HUMANITY MATTERS The Tostan Breakthrough

How do caring people prevent the crime of FGM against innocent little girls?

Like Comment

Everyone on Planet Earth who feels empathy and concern for the suffering of others agrees that the cruel and harmful practice of female genital mutilation must stop.

We all want to prevent the trauma, human rights violation and life-long suffering inflicted on 8000 girls every day across Africa and around the world.

The real question is HOW do we stop this deeply entrenched custom that has continued for over 2000 years, passed down from generation to generation, where a mother who has endured the trauma as a child inflicts the same trauma on her daughter? How do we break the generational cycle?

There’s the legal approach. Governments have enacted laws against FGM and threatened “cutters” with imprisonment. And still they are defiant. The day the law was passed in Senegal in 1999, one village cut 100 girls in protest.

Another strategy is to target traditional cutters and give them alternative employment. However still mothers find someone to cut their daughters.

Another way is having anti-FGM activists host meetings in villages and lecture the women about the horrendous health consequences of slicing off a beautiful, precious child’s genitals with a razor blade without anaesthetic.

If the girl does not die from shock, blood loss or infection, she is condemned to a lifetime of pain and suffering.

And life is hard enough in poor rural villages in Africa without adding unnecessary hardship to the lives of women who carry the burden of childbirth, childcare and work.

All heavy-handed, authoritarian methods have not stopped FGM. Shocking, shaming, blaming, judging and condemning have failed abysmally to end the widespread harmful practice.

So WHY have these methods failed?

The ‘tradition’ is fiercely defended in African communities as a religious duty, as a way to honour ancestors and to gain marriageability, family honour and respectability. And the practice is wrapped in a code of silence where women are forbidden to talk about the tradition they revere as a deeply personal and sacred rite of womanhood.

And yet, how long the tradition has existed or the strength of feelings and beliefs doesn’t make FGM right. For the health and wellbeing of millions of girls and women, the harmful practice must stop.

The Breakthrough

One courageous American woman has found a way. Through 40 years of living and working in Senegal, Molly Melching has devised a strategy that promises to end FGM across Africa and the world.

The exquisitely written book However Long the Night by author Aimee Molloy tells the inspirational story of Molly’s journey from a bright-eyed university student from Illinois to a powerful campaigner heading up the acclaimed organisation, Tostan.

In the Senegalese language of Wolof, Tostan is a beautiful word meaning the hatching of an egg at the breakthrough moment when the chick emerges from the shell.

Molly Melching hatched not just a good idea but gave birth to a human rights revolution. Over 25 years Tostan has led more than 5000 villages in Senegal to make public declarations to end the practice of female genital cutting. (Tostan prefers to call the practice FGC rather than FGM for “mutilation”.)

And thousands of villages in neighbouring countries around Senegal in west Africa have also made public declarations. Millions of people have been reached and lives and communities transformed through Tostan.

Tostan’s grassroots movement to end FGC is now spreading throughout Africa with the potential to end the practice within a generation. This remarkable achievement has come through a unique, pioneering approach.

What is the Secret to Tostan’s Success?

Molly wanted to understand the motives driving the practice. Through talking with thousands of women in villages she discovered:

1.Mothers cut their daughters as an act of love. Cutting makes a daughter marriageable in a culture where women depend on husbands for their survival. An uncut woman would be unable to find a husband and become a social outcast, shunned and ridiculed as ‘unclean’ by other women. To cut her daughter makes her a respected member of the village, honours her family and secures her future. Although misguided, the maternal intentions are good.

2. African culture is built on interconnectedness. Change cannot be made by individuals. If one girl or a few girls are spared from being cut they risk ostracism and social disgrace. Even if a whole village stops the practice, it is not enough because people are related to members of other villages; with relatives in at least 10 other surrounding villages. So change has to occur amongst all the villages in a region. Abandoning the practice must be a collective decision.

3. Abandoning the tradition cannot be done through force or shame, or patronising judgement. Stopping FGC must be done with respect and understanding of the beliefs and fears, motives and social needs of the people through equal, collaborative discussion.

4. The continuation of the tradition is based on ignorance and misinformation. Women attribute the pain and health problems experienced by girls and women to bad spirits. They have not connected haemorrhaging, infection and death of girls to the cutting procedure. Nor do they know that suffering pain in urination, menstruation, sexual intercourse and childbirth is not normal.

They believe such pain is part of being a woman; that every woman suffers in the same way. They believe that cutting girls is normal and universal; that all women around the world are cut.

But through Tostan’s educational workshops in remote rural villages women have become hungry for knowledge and discovered empowerment.

Tostan’s three-part Approach to Transformation

1.Health Education: Knowledge about anatomy and health given in a respectful participatory way using creative means such as theatre, music and dance with women sharing their stories has broken through the code of silence, myths and mistaken beliefs to confront the harmful effects of cutting girls.

2.Human Rights: Informing women that they have a right to a free choice about what’s done to their bodies, a right to health, to live without pain, to even experience sexual pleasure has changed attitudes and lives. Teaching human rights has stopped FGC as well as child marriage and domestic violence and has empowered women to take on leadership roles in their villages.

3. Public Declaration: Villages have come together to make public declarations to end FGC, which has ensured the power of collective commitment and accountability. The entire community mind set has been changed, not just isolated cases of non-conformity, with the risk of ostracism.

Bringing the harmful practice out in the open has broken the code of secrecy and created unity and powerful resolve amongst men and women, boys and girls.

Tostan has led an astonishing human rights revolution and the movement will continue until every girl is safe to grow up happy and healthy.

Be inspired: read However Long the Night by Aimee Molloy.

Read more about Tostan and become a supporter.

The Orchid Project, based in London, supports the revolutionary work of Tostan throughout Africa and the world.

Diane Priestley

Engaging storyteller, Prolific Journalist, Empowering People Matters

Hello Psychologies Tribe, Let me introduce myself! I'm an experienced journalist with a career spanning more than 30 years writing for newspapers, magazines and online publications in Australia and the UK. I write about relationships, health and humanitarian issues. I'm a qualified Counsellor and Workshop Facilitator. I moved from Australia to the UK in 2009 and now live near the beach in Folkestone, Kent and part of the year in Kenya doing community work.