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Turning the Millennium Goals into Reality: Gender Equality–Goal 3

Tostan program participant in The Gambia leads a discussion on the different stages of pregnancy. Photo: Bjorn Westerdal

US First Lady Michelle Obama drew the world’s attention to the plight of women and youth in Sub Saharan Africa during her recent trip to South Africa and Botswana. In the third blog post in our series about the UN’s Millennium Development Goals we focus on Millennium Goal 3: promoting gender equality and empowering women.

According to the United Nations, women in Sub Saharan Africa represent a shocking 70 percent of the overall poverty burden due in part to a lack of access to education,  business credit and financial services. Only one in three jobs outside of the agricultural sector are currently held by women, often at lower wages and with little room for advancement. The percentage of employed men who own their own business is three times as many as it is for employed women in Sub Saharan Africa. And millions of women suffer from domestic abuse, rape, and other forms of violence throughout the continent.

Aid for Africa member Tostan has made huge strides in improving women’s rights in Sub Saharan Africa. Working in remote regions in ten countries, the organization provides holistic, participatory classes in human rights, hygiene, health, literacy, and project management to adults and adolescents who have not had formal schooling. Through a unique approach, Tostan encourages the use of local rituals and customs, including plays, songs and dances to spread these teachings to the rest of the community.

More than half of the participants are women and many take on leadership roles that help elevate their status within the community. Men and boys are especially encouraged to particpate in human rights discussions, which helps establish new social norms that respect the rights of women. Knowledge is shared between communities as well, leading to new ways of thinkng across regions. For example, Totsan has helped facilitate public declarations where communities come together to renounce female genital mutilation and child/forced marriages. More than 5,300 communities have participated to date. Since 1991 more than 200,000 people have participated in the programs, which have affected directly or indirectly more than two million people.

Building understanding of the importance of women as equal partners in families and communities in Sub Saharan Africa does not have to be contentious or minimize the importance of culture.  By involving all members of families and communities in the discussion, Tostan has found that new understandings of the role and importance of women in society can and are being formed.

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