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Take Note: Founder Of Human Rights Organization On Community Work To End Female Genital Cutting

Molly Melching sitting in front of microphone
Anne Danahy

Molly Melching first went to Senegal in 1974 as an exchange student from the University of Illinois. But, instead of returning to the United States, she stayed on, eventually creating a nonprofit organization to educate and empower women and communities. That organization Tostan created and implemented educational programs focused on human rights, health, literacy, financial management and childhood development. It may be best known for leading thousands of communities in Africa to end female genital cutting and forced childhood marriage. WPSU's Anne Danahy talked with Melching about her work.


Anne Danahy: Welcome to take note on WPSU, I'm Anne Danahy. Molly Melching first went to Senegal in 1974 as an exchange student from the University of Illinois. But instead of returning to the United States, she stayed, eventually creating a nonprofit organization to educate and empower women and communities. That organization, Tostan, created and implemented educational programs focused on human rights, health, literacy, financial management and childhood development. It may be best known for leading thousands of communities in Africa to end female genital mutilation and forced childhood marriage. Tostan’s work has received international recognition, including the World's Children's Prize and the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship.

Danahy: Molly Melching, thank you for joining us.

Molly Melching: Thank you for inviting me.

Danahy: Senegal is a country in northwest Africa, and its official language is French, and you went there as a graduate student in French. And then, I read that you worked as a translator, and got to travel around to some of the more remote parts of the country. And the biography about you, “However Long the Night,” says that you got to look at development programs meant to help people there, and you got to see what was working. But you also got to see what wasn't working. Is that what sort of started you thinking about going into this field?

Melching: It did. It was sad for me to see how much people wanted to benefit from actually from different health and education and environmental projects, but they really hadn't been prepared to both lead and sustain the projects that were coming into the communities, and that is mainly because they had never been to school or they dropped out at an early age because you see, the education in Senegal is in French, and in rural communities, almost no one speaks French.

So just imagine a child going to school at 6 years old and being expected to learn in a whole different language and with a whole different worldview, because French is very different from the national languages of Senegal, and particularly Wolof, the one that I learned to speak.

Danahy: And it seemed like the meetings that they were having, these organizations coming in, they're going to help the communities. They're very formal meetings. And it's kind of these outsiders coming in saying, this is how we're going to do it and then leaving and then things didn't always go so well. So did you get some ideas about how like, OK. How am I going to do this differently?

Melching: Right, I started by working in a children's center, and we had a radio program ourselves, and we'd go into the communities and we’d get stories and songs and do theater with the children. And it was in this dialogue with the community members that I realized that people had different priorities often than what development organizations had for them. And I started realizing that if you went in and listen to people first and said, “You know what, “What are your priorities? What are your needs? Where do you want to be in the future?” that a lot of times what they wanted was very different than what the development organizations were promoting within the communities. And even just the fact of including them in the initial discussion of what was going to happen was so critical. It may have been yet that they wanted to do some health projects, and the villagers might have thought, “That is really important for us.” But just to come in and say, “We think this is important, and this is what we're going to do, because this is what our donors said we must do.” You can imagine, because we're all human beings and I think we all react in the same way. We like to be consulted before we are asked to become involved in any kind of project we undertake. So what Tostan on tried to do is to say let us do development differently. Let us start by asking people: What is your vision? Where do you want to be? What is most important to you? Where do we start? What are your values? This is very important also.

Danahy: It's interesting that you got to see that as someone who was coming completely from the outside. So, you were born in Texas, is that right? And you grew up in Illinois. And in your biography, you talked about how you struggled to meet your mother's expectations, and you were kind of tall and outgoing and friendly. And then you wanted to go to work in Africa. You graduated from college, and you weren't going to necessarily go and make a lot of money doing what you were going to do. But you also have said that you felt like you belonged in Senegal, you felt like you were very much at home there. Why do you think that is?

Melching: My mother had expectations from me that I didn't necessarily agree with, that weren't necessarily my values. I think, in America, we do have expectations and values of material success and having a big house and a nice car. All those things were very important to her. And I understand it, she went through the Depression. It was hard on her, and her dreams for me were that I would never have to go through what she went through when she went through the Depression. Her father lost everything. And so the fact that I would go off and live in a village where there was almost nothing, no water, no electricity, and I would live there for 3 years, for her was hard to really fathom and understand. And she tried everything she could to get me back, you know, thinking that I would be interested in going back because I could find financial success when really, I felt like I had such a meaningful path that I was following. Because I felt like when I talked to people, I realized that a lot of the problems they were having were because of a lack of information and information in their own language. As I learned the language of Wolof when I was there, I realized that this language was so critical to really understanding the values of the people and working with them. And I was learning so much from them, from these values that they had, which I felt very comfortable with. And those are values of family and unity and, and really dialogue getting to know one another, peace, and being able to really cooperate rather than be in competition. And financial success is important for them, yes, but only so you can help others out. So that you can support the family and encourage them to, to realize their dreams and their potential. So, it was very different for me, and I felt very comfortable there. And I wanted to learn more from them. And I felt like well, this could be a reciprocal relationship because I could help to educate in their own language, things that I knew about and the information I had, and allow them to have a space to dialogue about where they wanted to be, their priorities, and it worked.

Danahy: So you started working on these programs, and it wasn't Tostan originally right from the get-go. You had started other types of educational initiatives. Can you describe what it is you were actually doing in these communities? What kinds of lessons, what kinds of activities were going on?

Melching: OK, I really, in the beginning, lived in a community for three years, we had a small project just to do -- I laugh when I think about it now -- to do a play on the environment and the importance of planting trees, and protecting the environment and also of creating adapted wood stoves that cut down on the use of wood so that they didn't have to cut down so much wood. We were only supposed to stay four months, we ended up staying four years, three to four years. But they asked us when we came, they said, Well, while you're here, could you do what we really want to do? Which was, we want to learn to read and write. We have projects that have been done in these communities around us, but they've all failed. And we know that if we had management skills and could write, you know, budgets and do audits and things that people expect of you that help to make projects work better, we think that we couldn't actually manage our own projects. And we really want to learn this. And so we said, Well, okay, so we started doing education classes and health classes and hygiene. And I tell you that the that program was very successful in the community, so successful that UNICEF picked up on this and started funding us to do the program in many other communities as a way to prepare people for community development and other projects that would come in.

But things changed drastically in 1995. When we added the human rights component to our program. That was a huge change. Everything changed in 1996, after people had gone through a module on learning about their human rights and responsibilities.

Danahy: Why did you add that program? Was there anything that in particular that prompted it? Because we're talking about the mid 90s. By then it was 1991 that you had formerly formed. Tostan, right? So you formally had formed it. You're getting UNICEF funding. What prompted this shift?

Melching: We did participatory research with the women who are going through our program. Around actually early childhood development, we were to create a program on early childhood development. And the women said to us, “OK, we would like to learn about our children's development, how we can best support our children have healthy children, but we need to know about ourselves. First, we know nothing about our bodies and how they develop, and we want to learn about other things. What is for example, what is menopause? We don't really understand what happens to us. And we don't know how to explain menstruation to our daughters, and we know that this is a problem because they're getting pregnant before you know age 15 and we need to tell them about this, but we don't know how, we don't know how to talk about these things.”

And they also said they wanted to learn about female genital cutting, because they were very concerned about some of the the the impact that it had in the communities, the consequences on the women, and they wanted to know exactly what happens. What we realized in doing this participatory research is that even if women got the information around health that they needed to make changes, unless they knew that they had the right to do that, the human right to do that, and that they had responsibilities around certain of these health issues, that they would not be able to apply the information they were learning.

Danahy: So they would just have all this information but not be able to do much with it.

Melching: Right. I'll give you one example. Learning about HIV/AIDS is important. And once they had the information, we discussed this in talking about it in our participatory research, they said, “Yeah, but we can't do with that, because when our husbands come back from the city or from having gone off to France to work as immigrant workers for two years, they come back, there's no way we can tell them, ‘You have to go get tested.’ So we what can we do? What good does this information do? We're helpless?” And I said, No. We said no, I mean, the team, we were saying, if they knew that they had the human right to health, and that if everyone in the community was in agreement on that, that this was important that people have their rights, and they have responsibilities and the men then have a responsibility to ensure health also, for the community. And what actually what that led to was to communities deciding to organize to insist that when men come back, that they actually do the testing. Because a woman alone, really it would be hard for her.

Danahy: If she was the only one and her husband and she's got nobody backing her up.

Melching: Yeah.

Danahy: Having the community …

Melching: You have to be able to find, help them find their own solutions helping people help themselves. They have the solutions. And it just, they need the space and they need certain information like the Human Rights information to give them the confidence to say let us do it this way because it is for the benefit of all.

Danahy: If you're just joining us, this is Take Note on WPSU. I'm Anne Danahy. We're talking with Molly Melching, an internationally recognized human rights advocate who has lived and worked in Senegal since 1974. Tostan, the organization Melching founded, has educational human rights programs that led to the end of female genital cutting across more than 8500 communities in Africa.

We're talking about female genital cutting or female genital mutilation. For people who aren't familiar with it. According to estimates, it takes place in about 30 countries it affects about 200 million women and it can range from the superficial cutting of genitalia to actually removing parts of the female genitalia. It's not done for medical reasons. When did you find out about it, and that this was something that was common among the people you are working with?

Melching: I first found out about it when I went in 1974, I went for a Muslim religious holiday. I traveled to Mauritania. And we went on the train and it was an amazing trip, we had to cross the river in a pirogue boat, you know, canoe and, and then take an old truck to a far off village. And actually, I was with another woman who was in my dormitory at the university. And we also were traveling with some doctors. And one of the doctors came to the house where I was staying, and said, ‘I'm coming over here because they're cutting my daughter.’ And I was shocked because I'd never heard of this before. And I said, ‘But you're a doctor, how could you possibly allow this?’ because he explained to me what it was. He said I have no choice. He said if I leave they will wait till I leave to do it. If I say don't do it, they'll do it anyway, because it is an obligation in this community. It is a social norm. That means that if you don't do it, there are severe sanctions for the girl. She will not be respected, she will be considered impure, she will be marginalized. She won't be able to give food to people or give drinks to people. And also she will not have a husband. And that is unacceptable. So I started thinking, Oh, my gosh, this is really complex. This is a very complex issue. And so when the women, when we did participatory research on health said they wanted to learn about it. I was a little concerned because I'm an American, I know this is a traditional practice and cultural practice, and I was worried about getting involved. But the women convinced me and Tostan they said, No, no, we have to do this. Because the women have asked for they want to know about it. And we were cut ourselves. I found that a lot of the women on our team had been cut. They hadn't talked about it before. But it is time for us to talk and our classes are safe spaces where we have gotten to know each other and discuss really deeply around other issues. So what we did by doing the Human Rights first and saying you have the right to speak out around these issues, you have the right to health, and they actually themselves identified FGC, and we do say cutting because the villagers ask us to say that …

Danahy: As opposed to mutilation …

Melching: Well, mutilation means cutting with the intention of harming and no African woman wants to harm her daughter. And the villagers said to us, When you call us mutilator, you're shaming us, you're blaming us and really, it's a practice that we do because that's what people that's just what they do. And if they don't, they are severely sanctioned. And we haven't really had an opportunity to to sit down and discuss this. And think about ways in which we could end this because you don't dare. There were taboos around talking about it. So this is the first time that they were able to have a space where they could actually discuss it and learn that they have the human right to speak out about it, to discuss it and even make decisions related to ending it. But, but here is the important point. They learned also that in changing practices like this social norms in which you do something that is not expected, and that is shocking to people. You know, you will get sanctioned.

Danahy: Sure we've seen how some have changed over time.

Melching: Absolutely. They have changed, but they've changed through dialogue, discussion, and including all those people who were involved in that practice. And if they're not consulted, people are generally resistant and angry and say how dare you change a tradition that is important to us, that has value to us and you get up and say you're not going to do this.

So, what we learned and we learned this from one of our participants whose name was Demba Diawara, our he is a village chief. And he let us know that it was possible to change these harmful practices, once people had the information, but it goes beyond again, just having the information about the practice and knowing you have the human right to change those practices. But you have to do it in consultation with the whole social network.

Danahy: Because the first time you tried to do this, Wasn't there a backlash towards people against it? So the women decided that they wanted to do this, they came out and say, we're going to end this. We're going to take a pledge publicly to stop it. But then there was this community pushback.

Melching: Absolutely. And it was after that, that Demba came to us and said, You're doing this all wrong. I said, Wow, why what why the women believed that they were doing the right thing. They stood up with the community. They went to the religious leaders, they said, OK, and they went to their husbands, everybody said OK. And then the UNICEF had said, Do you mind if we come and bring journalists to talk about this, it is really important, which they did. And then they got in big trouble. But whom did they get in trouble with? Their interim marrying communities and other villages. It wasn't so much ending the practice, it was: How dare you stand up alone and make a decision that concerns all of us? How dare you do that without including us in this in this decision?

Danahy: So the women got in trouble?

Melching: The women were accused of being traitors to their culture to their, their whole society, the to their relatives. And so one of the relatives, who is Demba, said, Look, Molly, you can't change a social norm like this. You have to reach out to all the people who matter, the relevant group, and I said Demba, but how will you do this? And he said, Well, I'll put on my shoes and I will walk. I will walk to all the villages where we intermarry because this is the critical factor, it has to do with good marriage. And so he actually went from village to village and talked to people about why this practice was harmful. And because he was so highly respected in the group, people listened to him. At first they were angry, but he came with words from the their, their religious, high religious leader, leader, and from the doctor, and from women who had talked to him about the problems they’d had. And once they started talking, they started crying. They talked about their daughters having died. They talked about the hemorrhages that had occurred afterwards, but they didn't realize these were medical problems. And and once that happened, and he went around and then brought everyone together and said, Let us decide together so that no one is hurt. that not one person has to stand alone and say I'm abandoning and then be sanctioned by the others negatively. And so this is what started this whole movement when they did that. So then he had a declaration, the first declaration of many villages was after the first one, which was one only. And then others who had been talking about ending it, but didn't know how to do it, started doing it in other areas, and it just grew organically. People started seeing that if they gathered the people who mattered to them together to make the decision, that it would work that they would really be able to end the practice. And today, as you said we've had 8,426 villages that have decided to abandon, and the more it grows, what we call critical mass growing, the more people are now wanting to abandon because they see others and then enough people -- we always say the mantra is enough people have to see that enough other people who matter to them are changing.

Danahy: I want to just go back and we could for a moment to something you had mentioned in the idea that you're somebody, you're a white woman from the United States coming in to another, another country, another continent. And the concern that whether it was appropriate for you to be doing that. You said the women were saying, No, we want to do this, but were you still worried that it's going to seem that it might appear that way that here's this American telling us?

Melching: Absolutely, absolutely. And the thing is, is that you have to understand that I did speak that language well, and I do dress appropriately. I love Senegalese clothes. And so I wear them and I wear I respect the tradition of always wearing long dresses or pants and really dressing according to Islamic standards. And so I people respect the fact that I respect them that I know their culture that I do the things that they consider respectful the way that I greet people and acknowledge them and listen to them and they very much appreciate that. So in one sense, I had an much easier time. And I never went in to tell people I'm here to tell you what to do. You also should know that it is not me that goes and educates in the classes. What we do is to train people, the Senegalese. I'm located in car in Dakar, in our headquarters, but in every country where we work in Guinea and Guinea Bissau in Gambia, and Mali and Senegal, of course, and Mauritania, and we even went to Somalia and Djibouti for eight years that the Senegalese were the ones who trained the other Africans. And the program we have guides very carefully written out and developed guides and that we've changed over the years, they've evolved based on feedback from the villagers and and so they're the ones who are teaching in their own language. I'm not going into those communities. What I do is to support the, the communities the countries to get the funding to do the education program, but they are actually leading the development programs in their countries, and then they train the communities to lead their own development.

Danahy: Did you hear those stories when you were talking with women when you were starting out of women who had lost their daughters or their sisters?

Melching: Oh, yes. One woman actually told me about how she had lost first one daughter. She was married early, very young. She had a baby. And because she was so young, her sister took care of the baby because she felt that, well, she was only 13 years old, and so she took care of the baby. And then when the circumciser came to the cutter came to the village. She took her to be cut, the the child, but the woman that was talking to me had not really raised her, and she found out that she had undergone the practice and had died following it. And she said that was really hard, but then she had another daughter later on that she kept, and at seven years old, she, they said they were going to go to cut her. And she said no, I know my first daughter. She died from this I don't want to go through this. I'm scared. And they waited till she had to go out to the market in the, in the other village and that they the mother took the daughter, her granddaughter, and took her to be cut.

Danahy: So the, the woman's own mother came in and …

Melching: Absolutely because this was so important to her. She wanted that child to be cut. And because that is the

(Cross talk)

Melching: They're trapped in this. You know I'm damned if I do damned if I don't you know , and so she chose to have her cut, and she died also. That girl died also. And she said I was so close to that daughter. Seven years old. I so close to her. It was so hard on the end. She now is one of the leaders of the movement to end FGC. She has been done hundreds of villages talking to people, explaining why her daughter died. She now understands why she died and she can talk to them. And she said, I said, Well, what happens when you go? And you discuss this with others? And she said, the women who never had talked about this before, they start crying. And then they say what happened to them, what happened to their daughters, what happened to their friend's daughter. No one knew how we can end this. But now we have a way. It's not about making a you know, making us feel horrible and guilty. No, we did it because we had no choice. We didn't feel like we had a choice in this and human rights and sharing and dialogue, and led us to believe that we can end this if we do it together.

Danahy: In a speech after you won the Skoll Award, you said that the movement is continuing to accelerate and you think that Senegal could become free of female genital cutting. Where do things stand today across the world, across the parts of Africa where you're working? And are you still optimistic?

Melching: It's very, very complex because all our evaluations have shown that where we have done the program have led to at least 70% of the people abandoning the practice overtime. When evaluations are done on a national level, you never know where they are getting the surveys done. And so we, I don't think we will really know until much later. I think we were very optimistic in the beginning, as we saw this working, and then we realize too, when there are declarations, it's not 100%. But you know, there is resistance and there are movements in Africa against ending practices like this and wanting to keep control of women and making this a religious obligation and when that happens, that is very difficult to, to counteract. But what we're doing now is doing lots of training for religious leaders who are becoming very active in ending the practice. They're doing sermons in the mosque on Friday, the Khutbah, and they're talking about it and saying that we are doing alignment of human rights with the Koran and Christianity with the Bible for those Christians who practice ,and showing that, you know, the religious values are those of love and peace and well-being and people being able to realize their full potential and all the while respecting the culture practices that are positive. So that is helping. So we are optimistic that things are changing. We're building critical mass, and we prefer to talk about it in that way.

Danahy: Molly Melching. Thank you for coming in to talk with us.

Melching: Thank you for inviting me.

Danahy: We've been talking with Molly Melching, founder and creative director of Tostan, a human rights organization based in Dakar, Senegal. Tostan is recognized for leading the way to end female genital cutting in thousands of communities in Africa. To hear this and other episodes of Take Note, go to I'm Anne Danahy WPSU.

Anne Danahy has been a reporter at WPSU since fall 2017. Before crossing over to radio, she was a reporter at the Centre Daily Times in State College, Pennsylvania, and she worked in communications at Penn State. She is married with cats.
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