Female Genital Mutilation, or FGM, is one of the most heinous acts of violence perpetrated toward young girls. It is the procedure of surgically altering part of the vagina, and it has no medical or health benefits whatsoever. It is mostly done for cultural reasons, but also some religious. According to the World Health Organization, some 200 million girls around the world today have become victims to FGM practices. Although they report the majority of procedures are being done in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, there are also incidents being reported in the UK and the United States.
It’s clear there is a worldwide need to completely eradicate this heinous practice, and one organization has spent decades doing this in Africa. Tostan is a Senegal-based human rights organization started by Molly Melching in 1991. Over the past 26 years they have seen some impressive results due to the local activists working to educate people on the dangers of FGM, as well as other issues such as child marriage.
Molly is originally from Illinois, and first went to Senegal as an exchange student in 1974 to study African literature written in French, according to a recent interview with the LA Times. After finishing her studies, Molly founded a children’s center in Dakar where she worked for 6 years, adapting children’s books into the local Wolof language. She also started a radio program for kids which helped bring literature to those in rural villages and small communities.
Working with many locals, feedback she received enabled Molly and Tostan to recognize they needed to focus on one issue in particular. FGM wasn’t in the original program curriculum they had developed, which encompassed other important issues such as education, economic empowerment and leadership. The women she came in contact with asked for a specific women’s health module.
“We started researching with them and found that many of the problems related to health and women and girls were dependent, not so much on the information, but on them knowing they have the human right to health, that they have the human right to be free from all forms of violence, and that they have the right to speak out, to voice their opinion. It was the women themselves who said, ‘We want to know about [female genital cutting]. We want to learn about it’,” she told the Times’ Ann M. Simmons.
The women were unsure whether it was a religious or cultural practice, but wanted more education around this. Initially there was push-back against the focus on FGM as the curriculum was marketed as “women’s rights”, which a number of men were suspicious about, said Molly. The men became so angry that local classes ended up getting shut down. Tostan leaders regrouped and saw a potential path forward in including the men. There were also religious leaders who didn’t like the idea of eliminating a practice they thought was a part of their religious customs.
“We made human rights the foundation of our program. [Participants] started thinking about things they had never discussed before, such as an experience they went through where they were discriminated against and how they felt and how this can lead to such pain and suffering, and even to frustration and conflict and anger between families. Participants in our program identified female genital cutting as a violent act, as being an act that was not necessary. We collectively decided that we would not accept this any longer, this discrimination, this violence,” said Molly.
It took a little longer to get religious leaders on board, but once people started asking them where in the Koran it talked about FGM, they couldn’t find it. This was a turning point for many participating in the program.
“We had many religious leaders come on board early on. But there were others that were more resistant and were angry, even though we included them in the human rights work we were doing. What we finally have come to understand is that [religious leaders] can be even greater allies, that they can actually help to lead this movement and are proud and happy to do so,” said Molly.
Cultural sensitivity played a role in the evolution of Tostan’s focus on FGM, as Molly explains.
“I was a bit hesitant as a white American woman going in to discuss this, but the women said we must talk about it. [They said,] ‘We want to know, is it really necessary? We’ve heard that it is a religious practice. Is that true?'” she recalled.
The program also made sure to emphasize that it was primarily about protecting women’s health and wellbeing, while maintaining their cultural and religious values. The change in direction has been clearly working for the organization, as the results speak for themselves. Over 20,000 women in 8 countries where Tostan work out of have become leaders within their community, and 7500 communities have reportedly made public declarations that they will not force underage girls into marriage, the homepage of the website states.
In addition to these stats, over 3 million people live in communities that have declared they will put an end to FGM. The Tostan Facebook Page has shared some images of these declarations made in Senegal, The Gambia, and Somalia.
Theirs is a human rights-based, inclusive approach to ensuring empowerment becomes a self-sustaining model in communities. With funding from the United Nations, and a model that works, the possibility for reducing FGM is being realized more and more every day. Molly says apart from the African countries where they work, Tostan has had people from India and Nepal come to learn more about their curriculum.
“This is a different approach. It’s a different paradigm. It’s not about blame and shame. It’s not about imposing ideas. It’s about saying to people this is the information you need to make good decisions and decisions that will help you to reinforce your goals and your values for the future,” she said.
To learn more about Tostan and get involved in their initiatives, visit the website.