SOUDIANE BAMBARA, Senegal, 22 January 2010 – Marie, 19, is home for the school holidays and is helping her aunt with the household chores. In the heat of the midday sun, she washes clothes by hand and hangs them out to dry.
Her village is remote and her family is poor, but young women like Marie are the face of the new Senegal, a country that is making a historic push to end female genital cutting, or excision.
"I can say that I am the first girl in the village to get a high school diploma," she said.
Senegal has made astonishing progress. In little more than a decade, nearly four of the five thousand practicing communities have announced that they will abandon cutting. Many feel it is now possible to totally end female genital cutting in Senegal by 2015.
Total abandonment in sight
"Senegal might be, very soon, the first country to declare a total abandonment of excision," said UNICEF Representative in Senegal Mariam Coulibaly Ndiaye.The last two years have seen the most rapid change, thanks in part to support from the European Commission for UNICEF partners in Senegal.
"It's very important to highlight that through the support UNICEF receives, it is changing mentalities—that has happened through a focus on human rights," said European Commission Spokesperson Anne Jean Bart.
Non-formal classes lie at the heart of this enormous change. They're conducted by UNICEF partner Tostan and they start with villagers learning about vital health issues such as handwashing and malaria prevention.
The classes encourage participants to think about their goals and desires in terms of human rights—making it possible for them to reconsider practices that are discriminatory and harmful.
The programme, which encourages people to take responsibility for their own communities, brings taboo subjects such as domestic violence and sex abuse into the open.
Non-formal learning encourages role play, poetry and song. Afterwards, participants share their new knowledge with others.
"When you talk about transforming social norms you can't do it just by one community. You have to go from one community to another; you have to go beyond the boundaries," said Ms. Coulibaly Ndiaye.
Thanks to the support of the European Commission, UNICEF and Tostan are helping Senegalese communities to take the lead and spread the word to other countries in the region.
Meanwhile, Marie's life is a testimony to the wider possibilities that have opened up for girls here. She—and the other girls in her village—know that they do not have to get married early, and they can decide to pursue a career.
"I would like to go to university but my parents are so poor I can't afford it, so I'm going to become a nurse so I can help my parents," she said.