Hilton Humanitarian Prize of $1.5 Million Goes to Tostan

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An African NGO is changing the lives of millions through innovative human rights education in local languages -- Program has led to shattering of cultural taboos -- 2,600 villages have voluntarily abandoned female genital cutting and child marriages -- Women of Senegal have announced 5-year initiative to be first African country to end FGC

With this program, people will make change from within for themselves without anyone else’s help.

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Tostan, an organization that is empowering communities throughout Africa to transform their lives through an innovative non-formal educational program, teaching in local languages and with African oral traditions, has been selected to receive the 2007 Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize of $1.5 million. The Conrad N. Hilton Foundation presents the annual award, the world’s largest humanitarian prize, to an organization that significantly alleviates human suffering.

“Tostan means ‘breakthrough’ in the Senegalese Wolof language and our distinguished independent prize jury found that the organization has indeed achieved major breakthroughs, empowering women and improving the lives of millions of people in nine African countries,” said Steven M. Hilton, President and CEO of the Hilton Foundation. “Through Tostan’s Community Empowerment Program, villages have reduced infant and maternal mortality, ended domestic violence, improved community health services and nutrition, and provided education for their children. Micro-credit, environmental and income generating projects have mobilized communities to work together to improve their lives.”

Hilton noted that the jury was told by one Tostan participant from The Gambia: “With this program, people will make change from within for themselves without anyone else’s help.” Hilton added, “This is important because we in the philanthropic field recognize that change from the bottom up is the best way to assure sustainability.”

“To be selected for the prestigious Hilton Prize is an incredible honor,” said Molly Melching, founder and Executive Director of Tostan. “This recognition really belongs to the thousands of women, men and youth whose respect for human rights has led to improved health, education and economic security for their people. In what we call organized social diffusion, the more than 160,000 who have taken Tostan’s classes have multiplied the impact of their education tenfold by sharing what they have learned with all the neighboring villages within their own ethnic groups.”

Tostan, formally established by Melching in 1991, first focused primarily on women, but later added men and adolescents. The introduction of human rights and democracy teaching modules in 1996 created unexpected and unprecedented results: eliminating discrimination against women and children and motivating more than 2,600 villages, with more than two million people, to voluntarily and publicly abandon harmful traditions such as female genital cutting (FGC) and child and forced marriage. Further, Tostan is the catalyst behind an historic grassroots initiative announced this week by Senegalese women to be the first African country to end FGC within the next five years.

Dr. Gerry Mackie of the University of California at San Diego, a recognized expert on the tradition of female genital cutting, believes Tostan’s work can result in the ending of FGC completely within a generation. He notes that collective action and public declarations are key; the first village to publicly declare abandonment of FGC took place in a Tostan village ten years ago. Currently about two million girls are subjected to FGC each year, primarily in Africa.    

Tostan uses human rights and democracy as a foundation for a 30-month cross disciplinary educational program that covers health and hygiene, problem solving, literacy, math and management. UNICEF has selected Tostan as a model program to bring about social change across Africa.

A significant outcome of Tostan’s work has been the transformation of women’s roles as they assume leadership positions within their villages for the first time. More than 80% of the democratically elected Community Management Committees are headed by women, and 64 of these committees in Senegal and 40 in Guinea have organized themselves as independent non-governmental organizations and are self sustaining.

Tostan’s newest program calls for protection of the human rights of boys, as young as six, who are sent by families to Koranic boarding schools, but often must beg for five to six hours a day and are beaten and deprived of food if they are unsuccessful. There are approximately 300,000 of these talibes, as they are called, in Senegal.

Since its inception, Tostan has implemented its program in nine African countries and currently operates in Senegal, Guinea, The Gambia, Mauritania and Somalia and has recently begun operations in Djibouti. Previously, Tostan’s programs were successfully implemented in Sudan, Mali, and Burkina Faso and plans are under way to return. All of these countries are near the bottom of the Human Development Index compiled by the United Nations.

“The Hilton Humanitarian Prize was established in 1996 to recognize the contributions of organizations doing extraordinary work in alleviating the suffering of the most disadvantaged throughout the world and to encourage others to support their work,” said Judy Miller, vice president of the Hilton Foundation and director of the Hilton Prize. Miller said Tostan was one of nearly 250 nominees for the 2007 Hilton Prize. A distinguished international jury makes the final selection following a rigorous examination of the nominees, including field visits to sites around the world.

The Hilton Prize is presented each year in conjunction with the annual Hilton Humanitarian Symposium set this year for September 12 in New York City at The Waldorf-Astoria. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will be the keynote speaker at the Prize dinner following the symposium. The symposium brings together international policymakers representing governments and leaders in the humanitarian and human rights fields to discuss current global humanitarian issues.    

This year’s Hilton Prize jury includes: Princess Salimah Aga Khan, International Ambassador for SOS-Kinderdorf International; William H. Foege, M.D., M.P.H., Chairman, Global Health Council; Senior Advisor, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; Gro Harlem Brundtland, M.P.H., former Director General, World Health Organization; former Prime Minister of Norway; Gregory R. Dillon, Director, Conrad N. Hilton Foundation; Eric M. Hilton, Director, Conrad N. Hilton Foundation and son of Conrad Hilton; Olara A. Otunnu, former UN Under-Secretary-General and Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict; former Ugandan Minister for Foreign Affairs; and Professor Amartya Sen, Nobel Prize Laureate in Economics and Lamont University Professor at Harvard University.

The prize recipients are recognized leaders in the humanitarian world. Previous recipients are: Women for Women International (Washington, DC) 2006; Partners in Health (Massachusetts) 2005; Heifer International (Arkansas) 2004; International Rehabilitation Center for Torture Victims (Denmark) 2003; SOS Children’s Villages (Austria) 2002; St. Christopher’s Hospice (England) 2001; Casa Alianza (Costa Rica) 2000; African Medical and Research Foundation (Kenya) 1999; Doctors Without Borders (France) 1998; International Rescue Committee (New York) 1997; and Operation Smile (Virginia) 1996.

Based in Los Angeles, the Hilton Foundation was created in 1944 by the late hotel entrepreneur and business leader, Conrad N. Hilton, who left his fortune to the foundation with instructions to help the most disadvantaged and vulnerable throughout the world without regard to religion, ethnicity or geography. The foundation along with its related entities has assets exceeding $4 billion, and since its inception has provided more than $560 million for charitable projects throughout the world. More than 50% of its grants fund international projects. The foundation is an independent nonprofit organization and is not part of the Hilton Hotels Corporation.

For more information, visit http://www.tostan.org and http://www.hiltonfoundation.org

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