ON A MILD morning in July 1997, a group of women gathered under the spreading arms of a great neem tree in the village of Malicounda Bambara in Senegal, West Africa. While children played nearby and others rested on their mothers' laps, a woman named Maimouna Traore spoke to the group.
Like most women in Malicounda Bambara, Traore had never gone to school as a child. Opportunities for education in villages like hers were scarce, especially for girls. But one year earlier, a program called Tostan (the word means "breakthrough" in the local Wolof language) had come to her village. The women enrolled in the Tostan program met three times a week, engaging in lessons on literacy and math, health and hygiene, problem-solving—and, most important of all, human rights.
Addressing her words to Molly Melching, Tostan's founder and the one American present among them, Traore said that, before the program, women in her community did not understand human rights. They did not know that, like men, they have the right to health and well-being, to speak their minds and offer their opinions. With their new understanding of these concepts came courage. They invited Melching because, after much thought and discussion, they had made an important collective decision: to end the practice of female genital cutting (FGC) in their community.
Melching was speechless. Rarely discussed openly, FGC, the complete or partial removal of female genitalia for non-medical reasons, is a long-held and deeply entrenched custom in many villages of Senegal, as well as in 27 other African nations. Known locally as "the women's tradition," it has been regarded as among the most critical moments in a girl's life, preparing her for marriage and making her a respected member of her community. To not cut one's daughter was unthinkable—setting her up for a lifetime of rejection and social isolation.
According to the World Health Organization, an estimated 101 million girls age 10 and older in Africa have undergone the practice. The health consequences can be catastrophic, including infection, hemorrhaging, infertility, and even death. Although aware that girls sometimes suffered these consequences following the procedure, the women of Malicounda Bambara had believed that such problems were the work of evil spirits. But through their Tostan class, the women came to understand for the first time how the body works, how germs are transmitted, and the dangers of being cut with an unsterile razor blade or knife.
AFTER LEARNING about human rights, including their right to health and well-being, the group of women began to question if this tradition of FGC upheld these rights. As a group, they approached the local imam. He confirmed what they had learned in their Tostan class: FGC was not required by Islam, the religion of the majority of Senegalese. It wasn't even mentioned in the Quran. Once they understood this, the women of Malicounda Bambara knew it was their responsibility to protect their daughters, to allow them to live in health.
The women bravely decided to go public with their decision, and a few weeks after their meeting with Melching, on July 31, 1997, they once again gathered under the large neem tree in their village. This time, they were joined by journalists from across Senegal, government officials, and NGO representatives who had come to hear the women declare their intention to abandon the tradition of FGC in their community. Community leaders and Tostan participants spoke about the negative consequences of FGC and the need for change. This event—and this decision—was the first of its kind in Senegal; as the day drew to a close and the women bid the journalists goodbye, they were filled with nervous excitement.
Little did they know the tremendous chain of events about to come.
The enthusiasm the women felt that day did not last long. As word of their decision spread throughout Senegal, villagers in neighboring communities began to harshly criticize the women's decision, calling them "revolutionaries" and accusing them of turning their backs on tradition. The men of Malicounda Bambara grew increasingly angry about the negative attention, the women became distraught, and Melching feared the decision to go public may have been a mistake.
Things might have stopped there were it not for the involvement of Demba Diawara. A wise and respected man whose grandfather had settled in the nearby village of Keur Simbara in the late 1800s, Diawara held a position of great esteem. After learning of the women's decision and the trouble they faced after it, Diawara visited Melching at the Tostan offices in the city of Thies. He told her the women of Malicounda Bambara were facing criticism because they chose to abandon this deeply rooted practice alone, without consulting their relatives in the many communities where their daughters might marry. True change would come about only if it involved all of the communities, which are very interconnected and interdependent. To do less than this would be to risk harming a girl's chances for marriage, setting her up for a hopeless future.
However, Diawara offered more than just advice: He set out on a months-long journey to visit the villages where the majority of his relatives lived—10 in all. In each, he explained what he had come to understand about FGC, and he urged them to consider following the example set in Malicounda Bambara.
Diawara's efforts quickly bore fruit. On Feb. 14, 1998, another event was held. This time, 13 villages publicly declared their intention to end the practice of FGC in their communities. Skits, song, and dance accompanied the speeches about human rights and the need for change. Four months later, another public declaration representing 18 villages took place, and it soon appeared that an extraordinary movement for human rights was underway. Whereas it was once expected that girls be cut, a new social norm was being put into place—one that embraced human rights and promoted the health and well-being of girls, women, and entire communities.
"One community alone cannot achieve social change," as Diawara puts it. "It is the unifying factor of collective engagement that leads to success."
NEARLY 16 YEARS have passed since the women of Malicounda Bambara made their decision. Today, more than 5,000 Senegalese communities have followed suit and declared an end to FGC. In 2010, the government of Senegal announced a national action plan to end FGC in Senegal by 2015, adopting a strategy based on the community-led, human rights-based approach developed by Tostan.
"We are now on the verge of something unique and historic," Melching says, "something I could never have once imagined: total abandonment of FGC in Senegal."
How did Tostan help to bring about these extraordinary results? The nature of Tostan's program is truly unique, and one that Melching carefully fostered over decades.
Melching first arrived in Senegal in 1974 as a 24-year-old graduate student from the U.S. participating in a six-month student exchange program with the University of Dakar. She immediately fell in love with the country and its people, and she decided to remain. After creating a children's center in Dakar as a Peace Corps volunteer, at the age of 32 Melching moved to the remote village of Saam Njaay—population 300—and spent three years developing an educational program with the villagers.
That laid the groundwork for what would become Tostan, the organization she founded in 1991. Now, Melching and Tostan stand at the forefront of what just might be one of the most significant and important human rights movements of our time.
THROUGHOUT HER WORK, Melching has remained steadfastly committed to ensuring that Tostan's approach to development is culturally sensitive, holistic, and inclusive—accessible to everyone in the community, regardless of ethnic group, religion, age, and gender. The classes are offered in the languages spoken at the grassroots level and use culturally appropriate teaching methods such as proverbs, theater, song, and dance. And the lessons on FGC are presented without judgment.
This is key to Tostan's work. Unlike other, well-intentioned programs, which have attempted to bring about an end to FGC by shocking (or worse, shaming) women who adhere to the practice, Tostan's sessions on the topic are designed solely to impart knowledge that helps participants to make informed decisions, and they are delivered with an understanding that the act of cutting one's daughter was considered an act of love. Women who practice the tradition do not believe they are mutilating or harming their daughters. This is why Melching and her staff choose to use the term "female genital cutting," rather than "female genital mutilation," the phrase more frequently used among development organizations.
The Tostan approach has been proven to work. External evaluations of Tostan's work by organizations such as UNICEF show that the group's results are significant. A recent internationally funded health survey for Senegal found that 60 percent of women aged 15 to 49 who had been cut themselves said that they had not cut their daughters.
And this may be just the beginning. "I truly believe we are at a point where, in a few years, Senegal may be able to say that it is a country free from this practice that is violating the human rights of women and girls, causing so much suffering and, at times, even death," Melching says.
Melching is now committed to bringing the Tostan approach to as many African villages as possible. Tostan participants have reached across the borders of Senegal to Mali, Mauritania, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, and Gambia in a vast and historic movement for positive social transformation. The Tostan program is currently in place in eight African nations, including Somalia, where 98 percent of the women undergo FGC.
"Involving as many people as possible is the key to positive social change," Melching says. "It starts with individuals coming together in a community with a shared vision. Together they own the decision; they own the movement. We act in ways that are respectful of culture, beginning at the grassroots level and encouraging the involvement of the whole community and then their social network.
"We believe that communities know what they want and need—and that the most lasting type of change is one that comes from within."
Aimee Molloy (www.aimeemolloy.com) is the author of However Long the Night: Molly Melching's Journey to Help Millions of African Women and Girls Triumph (HarperOne, 2013).