DIABOUGOU, Senegal, Sep 12 (Reuters) Marietou Ndiaye waited in vain for her daughter as the other children were brought back bloodied from an initiation ceremony in the woods.
She was told there had been complications during the ritual, in which the elder women of this Senegalese village used razor blades to cut out the girls' clitoris, an age-old custom meant to prepare them for marriage.
''My daughter was bleeding. When I said I want to see her, they said no you cannot, the parents cannot go in. There will be no exception for you,'' said Ndiaye, 50, tears in her eyes.
''The child was already dead. They hid it from me. It was only when the other children emerged that I realised I had lost her,'' she said in the local Wolof language, lowering her face and twisting a handkerchief nervously around her fingers.
Two decades on, Ndiaye has become a leading campaigner for the eradication of a ritual known variously as genital cutting, genital mutilation, or, euphemistically, female circumcision.
Her village is one of many being educated in human rights by local aid group Tostan, which receives the world's largest humanitarian award, the 1.5 million dollars Conrad N Hilton Prize, at a ceremony in New York late today.
Tostan -- which means 'breakthrough' in Wolof -- uses traditional song, poetry, theatre and dance to educate some of the region's poorest villagers. One of its greatest achievements has been to encourage thousands of women to speak out against genital cutting, long a taboo subject in Muslim West Africa.
Practised in much of Africa and parts of the West Asia, the procedure usually involves slicing out the exposed section of the clitoris along with the labia of the vagina, which is sometimes sewn up with only a small opening left.
Often there is no anaesthetic and the procedure takes place in unsanitary conditions: in the case of Diabougou, a village of thatched-roof mud huts in western Senegal, a clearing among the mango and baobab trees.
Some children bleed to death, others contract inflammatory diseases or urinary infections and many go on to suffer serious gynaecological complications during childbirth.
But those who are not 'cut' are considered impure and unfit for marriage, ostracised by their peers and rejected by suitors.
GRASS ROOTS CAMPAIGN Tostan's grass roots approach to combating the cultural phenomenon, using indigenous languages and working in the poorest communities, has drawn comparisons to the campaign to wipe out foot binding in China or forced marriage in India.
The group, which has just 370 almost exclusively African staff, takes songs and dance already familiar to villagers and uses them to teach about everything from basic healthcare and human rights to microfinance.
''We learn in groups,'' said Issa Saka, a former English teacher and Tostan's grass roots communication officer, who goes out into villages to help explain its programmes.
''It's a European reflex to learn by sitting with a book. That's why the abandonment rate is so high in many development programmes.
Tell someone to go and read in the corner and they will feel rejected. They won't come back to the class.'' Unlike many aid agencies, Tostan -- whose donors include the UN children's agency UNICEF, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation -- has a light footprint in the villages it reaches.
Female genital cutting is just one of the topics that emerged from discussions in which villagers themselves decide what their development priorities should be.
''It was because of this education that we discovered we were violating the rights of our children,'' said Moussokoro Coulibaly, 37, wrapped in gold-coloured robes and a headscarf.
''Once we discovered that, we took the decision to abandon the practice ourselves, it was not Tostan asking us. It is because we discovered the health dangers,'' she said.
Diabougou was only the second village in Senegal to publicly declare it was abandoning female genital cutting. Since then, nearly half of Senegalese villages have made similar declarations, along with 298 in Guinea and 23 in Burkina Faso.
Helping bring about such change by educating people about their rights was the reason Molly Melching, an American who has lived in Senegal for 32 years, founded Tostan in 1991.
''You can teach a woman about the symptoms of HIV/AIDS but unless she knows she has rights, she does not dare tell her husband to use a condom,'' she told Reuters in Dakar, before leaving for the Hilton Prize ceremony in New York.
''A public declaration allows people to change a social convention like female genital cutting in security.'' Reuters SG GC1508