A Woman's Worth: The Battle Against Mutilation

    Being a white American in Africa is not the easiest way to blend in, but Molly Melching somehow made it work. Born and raised in Illinois, Melching has lived in Senegal for the past 32 years. Her fascination with the culture and the openness of Senegal’s denizens have kept her in the country since she traveled to the University of Dakar in 1974 to work on her master’s thesis.

    Sanh Luong/Guardian
    Molly Melching disccusses the status of women and children in Senegal during her speech.

    Dressed in a loose, Egyptian black robe, Melching took to the podium in the Robinson Auditorium for her talk, the “”Mass Abandonments of Female Genital Cutting in Africa.”” Melching heads up Tostan, an nongovernmental organization founded in 1991 that empowers grassroots communities through education. While Tostan is most widely known for its involvement in helping to end the practice of female genital cutting, its goals are farther reaching than that. Tostan’s main vision is “”Human Dignity for All,”” giving a community the ability to lead its own life, making priorities and reaching its own goals by providing a basic education in human rights, democracy and dialogue. Melching described the classes as “”rehearsals for real life”” in which they make the educational experience participatory.

    “”Tostan never tells people what to do, [it’s] just a forum to dialogue with each other,”” Melching said.

    The premise is for the participants to use their own values to discuss issues. This aspect of the Tostan progam makes communities – rather than Tostan itself – the vehicles of change. In a community that was later made famous by a visit from former First Lady Hillary Clinton, Malicounda Bambara was the first village to abandon the practice of female genital cutting in 1997. Melching did not tell them to stop the practice, but they came to this conclusion on their own, she said. The idea of self-determination is fundamental in the program, Melching said, because it ensures that people get information but are left to make their own decisions.

    Melching further explained that one person alone could not stop such abuse of females, since villages intermarry. For one village to end FGC, none of the women would be able to marry outside of their communities, essentially cutting them off from their community ties. Now, when public declarations to abandon FGC are made, they are made by a group of villages, allowing for intermarriage. Since 1997, there have been 20 public declarations by 1,993 communities for the abandonment of FGC, representing 40 percent of the communities that practiced it in 1997.

    Melching was invited to speak at UCSD by assistant professor Gerry Mackie, who met her after he sent her a paper he had written in 1996, which compared the methodology for ending foot-binding in China to ending FGC in Africa. The publication of his paper propelled him into a partnership with Melching, and added credibility to Tostan’s program because it utilized the same methods that Mackie described in his article. To his surprise and elation, Mackie’s article produced a strong response from Melching; she wrote a 20-page letter that detailed her work in Africa and asked him to visit her in 1998. They have been good friends ever since.

    According to Mackie, Tostan’s success can largely be attributed to Melching’s constant re-evaluations. On his first trip to Africa, he asked her how she managed to create such an effective program, to which she replied, “”[From] all of the mistakes I’ve made.”” After each day, Melching questions what three things were done right and what they can change in the program.

    “”Most NGOs measure success on effort and not results,”” Mackie said. “”Molly uses relentless re-evaluation. I’ve seen her do it.”” The adaptability of the program makes it more likely to succeed.

    Melching said her biggest challenge has been trying to get people involved in the program. Because she did not incorporate them in her program and told them that human rights are not against Islam, religious leaders have provided the most opposition.

    “”We’ve had every obstacle,”” she said, especially in the beginning when the program only emphasized women’s rights, which angered the men, and then when workers tried to teach children’s rights, which alienated parents. “”No social transformation can take place unless the entire community is involved,”” she said.

    Over the years, Melching has faced her share of setbacks and plenty of resistance to her cause. Being a white American in Senegal has made her work more difficult, she said, since she is cast as an outsider. The stigma has decreased over the years, as Tostan is run mostly by locals, reducing resistance from neighboring communities, but she hopes some day that the program will be able to run without her.

    She finds tackling other forms of resistance an “”exciting challenge,”” recalling how 142 communities went on strike in Guinea, but the staff just refused to give up. “”When there is a problem, we aren’t going to just leave,”” she said, a motto that Melching has upheld more than once.

    When program workers were journeying to the more conservative northern region of Senegal, Melching was threatened by religious leaders and villagers who would not let her and her staff out of their hotel. Tostan also recently branched out into Somalia in July 2006, but political tensions there put the program, as well as its members, at risk.

    “”There was a point at which people told me not to go, but I didn’t listen,”” she said. In a country where people walk around with machine guns and a British journalist was killed on the same day he arrived, Melching pressed on. “”I wasn’t scared,”” she said. She knew the value of her work.

    Despite everything that she has been able to accomplish in Africa, Melching said she still has a few regrets, especially the intensity of her work, which has taken her away from her family. In her line of work, Melching said, “”Your personal life suffers, but it is incredibly satisfying to see the change, being in the middle of a social transformation.””

    She grew up during the Vietnam War protests in 1967, but she felt like an observer while the United States was going through its own social change. “”To see people who were working as housewives, to see their lives transform, see them becoming leaders, being elected – you can’t imagine, it’s amazing,”” she said.

    Melching said her experiences since moving to Africa have given her an education no classroom could have provided. “”I’ve learned so much from living in Africa,”” she said. “”In America I felt like something was missing, the solidarity, the generosity, emphasis on people. I felt like I became a human being.””

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