Research & Action Report Spring/Summer 2004

international work  In early February, Molly Melching, executive director of Tostan, a Senegal-based nongovernmental organization, and Kerthio Diarra, a Senegalese village woman and human rights activist, visited the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW). Melching and Diarra spent two days at the Centers meeting and talking with WCW staff before continuing on to Washington, D.C., and a congressional briefing on female genital cutting (FGC). The congressional hearings were scheduled for February 6, a day designated to recognize international efforts to end FGC and raise awareness about the issue; February 6 also marked 13 years of work for Tostan.

Melching, who has lived in Senegal for 30 years, did graduate work at Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar and was a Peace Corps volunteer before founding Tostan. Diarra, 43, is from Malicounda Bambara and buys and sells soap from Mali to support her eight children. A graduate of the Tostan program, she was chosen by her classmates to represent them in the U.S.

Tostan—which means “breakthrough” in Wolof, one of the local languages spoken in Senegal—is an international nonprofit organization that has developed an empowering education program. Conducted in local languages, the program teaches human rights and responsibilities, which then become springboards for discussions of basic hygiene and health issues, literacy, and even small-business feasibility assessments.

“It was through learning about women’s rights and responsibilities concerning health that discussions of FGC first arose,”Melching said. “The really key thing about Tostan is that it provides basic education in local languages, which for Kerthio meant classes taught in Wolof.”

For Diarra, whose comments to WCW were translated from Wolof into English by Melching, being in an educational environment taught in her local language truly was a breakthrough and a transforming experience. “I never went to school,” she said. “I was 35 the first time I sat in a Tostan class, and I believe that what I have learned since then has changed my life.” She added, “I think that the information I know now is much more important to me than anything I could have learned as a child in formal school. We have learned very important things about our
health and about the spread of germs, how to protect the health of our children, and about our rights as women in our marriages and in our community. We learned that we have the right to speak out and to be healthy.”

In the empowering atmosphere of the Tostan class, Diarra learned the origins, myths, and dangers of FGC. “Before, we thought that the tradition [FGC] was a religious obligation,” Diarra explained. “But when we began to learn about the dangers and consequences of the tradition, we understood that we needed to change. It was learning about human rights that changed everything for us. The most important thing in a process like this is to know yourself first and be clear about your own thoughts and beliefs.”

To Melching, one of the most impressive aspects of the educational process was the courage and steadfastness of the women who decided that things needed to change. “At Tostan we didn’t know they were planning to do this, but in 1997 Kerthio and 36 very brave women in her community stood up to publicly announce their decision to abandon FGC,” Melching explained. “Since then, 1,271 communities representing approximately 600,000 people have made similar public declarations. These villagers are leading a historic movement for peaceful and positive social transformation in Africa.”

These changes did not come about without considerable struggle. “We were the first village in Senegal to publicly do something like this,” Diarra said. “The men had agreed with us, but they were surprised when we invited 20 journalists to attend our declaration. The journalists later reported our decision across the country. That’s when all the problems started. The men were very angry because they did not know we had planned to make our decision so widespread and said we should keep quiet! But we told them that we knew that FGC was harming our girls and that we had no choice but to share what we had learned. We could not keep quiet. We didn’t waver. Together we decided to be patient because we understood the importance of what we had learned. We did everything together as a group, and we were completely committed to teaching other people what we have learned.”

Melching noted that the struggle Diarra and the other students were engaged in lasted for several years. “These women were insulted
and accused of being traitors to their ethnic groups. Now, however, the men are very supportive of them,” she said. Tostan seeks to eradicate FGC one village at a time. “Our goal is to work with 1,000 more villages during the next five years and to end FGC in Senegal by 2010,” Melching said. Diarra added that she believed these goals could be achieved by patiently teaching African women the tenets of Tostan’s educational mission.

“We would like other African women to know more and to understand more; they need so much more help with learning about their rights and how to protect their health and the health of their children,” Diarra said. “All of our work to end FGC has been done in peace, without anger, and without blaming anyone. The Tostan classes really taught us that everyone needs to feel safe and comfortable to be able to really think about things clearly. That is how change begins.”

Diarra, who had never traveled overseas before her visit to the Centers, said she was left with many distinct impressions about the U.S. and the meaning of the Tostan work in Senegal.

“I never dreamed that I’d leave my village and come to America,” she said. “Everyone told me that it would be very beautiful, but it is even more so than I expected, and everyone has been very kind to me. But I was very surprised to learn that American women also have some very serious problems, and I think that it might be helpful for you here to think a little bit about your human rights!”

For more information about Tostan, visit www.tostan.org or contact Molly Melching at melching@sentoo.sn.