THE BLOG
01/23/2013 02:53 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014
GLOBAL MOTHERHOOD

Giving Economic Freedom to Women in West Africa

I am often asked about sustainability - it has become a 'buzz' word in the international development sector and rightly so. Our donors and partners want to know how we at Tostan ensure that the learnings from our program continue to be built upon, years after our program has been implemented.

Working in remote communities in eight African countries, our three-year program seeks to build consensus at the local level around human rights and responsibilities, democracy, health and hygiene, and project management, while also introducing practical skills in literacy and numeracy.
'Sustainability' is at the very forefront of our planning when working with communities and the question we always ask is 'how can we help bring lasting change?'

The first thing I always say about lasting change and community development is that when someone learns their human rights, they cannot unlearn them. When a woman knows that she has the right to health, a clean environment, a life free from violence and the right to have a job and economic security - she doesn't forget that.

When whole villages, their intra-marrying communities and their social networks all publicly declare the promotion of these human rights in front of everyone - that cannot be undone. I witnessed this recently in Pirada, Guinea-Bissau on a visit in December when 40 communities, representing over 2,000 people, publicly declared their respect and promotion of all human rights.

So, what structures can we put in place to help build on this knowledge for sustained economic development?

When we begin to work with a community, we help set up a Community Management Committee (CMC), which is a democratically selected leadership committee of 17 members, nine of whom must be women. As Michelle Bachelet, Executive Director of UN Women, said in her recent visit to Senegal: "In critical processes and decisions, there must be a critical mass of women."

CMCs lead development initiatives and activities in each community participating in the Tostan program and are organized into sub-committees in six main areas: Education, Environment, Health, Child Protection, Social Mobilization and Income-Generating Activities - members are trained in project design, implementation, and financial management.
CMCs also take the lead in distributing Community Development Grants within their community. These grants, given by Tostan and usually between $300 and $1000, provide communities with essential funds for community growth.

Often, communities will dedicate some or all of the funds to establishing community-led revolving micro-credit funds which provide seed capital for small businesses. Small loans of $20, $40, or $50 give community members, usually women, the opportunity to set up their own businesses and put into practice the skills learned through the Community Empowerment Program.

Evaluations have shown us that this approach does lead to long-term sustainable economic growth. The business skills learned through the Tostan program are complemented by seed capital, which is almost always repaid in full. This is often then reinvested by the communities to grow businesses or address critical health and education needs.

CMCs play many other vital roles and often link with other communities to form federations. This means that they have more influence when lobbying government, NGOs and civil society organizations for services.

Knowing the role we, as a larger organization, can play in removing barriers to women's participation in their community's economic development is something special, and I frequently come across the remarkable women who are leading the charge.

Fatou Mané, a 22-year-old mother of three living in the community of Latmingué in southern Senegal, is one of these women. Fatou was not able to complete her schooling, but she did complete the Tostan program and was elected secretary of her village's CMC. She set up her own business with the financial and project management skills she learned during the program and received a loan of 10,000 CFA (about $20) from her community's micro-credit fund.

Fatou bought 5,000 CFA worth of fruit at wholesale prices that she sold for a profit, and then she bought some more. When the fruits were out of season, she began using her refrigerator to make ice and local juices to sell. She is now preparing to scale up in order to build a small shop.

How many well-known entrepreneurs started in just this way?

Through our partnership with Johnson & Johnson, we have been able to empower hundreds of communities with human rights education and provide them with start-up funds for economic growth, one of the key elements to ensuring sustainability.

In 2013, we hope to reach hundreds more.

Through our Catapult campaign, with a match funded by Johnson & Johnson, $12,000 can transform 12 communities in Senegal, giving them grants to fulfill their community goals and provide hundreds of women with an economic advantage and the lasting impact of empowerment.

Catapult is where you can get involved in empowering women and girls. Launched in October 2012, Catapult is the first online funding site dedicated specifically to advancing gender equality, and already features 70 projects in more than 30 countries.

Catapult and Johnson & Johnson have teamed up to double your impact this giving season. Johnson & Johnson is supporting a matching gifts donation to their partners on Catapult-up to $50,000.

Subscribe to Must Reads.
The internet's best stories, and interviews with their authors.