Molly Melching first learned about female genital cutting more than 30 years ago from a doctor she met on a train in Senegal. She was traveling around the country as a graduate student in African studies and he was going to attend his daughter's circumcision. The doctor told Melching, now 61, that he didn't like the procedure but there was nothing he could do about it. Every Senegalese woman was circumcised. The best he could do, as a doctor, was to attend the ceremony to make sure that his daughter didn't hemorrhage.
That was just the beginning of Melching's career, which would effectively change the fate of as many as 3 million African women and girls a year. Melching is the founder of a nonprofit women's organization called Tostan, which means "breakthrough" in the West African language of Wolof. Through teaching health and human rights, and by encouraging Africans to disseminate information themselves, Tostan has managed to bring about the biggest "breakthrough" imaginable.
“You have to bring everybody in the community,” Melching says. “Everybody has to buy into it.”
Today, for the first time in history, 4,229 communities out of 5,000 in Senegal have abandoned female genital cutting. (That's in addition to 298 in the neighboring country of Guinea and 20 in Burkina Faso.) And this year, Senegal declared a nationwide end to the practice. By 2015, the government announced just last month, female genital cutting, which affects 2 million women in Senegal alone, will come to an end.
"The movement is spreading across Africa," says Melching.
Senegal is the first country in the world to adopt such a program, and it is a direct result of Melching's work on women's empowerment, which she began in the 1970s alongside local women. At first she didn't want to get involved in such a sensitive cultural issue.
"As a white American woman, I didn't think it was my place," she says. But the other members of Tostan disagreed. "This isn't about you; it's about us. We are Tostan," they told her.
So Tostan began training women about human rights, and about health. Until Melching's organization started its three-year training program, no one knew the basics of germ theory—or its link to HIV. Or how tetanus worked, or why girls often sickened after the procedure of genital-cutting, or why many died two weeks later.
After learning these empowering lessons, in July 1997 the first community chose to publicly declare an end to the practice. It wasn't easy for them. Soon after, a local Muslim leader named Demba Diawara came to tell Melching that Tostan's program was leading to trouble.
"This isn't the way to end female genital cutting," he said. "Change has to come from within." So Melching asked the Islamic leader how he would approach the problem. "I would put on my shoes and walk to all the surrounding communities," he said. Since women from one village marry the men of another, it's crucial that both communities accept the end of the practice, so that women don't find themselves isolated, ostracized, and unable to find suitable husbands, he explained. Ending female genital cutting was never going to happen until all the villages decided to abandon the practice together.
"You have to bring everybody in the community," Melching says. "Everybody has to buy into it." The secret of Tostan's success is that it does just that: brings people together, gives them information that they then spread themselves, and builds on the basic truth that African communities are interconnected.
Curiously enough, the most vociferous opposition Tostan has faced comes from the girls themselves. At first when they learned that the practice of cutting was ending, they were angry about it and afraid that they would not be respected or seen as desirable wives. "Why can't we have the same celebration our sisters have?" they asked. What did Melching learn from their objections? Teenagers have to go through the program as much as elders and religious leaders do.
Once under way, the message of women's health and human rights begin to spread from community to community on its own until an entire nation leaves the practice behind. As Melching puts it, "You get to a tipping point where the social norms change."
Eliza Griswold is a New America fellow and a recipient of the 2010 Rome Prize. Her book, The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Islam and Christianity, will by published by FSG this spring.