Molly Melching is the founder and executive director of Tostan, an NGO in Senegal that works to fight against female genital mutilation (FGM), termed “female genital cutting” (FGC) by Tostan, for reasons outlined in the interview. Melching first came to Senegal as an exchange student in 1974 and she stayed, working with the peace corps to improve health and family issues. She later worked with USAID and with UNICEF on women’s education.
She founded Tostan, which means “breakthrough” in the wolof language, in 1991 to empower and educate women in a variety of ways, including persuading communities to abandon the practice of FGM. Thanks in no small part to the efforts of Tostan, 6,400 communities in the countries where Tostan works have made public declarations to end FGM and child/forced marriage.
She graciously agreed to speak with Clarion Project Dialogue Coordinator Elliot Friedland about her work and why she has been successful where other organizations have struggled.
Clarion Project: What is the biggest mistake you see organizations combatting FGM making?
Molly Melching: It’s wonderful that so many organizations are recognizing the need to address female genital cutting (FGC) as a human rights and health issue, and there are many interesting ideas out there about how we can bring about an end to the practice globally. But I see numerous organizations reacting to the issue without first taking the time to understand the social norms involved with this practice by carefully listening to those who practice FGC at the grassroots level.
When asking people why they practice FGC, they often respond, “It’s our tradition, it’s our culture.”
People do many things because they have learned it from their parents and their society, often without questioning why they do it. They simply know that if they don’t do something that everyone expects them to do, they could be marginalized or even excluded from their social group.
Going against the expectations means risking intense disapproval and is difficult if not impossible for one person alone to do. A village mother, for example, would never dream of doing something that could harm her daughter’s reputation or chance for marriage. In West Africa, FGC is not performed with the intention to harm or mutilate a girl, but because her mother believes it is the best way for a girl to be socially accepted and have good marriage prospects.
Obviously, these social norms need to change…but to attempt to enter the conversation by shaming and condemning for participating in something that has been a norm in their communities for thousands of years shows not only a lack of understanding, but also can make people extremely defensive. Sensational, shocking images and campaigns against FGC can often be a barrier to the kind of thoughtful dialog that gives a community ownership over their decision to abandon the practice — and for the shift in social norms to be sustainable over the long-term, that ownership is critical.
Thus, it is important to encourage people who practice FGC to discuss the pros and cons of continuing or abandoning together without judgment, shame or blame involved.
This is why Tostan’s approach is one that is based on mutual respect and understanding, and it is one reason why we choose to use the phrase “female genital cutting” instead of “female genital mutilation” (you can read more about why we use “FGC” here). We have always noted that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to this complex issue; yet, in West Africa, where Tostan mainly works, there is compelling and well-supported international consensus on the importance of the social norm perspective in relation to FGC abandonment and we have witnessed significant and well-documented results in hundreds of communities using this perspective.
Tostan developed it’s own way of addressing FGM – the Community Empowerment Program. Could you explain how that works?
Tostan’s holistic, engaging education model is based on a foundation of human rights and responsibilities and designed to be relevant to adult and youth learners. Over a three-year period, 25 adult and 25 young community members participate in classes led in local languages by a Tostan-trained facilitator. Implementing the program for both adults and youth in the same community improves inter-generational dialogue and ensures that everyone has the skills and confidence needed to participate in and sustain community development.
Classes are split into two phases: the Kobi, a Mandinka word meaning ‘to prepare the field for planting’, which covers democracy, human rights, and problem solving, as well as health and hygiene; and the Aawde, a Fulani word meaning ‘to plant the seed’, where participants learn basic literacy, numeracy, sms texting and project management skills.
In each community, a 17-member Community Management Committee (CMC) is democratically selected to lead local development initiatives during and after the program. These committees are trained in project management and social mobilization skills, and always have a majority of female members. We are proud to have been a pioneer in bringing a human rights curriculum to the grassroots beginning in 1995, and have now implemented the CEP and its modules on human rights and responsibilities in 22 local African languages in nine African countries.
It is usually during the first phase of the program, when participants discuss human rights and health, that communities discuss FGC – the human rights violations involved and the negative health consequences for women and girls. We have found that FGC is only one part of a much larger social system—and that these social systems continue even after abandonment, even if certain aspects have changed.
When Tostan enters a community, we first invite the community to define and come to consensus around their goals and objectives for the future. They then learn about and debate human rights and responsibilities over a period of several months. By the end of these sessions, the participants have themselves decided which social practices will help them achieve their deeper goals and which need to be abandoned.
In other words, before the program, the participants were operating from a “script” that was handed down to them by their ancestors, society, etc. and which they had never questioned. At the end of the program, the participants have analyzed and debated their received “script” and are empowered to change this script and remake the rules where necessary for achieving their new, commonly determined goals. As one of the leaders of the movement to end FGC, Imam Demba Diawara, once told me, “Life has legs and is walking. We need to walk with life or we will be left behind.”
What is the hardest barrier you overcame in your work against FGM?
There have been many challenges to overcome as our program has developed, and all of them have been difficult in their own way. One that comes to mind is that people often believe that FGC is a practice recommended by Islam.
Many participants in the Tostan program claimed that they wanted to abandon the practice but could not because they believed it was a religious obligation. However, it is not a practice required by Islam and many well-known and deeply respected religious leaders have spoken out against the practice.
Tostan has always worked closely with religious leaders on an international, national and local level to inform people and answer their questions. We have found that as more and more participants learn the human rights violations associated with FGC and the negative health consequences, they also put pressure on religious leaders to speak up and support their efforts to abandon the practice.
We believe that people at the grassroots level can exert strong pressure on all leaders (religious leaders, politicians, local authorities) to help end the practice. This is why it is important to provide in-depth and empowering education to community members in their own national language who will in turn demand action from their leaders.
What do you think is the biggest reason for the success of Tostan?
The story of the communities that have made public declarations to collectively abandon FGC is the story of how this practice can be ended, and why more and more people are confident that FGC can end more rapidly than previously believed. To date, over 7,600 communities across Africa, representing thousands of individuals, have collectively announced their intention to abandon the practice of FGC, and many more are joining the movement.
What is key is that this is not a “western” or outside imposition; this is informed and empowered African communities making decisions for themselves, together, after reflecting on their common values of health and well being, their human rights and responsibilities, and their future aspirations. At Tostan, we have never found that communities lack understanding of the value of human life. In fact, we have found the opposite—we work with villagers who care about others, people who seek peace and who endeavor to build strong community. Tostan found that introducing human rights education into our program allowed people to discuss the social practices that would help them to achieve their goals for a more positive future. This meant reflecting on traditions, often for the first time, maintaining positive ones and abandoning those that are harmful.
What advice would you give to activists working to tackle FGM?
Above all listen to the people. Be patient. Changing a deeply embedded social norm is never easy and it takes time and perseverance — it is not a process that can be rushed or changed overnight. In the North of Senegal, for example, it took almost 6 years of careful, grassroots work before communities even began discussing abandonment.
Tostan believes that FGC needs to be approached at the community level. If we want to be advocates for truly sustainable change on the issue of FGC, it is so important that we seek to understand the underlying cultural and social norms, speak with respect, and empower the community to lead their own social transformation in choosing to abandon the practice of FGC themselves.
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