CEP and learn valuable income-generating skills, the Prison Project aims to increase their chances of reintegrating into society and lowers rates of reoffending.
Through the Solar Power! Project, in partnership with the Barefoot College in India, Tostan gives rural African women who have completed the CEP the opportunity to train as solar power engineers. Following six months training at the Barefoot College, the women return home with skills enabling them to bring power to their communities and earn an income for themselves and for their Community Management Committee, a democratically-elected group established during the CEP to help manage development within the community.
Female genital cutting in Senegal
Although the Tostan program is holistic in nature, Tostan is widely recognized for its success in accelerating the abandonment of female genital cutting (FGC), a practice which has existed in Senegal for approximately 2,000 years. Though not all ethnic groups practice FGC (the Wolof, for example, do not), many do, and the practice is mandatory for girls in order to marry. In general, FGC is performed on young girls between the age of two and five. Type II is the most common type of FGC in Senegal though Type I is also performed (see Female genital mutilation#Classification). Sealing, the most severe type of FGC, does occur sporadically in Senegal.
Other villages reacted with hostility, but a local imam named Demba Diawara explained that such social change could never be achieved in one village alone. Where FGC is practiced as a tradition, it is required for a girl to marry into another family. So ending the practice requires agreement among groups whose children marry one another.
Diawara therefore decided to walk from village to village to raise awareness about the dangers of FGC in the surrounding communities. On February 14, 1998, 13 neighboring villages declared their decision to join the Malicounda Bambara pledge.
Since then, Tostan’s approach has encouraged a total of 5,423 villages in Senegal to abandon both female genital cutting and another harmful practice with which it is often associated: child/forced marriage. The movement has spread to communities in several other African countries. As of April 2013, 528 communities in Guinea have publicly abandoned FGC and child/forced marriage, along with 158 in The Gambia, 144 in Guinea Bissau, 78 in Mauritania, 92 in Djibouti and 62 in Somalia. Through a partnership between Tostan and Mwangaza, a NGO in Burkino Faso, 23 villages in that country publicly abandon FGC on May 3, 2003.
The government of Senegal adopted Tostan's FGC model and works with Tostan to end FGC by 2015. The government of Senegal adopted Tostan's FGC model and works with Tostan to end FGC by 2015. As of April 2013, 5,423 formerly practicing communities have publicly abandoned all forms of FGC in Senegal. Research suggests that Tostan’s program need only be implemented in a further 340 communities in order for an FGC-free Senegal to become a reality. Gerry Mackie, a University of California, San Diego researcher, analogized in a 1996 American Sociological Review article that FGC, like the practice of foot-binding in China, would end very quickly once people began ending the practice collectively in order to preserve a woman’s ability to marry within their ethnic group.
Starting in 1997 participants in the Tostan education program have prepared and recited public declarations promising to abandon FGC. It has persisted in Africa in large part due to the inability of a girl to marry if she has not been cut. In order to realistically end the practice, groups of villages of the same ethnicity all agree to abandon the practice, thereby supplying a group of people who can intermarry without the need to undergo FGC.
Partners and recognition
Tostan's donors include UNICEF, UNFPA, the American Jewish World Service, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, USAID, The Greenbaum Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the Wallace Global Fund. In August 2007, Tostan received the UNESCO King Sejong Literacy Prize. In September 2007, Tostan was awarded the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize for its “extraordinary contributions toward alleviating human suffering.”. In 2010, Tostan and its founder Molly Melching were recognized by the Skoll Foundation with the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship. Tostan received an ‘Award in Action’ by the Cécilia Attias Foundation for Women in 2012, recognizing their work in improving health systems and maternal care at a community level. In 2013, Molly Melching was honoured with a ‘Women of Impact’ award at the 4th Annual Women in the World Summit. In 2002 Melching received the Sargent Shriver Distinguished Humanitarian Award from the National Peace Corps Association for her work with Tostan; it is awarded to Returned Peace Corps Volunteers who continue to make a sustained and distinguished contribution to humanitarian causes at home or abroad or are innovative social entrepreneurs whose actions will bring about significant long-term change.
- Grass Roots African Organization wins Prize. Africa.reuters.com (2009-02-09). Retrieved on 2012-02-17.
- About Us | History. Tostan. Retrieved on 2012-02-17.
- Where We Work. Tostan. Retrieved on 2013-07-19.
- The Community Empowerment Program. Tostan. Retrieved on 2013-07-19.
- Our Model. tostan.org
- U.S. State Department 2010 Human Rights Report – Senegal. State.gov (2011-04-08). Retrieved on 2012-02-17.
- 340 Communities Hold Key to National Abandonment of Female Genital Cutting in Senegal Tostan.
- Mackie, Gerry. Ending Footbinding and Infibulation: A Convention Account.. Retrieved 2008-01-02.
- "From Idea to breakthrough, the inspiring story of Tostan". Retrieved 2008-01-02.
- Tattersall, Nick (2007-08-12). "Grass roots African group wins top world aid award". Reuters online (Reuters). Retrieved 2007-08-30.
- Tostan Homepage
- UNICEF Technical Note: Coordinated Strategy to Abandon FGM/C in One Generation
- UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre Digest on FGM/C (2005)
- 2007 Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize Winner: Tostan 
- UNESCO King Sejong Literacy Prize