By Angela Rajic
Tostan is an organization dedicated to strengthening and growing rural communities through various education programs. Tostan (meaning "break-through" in the Wolof language) was formed in 1991 after Molly Melching began the Community Empowerment Program as a volunteer with the Peace Corps in the 70's and 80's. The program's goals were to help facilitate community development by working in the people's own languages and using traditional methods of learning.
Melching's methods and programs have become leading models for community led change over the past 23 years. Tostan works to improve life in poor rural communities in Africa by focusing on several areas of impact: education, health, governance, environment, economic growth and issues focused on women and children.
Tostan's Education initiatives include establishing Community Management Committees that, among other things encourage enrollment of children in schools, Tostan also has modules (like the Mobile Phone for Literacy and Development Module to encourage and enforce literacy and numeracy skills.
The Health initiatives includes educating communities about hygiene, the spread of diseases, and individuals' right to health and safety. Tostan also lobbies against female genital mutilation and child marriage. Communities are also encouraged to share the knowledge they've gained on health and human rights with their social networks and to launch their own initiatives, including specific initiatives to improve maternal and child health. Tostan's health initiative is also directly connected to their environmental work. The organization seeks to help communities find workable solutions to poor sanitation and water facilities which often result in poor hygiene and life-threatening illnesses (including diarrhea, which is the number one cause of death for young children). This works to create clean, healthy and sustainable environments in these communities.
Tostan is also heavily involved with getting communities involved governance and democracy with community programs designed to encourage voting, birth registration, participate in national elections, etc. These activities are lead and moderated by the Community Management Committees, which have a majority female membership. These women often become community leaders and activists in their communities. The committees are also provided with small development grants that can be used to stimulate the local economy by funding new businesses, investing in agriculture and other income generating activities. Women are encouraged to get involved in these businesses as well, and community members are also taught to save and plan for the future.
Tostan is working to give those living in poor villages in Africa the tools they need to improve their lives and communities, create much needed change, and become self-sufficient and innovative in their own right.