Tostan is a non-profit organization based in West Africa. It was founded by a remarkable woman named Molly Melching. I first learned about Molly and Tostan from reading Half the Sky, a wonderful book about the empowerment of women in the world’s poorest places.
Born and raised in Illinois, Molly Melching’s interest in French eventually took her as an exchange student to Senegal in West Africa. That was in 1974. She never left. After a stint as a Peace Corps volunteer, during which she learned to speak ‘Wolof’ (the principle language in Senegal), Molly remained in that country, continuing her community development and education efforts. That led to the launch of Tostan, which means ‘breakthrough’ in Wolof.
From that beginning, Molly and her team evolved a strategy for community development that put great emphasis on the empowerment of women.
In most places in Africa, there is a strong cultural tradition of male dominance, with women subjugated and treated like chattel. In this tradition, girl children are considered unworthy of being educated, and are destined at a young age to be traded into a marriage relationship by her family. With no rights of her own, a woman in these traditional African cultures is subjected to every kind of indignity and brutalization.
A particularly cruel aspect of reality for these African women is a tradition known as Female Genital Cutting (FGC). In this tradition, girl children, most before the age of ten, are subjected to the cutting away of the external parts of their genitals, including the clitoris and labial tissue. This is done without anesthetic. Extremely painful and medically unnecessary, FGC is thought to dampen a girl’s libido, a condition required culturally to be worthy of marriage. In Africa, nearly one hundred million women have been mutilated by FGC.
Molly Melching and her colleagues at Tostan have developed a particularly effective model for evolving local communities away from FGC and early childhood marriage. It works because it focuses on community development while encouraging respect for women and the acceptance of new cultural norms, including the ending of FGC and early childhood marriage. Tostan has successfully implemented their community model in ten African nations, including Senegal, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Djibouti, Mauritania, Somalia, Gambia, Burkina Faso, and Sudan.
On the occasion of International Human Rights Day on December 15, 2012, Tostan reported that 115 of their participating communities in Guinea-Bissau collectively renounced FGC and forced childhood marriage. In fact, they went beyond that and embraced every human’s right to recognition, respect, and access to education and health care. Tostan was a powerful facilitator behind this remarkable community achievement.
Molly Melching has dedicated her life to the people, particularly the women and girls, of Africa. She and her colleagues at Tostan have made an enormous difference. I admire them and urge every caring person to stand with them as they work diligently to bring dignity to all the women and girls of Africa.
Here is a link to the Tostan website… www.tostan.org