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For the week of July 10 - 16, 2002


Senegalese women reclaim their rights

Humanitarian award winner 
visits Ketchum

"The 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

In 1974, 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.

Instead, Melching’s work over the years has helped to educate and empower villages and especially Senegalese women regarding human rights.

A 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

She has also been instrumental in a long process throughout Africa to protect girls and women from the ancient tradition of genital mutilation.

In town 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.

Though 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.

Ring’s 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 presentation

Prior to 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.

As part 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.

"The 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."

However, 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."

"I asked them ‘What are your needs?’ They said ‘We really want to read and write.’"

What emerged was Tostan, which emphasizes literacy, numeracy, improving life skills, family income, and encourages women to participate in village decision making.

Molly Melching is the founder and executive director of Tostan in Senegal. Photo by Mbacké DIOP Sassoum

Using an 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.

The upshot is they feel empowered and begin making different choices in their lives, said Melching. "They refocused their self perceptions."

"I 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.

Tostan facilitators are trained not to impose their beliefs on villagers, but to simply present information so villagers can make informed choices.

But the process did not end there. As it turned out, it was only just beginning.

"The turning point came in our whole program when we realized women were unaware of their human rights," Melching said.

So 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.

In approaching the subject, Melching said they tried to be "culturally sensitive and non-judgmental. We do not say mutilation because it alienates them."

Even so, 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.

After being cut, the vagina is sewn shut, or sealed shut to ensure the girl stays a virgin.

To a 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, Melching said.

For 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.

To change 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.

In 1997, 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.

Within just one year 12 more villages had made a public declaration to also abandon the practice.

Earlier 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.

Women 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 programs.

Even a 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.

Before 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."

Melching 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.

But none 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.

"We’re in the field, making an effort to get the money out to the villages. By adopting just one village 60 woman benefit."

UNICEF 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.

The American Jewish World Service, funded additional development. "They are wonderful donors, they’re so interested in following the lead of the people."

And the U.S. Agency for International Development has also helped fund educational training.

The Peace 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.

Since the 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 true.

For more information, one can go to www.Tostan.org on the Internet or locally contact Carlyn Ring.


The Idaho Mountain Express is distributed free to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area community. Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express will read these stories and others in this week's issue.