THE BLOG
10/10/2014 07:37 am ET Updated Dec 09, 2014

Transforming Cycles of Violence Into Cycles of Prosperity

This year, the theme for the International Day of the Girl is "Ending Cycles of Violence." The key word in this phrase -- cycles -- places an emphasis not on individual acts of violence, but on the broader systems that shape violence and community responses to it.

This wide-lens perspective on violence resonates deeply with us here at Tostan, an organization I founded nearly 25 years ago to support holistic community-led change. Through our empowering education program in rural communities now running in six countries in West Africa, we have seen time and again that with the right strategies, communities themselves can interrupt, and even end, harmful cycles.

What are the right strategies? Well, for one, we encourage discussion and deliberation of the values that define how much girls, women and others in the community matter. We also offer information in an inclusive, non-judgmental fashion to ensure every participant -- whether a religious leader or a 13 year-old girl -- feels included and respected. Finally, our model takes into account the extended networks involved in decision-making, so that those seeking large-scale change can find allies and reach broad consensus.

The results of working in this way can be powerful. Take for example, one of our partner communities, Dialacoto, Senegal. Several years ago, a pregnant woman there was beaten so badly by her husband that she had to be hospitalized. The women in the community went to a local authority and demanded action. When he attempted to argue that it was a private matter, they went to the governor and told him that they know their human rights -- which are in the Senegalese constitution -- and that they have the right to peacefully march. So they did, galvanizing a community to emphasize the human rights of everyone, not just women.

Even young girls are leading the charge for change. A 15-year-old Senegalese girl named Marietou brought the issue of domestic violence to the attention of her community after witnessing her stepfather repeatedly harm her mother. Instead of being a lone voice in the crowd, the community organized lengthy forum discussions including some led by the local Imam. In the end, they collectively decided to denounce those who continued to be violent towards others, and they solidified this decision by passing a community law now known as the Marietou Law.

This is what real, cycle-ending change can look like: not just making a one-time intervention, but transforming the current system into a new vision. It means that men and women who may have been silent before are now champions for non-violence. It means communities start talking to fathers about letting their daughters go to school. It means that girls previously too shy to speak out will now voice their concerns, and Imams who may have looked the other way, or even justified certain practices, begin to include new, girl-supportive topics on holy days.

When this happens, I believe communities are not simply ending cycles of violence; rather, they are transforming them into cycles of education, peace and prosperity.

On this third annual International Day of the Girl, I am thankful for the support and hard work of our partners, such as Johnson & Johnson, who are putting the needs of girls squarely on the global agenda. As the world increasingly turns its attention towards our sisters and daughters and encourages them to stand up into their full potential, I hope that we work equally hard to ensure that the families, religious leaders, communities and societies in which these girls are growing up -- and in which they will one day be leaders, mothers and mentors -- are there to stand up with them.

In recent years, Tostan has seen historic momentum building across West Africa, most notably in the abandonment of harmful practices, the empowerment of girls and women and the promotion of human rights. The next few years present a rare opportunity to build on that momentum to bring about large-scale change that can transform the region. To learn how YOU can be part of that movement, click here.

Editor's Note: Johnson & Johnson is a sponsor of The Huffington Post's Global Motherhood section.