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Education is key to protecting children in West Africa

People need to feel free to ask questions, to voice their opinions, and to understand the role they can play in changing practices such as child marriage, says a Muslim leader and child protection specialist.

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    Practices such as child trafficking, child labor, female genital cutting, and child marriage can be addressed through education, says Mouhamed Chérif Diop, an imam and a child protection coordinator at Tostan, an Africa-based NGO that provides education in local languages to remote rural communities in Senegal.
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In Senegal there are numerous threats to a child’s healthy development. Lack of access to education, child trafficking, child labor, female genital cutting (FGC), and child marriage pose the most dangerous risks.

As an imam, and as a child protection specialist with Tostan – an Africa-based NGO that provides basic education in local languages to remote rural communities – I know these problems are complex.

Child marriage is no exception. When you ask people in Senegal why child marriage occurs, there are three primary answers. Firstly, they stress the importance of tradition. They explain that arranging marriages is an African tradition passed down through generations.

Secondly, and this reason is on the rise, people say that they marry their daughters young to prevent them from becoming pregnant outside of marriage. Finally, others turn to religion, even though the Koran clearly states that a woman must give her consent for a marriage to be valid.

Child marriage is not practiced among all Senegalese ethnic groups. It is much more prevalent in rural areas, where traditions are strongest. That being said, perceptions everywhere are changing, and that has much to do with the spread of information.

Even in the most remote villages, people can now listen to radio programs in their own languages. They hear about how others live, and realize they have human rights – and choices.

Having good factual information can make a significant difference.

In areas where child marriage continues, however, it’s about more than just a lack of information. For change to take hold, people need to feel free to ask questions, to voice their opinions, to hear others’ views, and to understand the role they can play in changing practices.

We have to remember that many children and a majority of adults in rural Senegal have had no access to formal education. Yet it is through education that people are able to create their own vision for a better tomorrow and set goals for themselves and their families. This is why Tostan has found that empowering education is central to addressing the challenges that children face.

As the Koran suggests, only knowledge can liberate people (Surat 39, verse 9). The Koran also says that for social change to happen, community members must be engaged in their own development. And the extended family – rather than just one person, one family, or even one village – is at the heart of Tostan’s educational programs.

The first step in these programs is to learn and discuss human rights and responsibilities, which provides a framework for community members to openly discuss their deeper values.

During our class sessions, participants think about what is universally good and what is universally negative. You don’t want to be hit, for example. By extension, you don’t want others to be hit – this is everyone’s human right to be protected from violence. Talking through these human rights, communities discover that many of their values are not culturally specific, but universal and also correspond with their religious values.

This is a starting point for reflecting on what they as a community can do to uphold  their human rights – including children’s rights – and discuss which of their current practices might infringe upon those rights. Working together as a community, people find practical solutions to ending these practices, while remaining respectful to all parties involved.

Topics or practices once considered taboo, such as child marriage and FGC, are now open to examination. People not only have more information, but the freedom to ask important questions such as “What do we need to change to improve our community? What do we hope our children’s future will look like?” They also know that the answers are theirs to debate and decide.

Some leaders may think it is acceptable for girls to be married young, but community members, through education, realize they, too, have their own opinions and can enter into dialogue with others who may not agree. Since the village chiefs and local religious leaders are included in these discussions, they also start to question traditional practices.

The deep changes needed to ensure child protection are not always easy to achieve. The Fouta region of northern Senegal has historically been very resistant to abandoning some of these traditions. Just 10 years ago, people could not even talk about FGC in public – it was such a taboo subject.

Over the last decade however, through talking with one another, meeting with traditional and religious leaders, and continuing to raise awareness, many communities have publicly abandoned this harmful practice.

Through our child protection work, we have learned that instead of just telling people to stop FGC or child marriage, it is more effective to help communities identify their values and then examine long-standing social norms to see if they reinforce or violate these values. The decision to abandon harmful practices then comes from within the community and is sustainable.  

We are continuing to expand this program. Communities engaged in dialogue, connecting universal human rights principles with their deeper values, can be the catalyst for truly transformational change.

• Mouhamed Chérif Diop is an imam and a specialist in Islamic rights. He is a child protection coordinator at Tostan, a nonprofit organization headquartered in Senegal and operating in six West African countries. Tostan has been internationally recognized for its success in engaging communities to bring about sustainable development and positive social transformation – all based on respect for human rights. This article was written in collaboration with the Skoll Foundation.

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