Human Rights

However Long the Night: A Q&A With Molly Melching

A discussion with the cultural entrepreneur, human rights advocate, and founder of Tostan.

Molly Melching is the American-born founder and executive director of Tostan, an organization credited with nearly ending female genital cutting in Senegal—and likely beyond very soon. In her new biography—However Long the Night: Molly Melching’s Journey to Help Millions of African Women and Girls Triumph, by Aimee Molloy—readers learn about this advocate’s lifelong commitment to her work and human rights-based vision for a better world for those in the Global South, African women, and girls in particular.

I recently caught up with Molly in the midst of her multi-country book tour to ask some questions about her fascinating life in cultural entrepreneurship.

Courtney Martin: You went to Senegal in 1974 as an exchange student and basically never left. What was it about Senegal? Do you think it was chance—that is, had you gone to Nigeria or Rwanda, or even Chile, would you have rooted there?

Molly Melching: I can't really say what might have happened elsewhere since I ended up living my life in Senegal, but I do know that there is something truly special about Senegal, something I sensed immediately upon my arrival that has kept me wanting to be living and working there ever since. It is in part the warmth, openness, and wonderful nature of the people; the generosity, spirit, and caring of the culture; the amazing music, dance, and food. But those are only some of the reasons. Like any kind of love, there is also something beyond words, a connection or a deep yearning I feel, a sense of belonging there. I have traveled all over Africa and the world, and yet I still feel that I'm coming home when I return to Senegal.

Tostan wasn't founded until 1991, 17 years after you arrived. In the meantime, you were involved in leading many other initiatives, building community and lots of non-transactional relationships, learning languages, observing, etc. So much of social entrepreneurship today is so fast. Is that your impression? What are the benefits or costs of moving so quickly in comparison to your journey?

It is true that much of what I hear described as social entrepreneurship seems to evolve quite rapidly. And yes, so much of what we do today at Tostan is based on very subtle things—insights we had after carefully listening to all members of the communities, breakthroughs using knowledge we gained through thoughtful and lengthy discussions in classes or sitting under the neem trees or around a fire late into the night. On the other hand, if you talk to people who work with us, they will tell you that we too are constantly moving fast—making changes, adjustments, ongoing shifts as we get new information from or for our community members. This careful listening and asking practice that leads to program evolution seems to me to be a hallmark of the great entrepreneurs I meet at places like the Skoll World Forum.

All of that investment of time and energy led to the Community Empowerment Program (CEP) model, which is now in 22 languages in 8 countries. Can you explain what that is? How does it differ from what those who remember 1970s feminism might think of as "consciousness-raising groups"?

One visitor who attended a Tostan class actually told me she felt like she was participating in group therapy! In fact, the sessions in the Community Empowerment Program were written to incite dialogue, to get people to discuss issues that they normally would not bring up on an everyday basis as they go about their work. Many participants have never had the opportunity to freely share their experiences and opinions like this, and they are excited to learn that other women in the community and even in other countries around the world have similar problems and concerns. Learning that the international community brought forth instruments to protect the human dignity of all people—men, women and children—was an important revelation for them, one that gave them new confidence and hope.

As the program progresses, knowledge gained from previous sessions is relevant to the new subjects introduced and helps to guide decisions that participants make. By beginning the entire program with a group consensus on the deeper values of the community and what constitutes human dignity—always in reference to their religious beliefs—it is easier for participants to learn new information, and discuss what behavior is important to maintain and what they may want to change to achieve their overarching goals of peace, health, and general well-being.

A human rights framework is so central to your work. What do you say to people who think that, even if translated into local languages, this is a Western framework that you are imposing on non-Western people?

We begin our discussions of human rights in the classroom by asking about human dignity. Participants come to a consensus around the importance of human dignity and what they believe constitutes human dignity for each human being. During these discussions, they realize that their definitions of human dignity correspond to many religious and traditional values, as well as human rights principles that are universal to all people of the world. We present poster drawings that we use to spark discussion on these principles, and how they can be applied in families and communities. Participants then learn that these basic principles are actually considered human rights, which have been established with the collaboration of all countries of the world to protect the human dignity of all people everywhere. When the participants realize that these principles connect them with every other person on an international level, it is often one of the most powerful moments in the program.

In my previous Stanford Social Innovation Review post on you, I focused on the qualities of risk and restraint that I saw surfacing over and over in the biography. Where do you think your courage comes from? Your patience?

I would not describe myself as courageous, necessarily. I am determined for sure, and I do persevere when I feel we are headed in the right direction. I have always believed that if you feel you are on a path that can lead to the well-being of people, the methods you use to achieve that goal should be respectful, peaceful, and positive. There are times when we need to move forward, other times when we need to hold back. If I feel we are moving forward respectfully and peacefully, I am never afraid, and will continue on with confidence and patience. But that for me is not courage—just determination and perseverance.

There are 6,500 communities in eight African countries that have abandoned female genital cutting (FGC) because of Tostan's work. In the United States, we talk so much about individual behavior change, but this cultural shift had to happen via whole communities, not individuals. Can you explain the role of "social norms"?

As a practice, we think FGC is best understood as a social norm, meaning it is practiced in part because people think it is expected by others in their social networks and that they will be negatively sanctioned if they do not practice it. This makes it difficult for an individual to decide to abandon the practice on their own, even if it means violating the law to practice it. This is because compared to the health risks, the social consequences that uncut girls face are equally severe. A girl who is not cut is often ostracized by her community.

Tostan’s approach to promoting the abandonment of the practice is grounded in nonformal education based on human rights. Through learning about the rights of all members of society, as well as the health consequences of FGC in the holistic Community Empowerment Program, participants use this new information to consider how the practice relates to peace and well-being in their community. Through an exchange of experiences, the participants realize that the practice does not increase the well-being of their community. They are empowered in their decision to abandon the practice through social mobilization efforts, which give all members of interconnected social networks the chance to dialogue on the issue, eventually leading to public declarations, where many villages will stand together to simultaneously abandon the practice—changing at once the social norms of a large group of people.

This creates a new, socially accepted option to not cut girls. So it's not that individual beliefs and choices don't matter—these movements are of course made up of individuals passionate about ending the practice. What we are saying is that you also have to work on the group expectations and sanctions, and address those, and doing so is often the only way to really address the issue. Otherwise individual families will find it very challenging to go it alone, and most simply can't.

What are you proudest of looking back at Tostan's 22 years?

I am proudest of the fact that Tostan is one of the first organizations to promote and facilitate human rights learning in a way that thousands and thousands of people who have never been to formal school can truly understand, and then use these rights to transform their families and communities in very positive ways. Since we first included our human rights sessions back in 1996, I have seen change I never dreamed possible—women and girls gain confidence, stand up, speak out, and act for the first time, working peacefully and knowledgeably to end harmful practices and create new and positive social norms within their communities. Any time that I start to get discouraged, I think of these girls and women, and it helps me to keep plodding on, knowing that one day, millions more will be reached.

Tell us about Tostan’s new early childhood development work.

Research has shown that certain social norms and traditional practices in Senegal can hinder the brain development of infants. For example, the belief that infants must be protected from dangerous spirits: To protect them, certain parents avoid looking newborn babies in the eye, and speaking regularly and directly to them (the evil eye and evil tongue). However, recent discoveries about brain development in young children have shown the importance of stimulating interactions between parents and their children.

Tostan's Reinforcement of Parental Practices (RPP) Module was launched in March 2013 after a successful pilot program in 2012. The module aims to reinforce knowledge gained in the Community Empowerment Program that encourages parents and other community members to create an environment for children's development. As a result, the module will help improve children's early development and learning, allowing them to perform better and stay in school.

During the RPP Module, facilitators share with community members simple techniques that enrich interactions between parents and their young children, and are all linked to children’s basic human rights to education and health. These techniques include speaking to their young children using a rich and complex vocabulary, asking their children questions and helping them respond, playfully copying their children, telling them stories, and describing objects in detail to them. We have also developed many colorful, low-cost children's books that newly literate parents are reading to their children. Many children have never seen a book before, let alone one that they can understand because it is in their own language. We have four- and five-year-old children who are able to read these books now, and so many will benefit when they go to school because they have been exposed to the joy of reading before they actually enter a school room.

The project will work very closely with the school system in Senegal with over 232 School Management Committees being created or reinforced, and 690 teachers and school directors directly involved in the program.

Anything else you'd like to share?

Our biggest problem currently is that our three-year program is often viewed as being too long. Many donors will fund for only one or two years, and then activities in the field stop while waiting to renew a contract. This often takes longer than expected and creates gaps in the learning process that negatively impact outcomes.

But we strongly believe that three years is critical for women who have never been to school, and that teaching women who then teach their children and their communities will break the cycle of poverty in the African countries where we work. We are hoping that if more people are aware of the results of Tostan’s empowering education and how it serves as a solid foundation for further development, we will be able to solve some of these difficult challenges.

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