Molly Melching is the founder and executive director of Tostan (meaning "breakthrough" in the Wolof language), a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) headquartered in Dakar, Senegal whose mission it is to empower African communities to bring about sustainable development and positive social transformation based on respect of human rights. Tostan and Melching have gained international notice for their work with partner communities to encourage the abandonment of female genital cutting and child/forced marriage in Senegal, and other countries across West and East Africa. Under Tostan's Community Empowerment Program, a community may elect to participate in a three-year, nonformal, education and community organizing training. As of April 2013, 5,423 communities in Senegal have publicly declared their abandonment of FGC after either participating themselves in Tostan's program or through the process of ‘organized diffusion’, spreading what they have learned among neighboring communities. In total, more than 6,400 African communities have abandoned FGC across the countries where Tostan works (as of April 2013).
Melching's expertise is in developing educational materials for use at the community level in Africa, and she helped create the Tostan Community Empowerment Program (CEP). Melching's work along with that of Senegalese communities has also contributed to several innovative community development and communication techniques including the model of organized diffusion of information and the use of the public declaration for the abandonment of FGC and child/forced marriage.
In 1999, she received the Humanitarian Alumni Award from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and in 2002, the Sargent Shriver Distinguished Award for Humanitarian Service. In 2013, Molly Melching was honoured with a ‘Women of Impact’ award at the 4th Annual Women in the World Summit.
Early Work in Senegal
While a student at the University of Dakar in 1974, Molly developed an interest in working with children. She wrote an illustrated children’s book, Anniko, which was published by the New African Editions (NEA). In November 1976, she joined the Peace Corps on an individual placement to continue developing and publishing books for Senegalese children tailored to their culture and environment. To accomplish this, Molly created the "Demb ak Tey" (Yesterday and Today) Center, which opened in the African Cultural Center, and served street children in the most populated area of Dakar, the Medina. Using songs, stories, proverbs, theater and other oral African traditions, Molly and her Senegalese team promoted children's literature pertaining to West African culture. Seeing the popularity of traditional African stories and their potential as a vehicle for education, Molly began a weekly radio program in Wolof, a major national language of Senegal. By including messages on health and the environment, the radio program reached thousands of families with relevant information for improving their lives.
In 1982, Molly was awarded a grant from the Spencer Foundation to continue her activities, which encouraged her to remain in Senegal. She moved the children's center to the village of Saam Njaay in the region of Thiès. In collaboration with community members, she and her Senegalese team developed a basic, nonformal education program for rural populations based on their traditions and culture. This program, funded by USAID, was so successful that many other NGOs soon adopted it.
Molly began collaborating with UNICEF/Senegal in 1988 to improve and expand this nonformal education program to other languages and regions of Senegal. Recognizing women’s crucial role within their own communities as well as the whole of Senegalese society, Molly took note of these women’s distinctive need for literacy training and other kinds of basic education. With UNICEF’s support, the program was extended to thousands of women throughout the country and was also adapted for at-risk, out-of-school adolescents using a basic life skills approach.
Years at Tostan
In 1991, Molly took the collective lessons and pedagogies developed in Saam Njaay and created a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, Tostan. Tostan's centerpiece is the program Molly and others developed in Saam Njaay, Senegal: The Community Empowerment Program (CEP) is targeted at both adult and adolescent learners, and is always delivered in local languages. The nonformal education approach is based on human rights, and is divided into two modules: the Kobi (meaning "to till the soil"), covering democracy, human rights, problem-solving skills, health and hygiene; and the Aawde (meaning "to plant the seed"), covering local language literacy, small enterprise development, and mathematics.
Over the years, the CEP has continued to evolve. Recent additions which have been integrated into the CEP in some Senegalese communities include the Reinforcement of Parental Practices module, which works with parents to stimulate early childhood development and better prepare child for school, and the Peace and Security project, which seeks to establish links between community-led initiatives promoting peace, and regional policy makers, in order to contribute to peace and security in West Africa at all levels.
The Tostan program has had a considerable impact on the lives of many Senegalese women, empowering them to make important decisions affecting their own lives and that of their families. Tostan participants have begun health and hygiene improvement projects leading to the reduction of maternal and infant mortality rates. They have reduced violence against women through peaceful protest; dramatically increased rates of vaccinations and pre- and post-natal consultation; and led campaigns to enroll girls in school and register thousands of children who had no official birth certificates. They have even begun implementing successful and sustainable income generating activities. Women now participate in decision-making processes and are emerging as confident and effective leaders.
Molly recognized that the Senegalese themselves, and not outsiders, must be the ones to carry forward this culminating social transformation. On July 31, 1997, a group of Senegalese women began a major social movement. One group of Tostan participants from the village of Malicounda Bambara decided to abandon the ancient practice of FGC in their community. This tradition is a social convention in 28 countries of Africa, required in many ethnic groups for girls to marry and become respected members of the community. Their decision was motivated by the understanding that these traditional practices are harmful to the health of girls and women, are violations of their human rights, and are not in accordance with their religious and cultural values.
Since the 1997 declaration in Malicounda Bambara, 5,422 other communities in Senegal have also made public declarations to end this tradition along with ending child/forced marriage. As of April 2013, over 6,400 communities in the countries Tostan works in have publicly declared their abandonment of FGC and child/forced marriage. In Guinea, 528 communities have declared, along with 144 in Guinea Bissau, 158 in The Gambia, 78 in Mauritania, 92 in Djibouti and 62 in Somalia. A partnership between Tostan and Mwangaza, an NGO in Burkino Faso, empowered 23 villages in that country to end FGC through public declaration on May 3, 2003.
Distinctions and Recognition
In 1995, UNESCO chose Tostan as one of the most innovative education programs throughout the world and published a brochure on the Tostan experience. In 1999, Molly Melching was awarded the University of Illinois Alumni Humanitarian Prize and in 2002, the Sargent Shriver Distinguished Award for Humanitarian Service at the 40th Celebration of the Peace Corps. To date, many international films, radio programs, newspaper and magazine articles have been produced on Tostan, the Community Empowerment Program, and Molly herself. In 1997, Ms. Hillary Clinton, wife of then President Bill Clinton, visited a Tostan village and in 1998, both Hillary and The President paid a special visit to the Tostan program.
Molly continuously listens to feedback from Tostan participants and adapts Tostan’s Community Empowerment Program, including its methodology and approach, to meet the changing needs of the villagers, always preserving the dignity of the populations she serves through respectful consultation. Through years of experimentation, Tostan has confirmed the importance of human rights education in the process of improving health and other socioeconomic factors in standards of living. In October 2003, World Health Organization chose Tostan’s basic education approach as a “Best Practice Model” for community development and ending FGC, calling for further replication and dissemination of the model to other African nations. In 2005, Tostan won the Anna Lindh Prize for Human Rights, and in 2007 Tostan won two awards: the UNESCO King Sejong Prize for Literacy, and the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize, the largest humanitarian prize in the world. In 2010, Tostan was recognized by the Skoll Foundation with the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship. In 2012, Tostan received an ‘Award in Action’ by the Cécilia Attias Foundation for Women, recognizing their work in improving health systems and maternal care at a community level. Molly Melching was honoured with a ‘Women of Impact’ award at the 4th Annual Women in the World Summit in 2013.
However Long the Night
A book written by acclaimed writer and journalist Aimee Molloy about Molly Melching’s work, However Long the Night: Molly Melching’s Journey to Help Millions of African Women and Girls Triumph, was published on April 30, 2013. The book shares Molly’s personal experiences that brought her to Africa nearly 40 years ago, the inspiring people she has met along the way, and why she decided to stay. It brings to life the story of Tostan’s founding and the incredible community-led movement for transformative social change being seen in Africa.
- Reaves, Jessica (November 25, 2007). "Walking away from the past; How does an outsider change a culture? From the inside, says activist Molly Melching". Chicago Tribune. p. 12. Retrieved 2 August 2011.