reclaim their rights
people there (Saam Njaay, Senegal) had nothing, but they were so
optimistic. There was no water, no crops, no food. It was the worst year
of my life."
MOLLY MELCHING, former
Peace Corps volunteer and founder of Tostan, a human rights and women’s
education group in Senegal
Express Staff Writer
Peace Corps volunteer Molly Melching went to Senegal because she had
studied French and was interested in cross cultural situations.
Essentially, she never came back.
Melching’s work over the years has helped to educate and empower
villages and especially Senegalese women regarding human rights.
Senegalese woman speaks to journalists with microphones and tape
recorders at a recent declaration against the practice of female genital
cutting and violence against women. Photo by Mbacké DIOP Sassoum
also been instrumental in a long process throughout Africa to protect
girls and women from the ancient tradition of genital mutilation.
to visit Ketchum resident Carlyn Ring, Melching used this trip to the
United States to attract donors for her organization, Tostan, a Wolof
word for breakthrough.
French is the official language of the country, Wolof is the main
Senegalese language, though there are at least three other native
tongues in frequent use.
interest in the issue was piqued when she went to Senegal and saw what
she called disturbing proof of the conditions and fate of the women.
"She wanted to do what she could to stop the practice," said
Melching. One of the ways Ring has helped has been to introduce Melching
to a number of people, including several here in the valley after a
her trip to Idaho, Melching was awarded the Sargent Shriver Award for
Humanitarian Service at the Salute to Peace Corps Giants celebration
dinner June 22 in Washington, D.C.
of her Peace Corps stint Melching first worked with street children in
Dakar, the capital of Senegal. She then lived in Saam Njaay, a village
of some 300 people, for three years.
It was an
incredible experience and also very difficult to survive since they were
experiencing a severe countrywide drought.
people there had nothing, but they were so optimistic. There was no
water, no crops, no food. It was the worst year of my life."
it didn’t deter her growing interest in developing a basic education
program such as she had used with the children in Dakar. "No one in
the village had ever been to school, but there was a great body of
knowledge. They knew a lot, like how to survive."
asked them ‘What are your needs?’ They said ‘We really want to
read and write.’"
emerged was Tostan, which emphasizes literacy, numeracy, improving life
skills, family income, and encourages women to participate in village
Melching is the founder and executive director of Tostan in Senegal.
Photo by Mbacké DIOP Sassoum
informal culture-based education program taught in module blocks,
trained facilitators present a participatory Village Empowerment Program
in the villagers’ native language using song, theater, books,
storytelling, games, poetry, creative writing and flip-charts.
upshot is they feel empowered and begin making different choices in
their lives, said Melching. "They refocused their self
am the only American with Tostan. The teachers stay for two to three
years. They have the same background, work together and have respect for
the villagers. They are pro- active, build stoves and latrines. It’s a
totally holistic integrated program," Melching said.
facilitators are trained not to impose their beliefs on villagers, but
to simply present information so villagers can make informed choices.
process did not end there. As it turned out, it was only just beginning.
turning point came in our whole program when we realized women were
unaware of their human rights," Melching said.
successful has it been that to date 707 villages with an average
population of 800, have made public declarations that they were
abandoning female genital cutting, a practice tightly woven into the
fabric of their culture generations ago.
approaching the subject, Melching said they tried to be "culturally
sensitive and non-judgmental. We do not say mutilation because it
the practice of gentile cutting is highly controversial. Like
circumcision it’s mostly done on infants, though older girls and women
have been known to subject themselves to the practice.
being cut, the vagina is sewn shut, or sealed shut to ensure the girl
stays a virgin.
westerner, genital cutting is a hideous custom that takes away a woman’s
right to her own body, permanently scars them, often leads to severe
hemorrhaging, difficult childbirths and even death. In fact, recently a
12-year-old bled to death on her wedding night after being unsealed,
millions of Africans in a belt running from Egypt south to Tanzania,
east to Senegal, and west to Somalia, it’s an essential rite of
passage to womanhood. A girl who was not cut was not marriable and even
her family would be shunned.
this custom it took the work of Tostan, and the influence of a village
Imam Keur Simbara, or religious leader, who walks to villages preaching
to people about their options and rights. He also addressed a special
session on population issues at the U.N. in 1999 with Melching
translating from Wolof into English.
women of the village of Malicounda Bambara, with the support of their
husbands and religious leaders, abandoned FGC. It was a shock to a
nation that was not even aware that it was not a religious obligation,
Melching said. Over 80 percent of Senegal's population is Muslim.
just one year 12 more villages had made a public declaration to also
abandon the practice.
this summer, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., sent a letter to a
declaration by the women of the Kolda region of Senegal, which includes
300 villages now free from FGC.
have made peaceful marches to protest violence against women, female
delegations have appealed to village chiefs, and the media has been
wholly involved in spreading the movement in Senegal, said Melching.
None of these instances would have been possible prior to Tostan’s
former cutter, Ourčye Sall, is a leader in the movement. She speaks to
villagers, religious leaders, government officials, journalists and the
international community about her decision to stop cutting and her role
in helping to end the practice throughout Senegal. Sall accompanied
Melching to the United States for a conference on population issues and
the role of the media.
the movement began, Sall made approximately $7 per girl. She was
supplied with a bar of soap, material and a razor blade or an ancestral
knife to use. "She made quite a living from that," Melching
said. "Sometimes she was doing ten girls in one day."
said that the grassroots work has been effective in other countries as
well. Tostan took the program to Burkina Faso, Sudan and Mali, all with
same results—the abandonment of FGC.
of the education programs can occur without help. Contributions go a
long way, Melching said. There is no overhead, no office in the U.S. to
support and nearly all the workers are volunteers. Funds raised go
directly to operating costs, travel and to villages, some of which
individuals and organizations have adopted.
in the field, making an effort to get the money out to the villages. By
adopting just one village 60 woman benefit."
has supported Tostan’s module approach to learning since 1987. and
with the governments of Canada, Norway, the Netherlands and Germany have
supported Tostan's Women’s and Girls’ Education Programs.
American Jewish World Service, funded additional development. "They
are wonderful donors, they’re so interested in following the lead of
U.S. Agency for International Development has also helped fund
Corps, when honoring Melching with the Shriver Award, called her
"passionate in her pursuit of women’s education." Her
passion extends to women’s quality of life as well.
movement has taken hold, the Senegal Parliament has passed a national
law abolishing the FGC ritual. The real power continues to lie in the
villages and with their collective declarations. These public decrees
tip the balance. Where once women could not stop the cutting for fear
their daughters would not be able to find husbands, now the opposite is
information, one can go to www.Tostan.org on the Internet or locally
contact Carlyn Ring.