The Tostan Community Empowerment Program

Country Profile: Senegal


14,221,000 (2013)

Poverty (Population living on less than US$1 per day):

22.3% (1990-2004)

Official Languages

French (Wolof, Peul, Sérère, Mandingue, Soninké, Diola and Manjaque are recognised regional languages)

Total Expenditure on Education as % of GNP

5.6 (2010)

Access to Primary Education – Total Net Intake Rate (NIR)

71.1 (2014)

Total Youth Literacy Rate (15-24 years)
  • Total: 69.8% (2015)
  • Male: 75.9%
  • Female: 63.6%
Adult Literacy Rate (15 years and over, 1995-2004)
  • Total: 55.6% (2015)
  • Male: 68.4%
  • Female: 43.8%

UNESCO Institute for Statistics

Programme Overview

Programme TitleThe Community Empowerment Program
Implementing OrganizationTostan
Language of Instruction22 African languages
FundingUNICEF, UNFPA, Sida, USAID, NORAD, the Spanish Government and a number of foundations such as Nike Foundation, Greenbaum Foundation, and Skoll Foundation


Tostan, an NGO established in 1991 and headquartered in Dakar, Senegal, works to empower rural and remote African communities to bring about positive social transformation and sustainable development through a holistic nonformal education programme based on human rights. The origins of Tostan date back to 1982 when its founder and executive director, Molly Melching, initiated nonformal education programmes in Senegal which built on participants’ existing cultural practices and local knowledge. The three-year participatory education programme, facilitated by local staff and offered to adults and adolescents in their own language, includes modules on human rights and democracy, problem solving, hygiene, health, literacy and project management. Since 1991, Tostan programmes have been implemented in 22 national languages in 10 countries and have had a positive impact on the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. The Tostan approach inspires positive social change in five impact areas: governance, education, health, environment and economic growth; as well as addresses the cross-cutting issues of child protection, early childhood development, female genital cutting, child/forced marriage and the empowerment of women and girls.

Context and Background

When Tostan’s founder, Molly Melching, arrived in Senegal in 1974, she noticed that the lack of education in African languages acted as a barrier to basic education and thereby inhibited development. As a result, and in collaboration with Senegalese villagers, she designed educational materials using African traditions and learning methods. Based on participation and feedback from participants in a small village near the city of Thiès, a six-module basic education programme was conceived in 1982. Beginning in 1988, with support from UNICEF Senegal, Molly and her team trained local facilitators to implement a three-year nonformal education programme, called the Community Empowerment Program (CEP), in the regions of Thiès and Kolda.

In Wolof, the most widely spoken language in Senegal, Tostan means “breakthrough,” as well as “spreading and sharing.” This word was suggested to Molly Melching, Tostan’s founder and executive director, by renowned African scholar Cheikh Anta Diop. He believed that to foster democracy, development must be educational for all involved, always rooted in and growing out of existing cultural practices and local knowledge. Influenced by his philosophy, Tostan honors the local context of participants. Classes are offered in African languages, and led by culturally competent and knowledgeable local staff. Sessions are led in a participatory manner and include dialogue and consensus building, highly valued skills in African societies. Participants create songs, dances, plays and poetry inspired from traditional culture to reinforce new knowledge. Tostan believes that when participants start with what they already know, they can expand and “break through” to new understandings and practices and easily share with others what they have learned.

Tostan uncovers local knowledge, values and beliefs and uses a holistic educational approach that encourages program participants to reflect on their own experiences across a wide range of subjects. Working from what they already know and what they hope for their future, they can better define and solve community problems. In Tostan classes, community members design, undertake, evaluate and sustain new actions that they believe will help them reach personal and community goals.


In addition to the nonformal education classes, Tostan establishes a Community Management Committee (CMC) and provides training for this committee throughout the program. The role of the CMC is to ensure coordination, management and sustainability for all development activities.

Tostan is mindful to include those who already hold influence and power in the community and those who have traditionally been marginalized. In this way, women and men, adolescents and adults, religious and traditional leaders, people of different social and economic backgrounds and locally elected officials come together to find solutions that benefit everyone.

The Community Empowerment Program (CEP)

The CEP originally focussed on women and girls but has since evolved to include both men and women, boys and girls. The original literacy and problem-based nonformal education curriculum was revised in 1995 to include modules on democracy and human rights, with particular focus on women’s health, as women showed keen interest in learning about their specific health issues.

Participants of the CEP belong to different ethnic groups and socio-economic levels within their villages, and have either never attended formal school or have dropped out at an early age.

The CEP begins by initiating dialogue with community members who are asked to envision their individual and collective futures. Their hopes and aspirations serve as the reference point for the educational programme and the curriculum is designed/adapted accordingly. Evidence of building on participants’ existing strengths and cultural knowledge is visible through the use of traditional learning methods such as song, dance, poetry, theatre and storytelling.

The CEP has two phases, and each phase contains modules, units of sequenced information organized around a theme. The first phase is called the Kobi, a Mandinka word meaning “to prepare the field for planting.” The information contained in over 100, two-hour long Kobi sessions is shared orally since most participants beginning the program cannot read or write. The Kobi sessions take place over a one-year period, with facilitators drawing on oral traditions to spark debate and dialogue on issues related to the community’s wellbeing. The revised CEP is currently being implemented in eight sub-Saharan African countries (Djibouti, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Mauritania, Senegal, Somalia and The Gambia).

The second phase is called the Aawde, a Fulani word meaning “to plant the seed.” Devoted to economic empowerment, this phase is composed of literacy lessons and project management training. In the Aawde, participants learn to read and write in their own language and study basic math. They write letters and compose simple project proposals, reports, autobiographies, stories, poems and songs. They also learn to read and write SMS text messages on mobile phones to practice their literacy skills. Participants study management skills and learn how to assess the feasibility of income-generating projects and then select, implement and manage good projects. Interactive workbooks help them review the initial modules of the Kobi and practice their reading and writing skills.

Some of the key features that have enabled the CEP to succeed include:

  1. Community members’ visions – participants identify goals for the future that are then reviewed, discussed, debated, revised and incorporated into the programme.
  2. Learner-centred participatory pedagogy – teaches participants the knowledge and practical skills necessary to become self-sufficient and productive.
  3. Responsiveness – use of feedback from participants to update and revise the programme.
  4. Sustainability – creation of Community Management Committees (CMCs), which are 17-member democratically selected committees (with at least 9 members being women) which are set up at the start of the program and continue development efforts long after the CEP comes to an end.
  5. Community-led outreach through organised diffusion – participants adopt learning partners and share programme topics, later full communities adopt neighbouring communities.
  6. Inclusiveness – involving key stakeholders such as traditional/religious leaders, government officials, other NGOs (Freedom From Hunger, the Barefoot College, Rural Energy Foundation, Yarum Jen), outside evaluators, UN agencies (UNICEF, UNFPA) and other donors.

Aims and Objectives

The CEP aims to:

  1. Enable participants to understand democracy, human rights and responsibilities and apply them in daily life
  2. Enable participants to identify problems relevant to their communities and engage in analytical problem-solving
  3. Enhance understanding of personal and community health and hygiene
  4. Empower women and adolescent girls to actively participate in and lead community activities
  5. Facilitate the collective abandonment of harmful social norms such as FGC and child/forced marriage
  6. Provide literacy and maths skills, including mobile-phone literacy
  7. Engage participants in project management for income generation
  8. Foster social mobilisation movements for positive change.

Implementation: Approaches and Methodologies


Villages learn about Tostan’s program in a variety of ways, most often by word of mouth. When a community has requested Tostan’s Community Empowerment Program and funding is available, the community is informed about what Tostan provides and what it must contribute. Community members understand that they will receive a systematic curriculum for the classes, a chance to interact and discuss what they are learning and a trained facilitator whose stipend is paid by Tostan. The community must provide a meeting place for the classes and feed and house the facilitator, who lives in the community and teaches two classes of 25 to 30 participants three times a week. Each village has a class for adolescents and one for adults, so a minimum of 50 to 60 community members participate.


Tostan regional coordinators select CEP facilitators taking into consideration past experience, educational level, availability during the programme, and willingness to work in isolated rural areas. All facilitators (approximately 80 percent are women and often previous participants) undergo training courses at the Tostan training centre (CCDD) in Thiès, Senegal, before joining a community of their own language and ethnic group. Tostan’s facilitators have social security benefits and their stipends are higher than those of most other literacy teachers in the country since they teach longer hours and are considered full-time community development agents.

Social Empowerment Element – The Kobi

This phase of the CEP includes 97 sessions of approximately two to three hours each and promotes dialogue and exchange as participants at this stage do not learn to read and write. The Kobi includes sessions on:

a) Democracy and Human Rights and Responsibilities (for example the fundamental elements of democracy, basic human rights and responsibilities summarised from seven major human rights instruments)
b) Problem-solving (for example, how to achieve goals for the community through collective analysis of the situation, choosing appropriate solutions to problems, planning and evaluation skills)
c) Hygiene (precautions and prevention of germ transmission)
d) Health (understanding the body and systems of the body, common illnesses, nutritional information and reproductive health)

Literacy and Economic Empowerment Element – The Aawde

The Aawde comprises the latter half of the CEP and introduces literacy and project management-related elements of the programme. It is composed of modules related to:

a) Pre-literacy and Literacy skills (use of the mobile phone and SMS texting to reinforce literacy skills);
b) Math (basic mathematical operations, use of the calculator);
c) Project Management (how to do a feasibility study and budget, implementing and monitoring small projects and business ventures); and
d) Workbook Review (three interactive Knowledge to Action workbooks to reinforce learning related to democracy and human rights, health and hygiene, small-scale project implementation and management).

The Community Management Committees (CMC) and the Empowered Communities Network (ECN)

Community Management Committees (CMCs) are established in each participating community at the start of the CEP. Composed of 17 members, these committees are a mechanism for community action and institutionalizing democratic community leadership. The training curriculum for the CMCs provides the knowledge, skills and experience necessary to identify, prioritize and address human rights issues, using the same participatory and reflective methods that are modeled throughout the CEP. CMCs propose and manage development projects identified during class sessions and CMC meetings. Image

They also organize social mobilization activities and spur meaningful action in areas including health care, the environment and child protection, among others. CMCs provide sustainability for the Tostan program as responsibility for development is placed in the hands of the community itself. Many CMCs register as official Community-Based Organisations and often form federations allowing them to work together. In 2006, Tostan created the Empowered Communities Network (ECN) to help communities partner with other organizations on development initiatives to help realize their community vision.

Other Tostan Projects

The Child Protection Module

In the countries where Tostan works, there are numerous threats to a child’s healthy development, the greatest of which arise from lack of access to education, child trafficking, child labour, child/forced marriage, and female genital cutting (FGC). The child protection module helps communities address the deeply entrenched social norms and practices that are at the source of these issues. In 2010, Tostan developed the Child Protection Module as an addition to the CEP. The module helps build consensus around human rights and children’s rights while building awareness of the various moral, social, and legal norms that affect children. It emphasises the importance of education and introduces ideas for how communities can work together to protect their children. This work begins within the Community Management Committees (CMCs). They create commissions for child protection in their communities. The CMCs of all participating communities now receive the Child Protection Module.

Community Development Grants

Community Development Grants are small grants provided to CMCs to help fund community development projects as well as to establish CMC-run microcredit funds. Tostan provides the CMC with a small grant—usually between $300 and $1,000. The CMCs often use this grant to establish a rotating microcredit fund, which enables community members, especially women, to start small projects to improve their quality of life by putting into practice the literacy, math and management skills learnt during the CEP. The grants are managed by the CMCs and the profits from microcredit activities are invested in projects to reinforce community health, education and well-being, for example adding primary school classrooms, installing water pumps or launching agricultural cooperatives.

The Mobile Phones for Literacy and Development Module

The Mobile Phones for Literacy and Development Module was added to the CEP’s Aawde phase in 2009. Though mobile phones are commonplace in some of the most remote rural areas of sub-Saharan Africa, they are used primarily by locals to make and receive calls, which is much more expensive than text messaging. The Mobile Phones for Literacy and Development Module harnesses the value of mobile phones to reinforce literacy, organisation and management skills, as well as serve as social mobilisation tools, to help build consensus around local development initiatives. Participants learn how to use the mobile phone and how to navigate its menu, focusing on practical applications such as sending and receiving messages in local languages, using the calculator, and storing and retrieving contacts.

The Peace and Security Project

The Peace and Security Project works to strengthen and support Tostan’s proven grassroots strategy of community-led development to improve peace and security in the West African region. It focuses first on strengthening peace-building at the community level by reinforcing the prevention of violence skills learned in the CEP. These skills include improved communication and problem-solving skills as well as the peaceful resolution of community and familial conflicts. The project is developing strategies for fostering peace and security across social networks through research and collaboration. It also works to connect grassroots communities and their social networks with regional and international institutions. With this increased collaboration, regions and nations as a whole can work together to identify barriers to the peace and security of their area and create solutions that will overcome those barriers.

The Prison Project

The Prison Project aims to help detainees reintegrate into society upon their release by providing them with a modified version of the Tostan CEP while they are in prison, in addition to mediation sessions between inmates and their families. Participants are also given access to microcredit loans for the establishment of small businesses upon their release. The programme is operational in men’s and women's correctional facilities in Dakar, Thiès and Rufisque, Senegal.

The Reinforcement of Parental Practices Module

The Reinforcement of Parental Practices (RPP) Module was launched in March 2013. The module aims to reinforce parental and community practices which create a healthy environment for children’s early development. Research has shown that certain social norms and traditional practices in Senegal can hinder the brain development of infants. For example, the belief that to protect infants from dangerous spirits, parents must avoid eye contact, interaction and verbal communication. During the RPP Module, facilitators share with community members simple techniques that enrich parent-child interactions and are all linked to respecting the human rights of children to education and health. These techniques include directly speaking to young children, using a rich and complex vocabulary, asking them questions and helping them to respond, playfully copying their children, describing objects in detail, and storytelling. As a result, the module will help improve children's early development and learning, allowing them to perform better and stay in school.

Solar Power! Project

Many rural communities with which Tostan partners are not connected to their country’s electrical infrastructure. Without access to electricity, community members’ productivity is limited to the hours of daylight. Through the Solar Power! Project, Tostan sponsors women from rural Africa to attend the Barefoot College in India, where they complete a six-month training program in solar engineering. The comprehensive training provides participants with the knowledge and skills to install, maintain, and repair solar panels. Back in their home villages, each solar engineer installs one solar unit in at least 50 homes, providing each family with a fixed lamp, a bright solar lantern, an LED flashlight, and a plug for charging mobile phones. Each participant also trains women and men from neighbouring rural communities in solar engineering, spreading the impact of the program and providing each engineer with an income.

Monitoring and Evaluation

In keeping with Tostan’s participatory philosophy, the CEP is evaluated, revised and improved continuously based on participant feedback. In addition, Tostan supervisors visit seven to ten community centres at least twice a month, providing support, in addition to collecting programme data, working with CMCs, and reporting to regional coordinators. They also share best practices among communities and help organise inter-village meetings and regional events. Tostan has also been extensively evaluated by external agencies whose recommendations are considered and acted upon. Examples include the Knowledge to Action workbooks which were introduced based on the Population Council’s recommendations for activities designed to reinforce learning; CMC training modules were improved as it was found that the skill sets of CMCs needed to be strengthened in order to ensure sustainability. Furthermore, Tostan has identified specific indicators, measured during the three-year programme, with a view to standardising data collection and analyses. In 2007, Tostan formalised the Department of Monitoring, Evaluation, Research and Learning (MERL) to coordinate evaluation of projects across sub-Saharan Africa.


Some of Tostan’s major impacts and achievements are as follows:

  1. A 2006 publication of the Population Reference Bureau compared five community-based programmes deemed effective for improving health care. Tostan was one of the five programmes given the highest overall score for community participation because of its efforts to work on health goals identified by the community.
  2. A 2008 study by UNICEF showed that among Tostan communities that had publicly declared their abandonment of FGC eight to ten years earlier, 77 percent had indeed stopped the practice.
  3. The 2008 report ‘Girls Count: A Global Investment & Action Agenda’, issued by the Center for Global Development cited Tostan as a best practice for its work on community development and FGC abandonment.
  4. Tostan's three programme components – an empowering education programme, organised diffusion and public declaration for collective abandonment of FGC – have been endorsed by 10 UN agencies and a variety of other donors through an inter-agency statement published in 2008.
  5. In 2010, the Government of Senegal and their partners decided to adopt Tostan’s human rights model as the centrepiece of their National Action Plan to end FGC, based on the results of a study conducted by the Senegalese Government’s Ministry of Family Affairs, National Solidarity and Women’s Enterprise and Microcredit, which believed that FGC could be totally abandoned by 2015 in light of such a concentrated effort.
  6. 2010 Evaluation of the Jokko Initiative by UNICEF and the Center of Evaluation for Global Action (CEGA) at the University of California, Berkeley, found a statistically significant increase in the percentage of people scoring a medium to high literacy rate in the villages receiving mobile phone-based literacy training as opposed to control villages that did not participate in the Jokko Initiative.
  7. The authors of a 2009 article from the UNICEF Innocenti Research Center looked the factors that perpetuate harmful social practices, such as female genital cutting, and how these factors interact with processes of social change are critical to understanding why and how communities abandon such practices, citing Tostan as a best practice.
  8. In 2013, the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Working Group for Adolescent Girls and Young Women in Development issued a report entitled “Adolescentes, jeunes femmes et développement” in which Tostan’s Community Empowerment Program was cited as best practice for promoting gender equality and the empowerment of girls.
  9. Other achievements include: opening new lines of communication between men and women, youth and adults, husbands and wives, parents and children and different socio-economic groups; increased mediation and conflict resolution; increased involvement of women in economic activities and community leadership; establishment of small community-operated health centres; increased community-managed micro-credit operations; increased birth registrations, marriage certificates, national identity cards and school registrations; increased school retention rates, especially among girls; improved literacy and maths skills, including phone literacy; improved child and maternal health, fewer incidences of infant malnutrition and a higher number of attended births; improved behaviours for the reduction of malaria and HIV/AIDS; organisation of peaceful marches against forced/child marriage and violence against women.

Challenges and Lessons Learned


Tostan participants have sometimes faced challenges when working to achieve their visions for the future as social action is often constrained within broader systems of political and social power relations. For example, when 30 women in 1997 decided to abandon FGC it was realised that unless people in neighbouring intra-marrying communities also abandoned FGC, sustainability would not be possible. Enhanced efforts by a local visionary and Tostan’s ensuing organised diffusion strategy have thereafter resulted in the abandonment of FGC by thousands of communities – as of 2013, more than 6,700 communities across the countries where Tostan is active have participated in public declarations to this effect. Tostan also faced considerable resistance in the conservative northern region of Senegal, which was to some extent relieved when strong partnerships were formed with local religious leaders in terms of implementation. Some other challenges that proved to be important milestones in the history of Tostan include the following:

1.Tostan tried to implement a shorter version of the CEP without the literacy component. The shorter version, however, was not well received by participants, who found it frustrating to engage in just the Kobi phase without the literacy elements of the Aawde. As a result, Tostan and its most long-term partner, UNICEF, made a firm commitment to delivering the full three-year programme in every community.

  1. Some men became resentful of Tostan’s initial focus on women, especially the CEP module on women’s rights and health. After several classes were shut down because of distrust on the part of men, the module on women’s and children’s rights were rewritten to include men’s rights as well. This new inclusive approach, introducing an emphasis on human rights, led the men to become fully engaged in the programme.


Tostan has highly successful inbuilt strategies to facilitate knowledge and skill sharing, such as through organised diffusion. Additionally, awareness-raising activities in the form of inter-village meetings are organised, which in turn provide a platform for representatives of different communities, linked by common underlying social structures, to share experiences and discuss potential collective solutions to problems. Tostan also airs radio programmes which discuss topics related to health, human rights and democracy, which subsequently generates further discussion among participants and leads to social mobilisation initiatives. Tostan has also helped and supported villages in making public declarations if they decide to abandon harmful social norms (such as FGC) and in organising marches around topics like child protection, human rights and environmental issues. Most of all, Tostan's CMCs serve as a focal point of community-led activities. Establishing well-functioning CMCs is an essential part of Tostan’s responsible exit strategy to sustain programme outcomes after the CEP has been completed and Tostan’s immediate presence in the community has ceased. The Empowered Community Network aids CMCs to form partnerships with external actors including other NGOs.


Trying to force change through coercive action and condemnation alienates people and can be counterproductive, as it causes individuals to become defensive and cling to their traditional beliefs. Tostan has shown that a programme that works from the bottom up can succeed when its design takes into consideration the needs of communities, as identified by their people. Tostan’s participatory philosophy has resulted in remarkable social changes, including the large-scale abandonment of FGC. Continuous evaluation and revision in light of feedback, as practiced by Tostan, are crucial to the programme’s enhancement and future success. Tostan is preparing to launch a training centre with the aim of sharing its philosophy and model with others.




5, Cité Aelmas
Ouest Foire VDN, en face CICES
B.P. 29371, Dakar-Yoff, Senegal
Tel: +221 33 820 5589
Email:info (at)