Women in the World

03.10.12

Molly Melching: Enlist the Men!

After decades of working to end the brutal tradition of female genital cutting in Senegal, the human-rights activist realized: men are key to affecting real change in the region.
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Amid three days of celebrating women, Sheryl WuDunn—who with her husband, Nicholas Kristoff, authored the book Half the Sky—reminded the audience on Saturday morning that when it comes to real change, women can’t go it alone. “We need men in anything we do to try to elevate women,” she said.

The panelists proved her point. Molly Melching was born in the U.S. but has lived in Senegal for nearly 40 years. As the founder of the organization Tostan, she has been instrumental in helping to end an insidious tradition: female genital cutting.

The key, Melching said, has been to take a human-rights approach, and focus on education. “As women started learning their rights and learned about the harm of not just female genital cutting but also child marriage, they started standing up and defending their rights,” she said. “I cannot emphasize enough the importance of women learning their rights.”

“But we made a mistake, a big mistake,” Melching continued. Her organization was focused on women’s health, she explained, which made the men start asking, “what about us?”

Real progress wasn’t made until the organization started to include men in its efforts. One of them, Imam Demba Diawara, who is a village chief in Senegal, proved critical. Cutting, he said, with Melching acting as a translator, was an ancient tradition that his ancestors practiced. “We never questioned it,” he said. “We just followed it. As the head of a family who I love, every one of them had gone through this practice. Now it is very painful for me to acknowledge that this was the case.”

Through Tostan, the imam began to learn about some of the harmful effects of the practice. He sought the advice of other Muslim leaders, and was reassured that the tradition was not a religious obligation. With the encouragement of his family, he began reaching out and helping to educate others about the dangers of cutting. Now, he has been to some 378 communities, working with men and women alike to help end the practice. Five thousand villages have abandoned it altogether, and Melching says that by 2015, it might be eliminated from Senegal altogether.

It’s a tremendous accomplishment in just one generation. “It is working,” the imam said. “But we still have a lot left to do. I am an old man. I need replacements.”