A whole continent may one day attribute the end of one of the most violent rites enacted on young African women’s bodies to a white lady from Illinois. It’s as improbable as it is instructive for any well-intentioned American who wants to be a catalyst for change in some of the world’s poorest regions.
Molly Melching is the American-born founder and executive director of Tostan, an organization credited with nearly ending female genital cutting in Senegal. In the new biography of her life and work—However Long the Night: Molly Melching’s Journey to Help Millions of African Women and Girls Triumph, by Aimee Molloy—one has the rare chance to watch a cultural entrepreneur and global development veteran make a range of small decisions that add up to huge change. (However Long the Night is the first book in a new series on social entrepreneurs, a collaboration between HarperCollins and the Skoll Foundation.)
Melching is a profound study in risk and restraint. Over her 39 years working in a country in which she was not born, within a culture of which she is a student, not a native, she demonstrates a tremendous amount of wisdom about when to bite her tongue, let others lead, and stay patient, and when to jump in and insert herself, trusting the catalytic power of timely discomfort within the context of trusted relationships.
Melching arrived in Senegal in 1974 as an exchange student, not unlike many contemporary college students’ first experiences of the Global South. But very much unlike most young people who spend six months living with a family, perhaps studying at a local university, and then returning home to their high-speed Internet and Chipotle, Melching never managed to leave.
This is the first critical, and likely inconvenient, lesson that Melching’s life offers the young do-gooder. Her trusting relationships with the Senegalese people and deep understanding of the culture there would never have been possible had she been jet-setting back and forth like so many current nonprofit directors do. She set down roots. She learned mother tongues. She invested time in building non-transactional relationships with locals.
When she first started organizing groups of rural women to learn about health and human rights circa 1990, she didn’t bombard them with messages about what they should and shouldn’t do. In fact, she didn’t do any of the teaching. She hired facilitators with at least four years of primary school and literacy in national languages, untrained them from any top-down pedagogical style (discussion-based only), and armed them with facts.
It is, ironically, female genital cutting itself that she most intentionally avoided for decades, having learned early on what a precious and engrained rite it was, and how taboo it was to discuss. Her team translated the Declaration of Human Rights into the many native tongues of rural women. They discussed the mechanics of child nutrition and maternal health. They facilitated the building of wells and schools and community health clinics. But they never touched this ancient ritual with a ten-foot pole.
Until the women themselves started touching it. During some participant research in the mid-90s, Melching and her team learned that the women really wanted to better understand the workings of their own bodies, including how female genital cutting had affected their sexuality and childbirth experiences. Melching explains, “What they needed was not just closer hospitals or better trained medical workers, but a way of envisioning an alternative existence in which they understood their right to be treated with dignity. It was only if they believed they were entitled to better treatment that they could demand it and bring an end to those harmful customs.”
This kind of personal and social transformation is at the heart of Melching’s legacy. So many social entrepreneurs have aspired to not just create markets or build clinics, but also to inspire the historically dispossessed to see themselves as deserving of those opportunities and spaces, to—in short—expect better. It’s perhaps the most radical and long-lasting type of social change, and also the most challenging to catalyze without overstepping cultural boundaries and disrespecting the sometimes glacial pace of community-led development.
For the majority of Melching’s career, she’s witnessed, provided information, created structures within which life-changing conversations can happen, and stood back. At rare and pivotal moments, she’s leaned in and asked for help. In one such instance, she visits Thierno Bah, one of the most respected and revered religious leaders in the region, to ask for his blessing to include a module on women’s health, integrating information about “the women’s tradition.”
Many of her colleagues and friends thought she was crazy to bring it to him so directly, particularly as the practice was so sacred and rarely spoken of, certainly not by a foreigner. After a tense silence, Bah replied, “I know you, and I have known and observed Tostan since 1992. You have always had respect for our culture and our religion, in this and nearby communities. You tell me that the women have told you that there are health problems, and if you tell me this, I believe you. … Go forward with what you need to do.”
Tostan began providing information about the health effects of female genital cutting and, in time, tribal communities started colluding with one another to create communal declarations against the practice. It was brave, slow, and difficult work, but today, five thousand Senegalese villages have declared an end to female genital cutting and current efforts are currently underway in seven other countries.
As the title of Melching’s biography foreshadows, the night is—indeed—long for the kind of paradigmatic shifts that the most dedicated entrepreneurs seek. But the dawn Melching is experiencing now must be so wildly rewarding.