Chicago Tribune DECEMBER 6, 2007 Walking away from the past HOW DOES AN OUTSIDER CHANGE A CULTURE? FROM THE INSIDE, SAYS ACTIVIST MOLLY MELCHING. By Jessica Reaves | Tribune staff writer “Are you sure?”came the question, anxious and probing. “You have to be absolutely sure.” Their brilliant heads- carves bobbing like tropical birds, they nodded. They were sure. It was time. And they were ready. It was the fall of 1996, and the women of Malicounda Bambara, a small village in northern Senegal, were in the midst of a 30-month community education pro- gram courtesy of Tostan, a human rights group founded by Molly Melching, a tall, plain-spoken transplant from Danville, Ill. tackled math, literacy, problem-solving Female genital cutting/mutilation is The most recent lesson covered hu- and management. defined by the World Health Organization man rights and health, with emphasis on But they hadn’t forgotten what and the United Nations as “the partial or women’s well-being through puberty, they’d learned about cutting. And so they total removal of the female external geni- marriage and childbirth. Their teacher, talked, first in hushed voices in private talia or other injury to the female genital herself a Senegalese woman, broached quarters, then in louder, more forceful organs for cultural or other non-therapeu- the topic of female genital cutting, a tones back in their classroom. They talk- tic reasons.” The debate over calling the common rite of passage in the region, ed to one another, to their husbands, their practice “female genital cutting” versus describing health risks of the procedure: friends, their neighbors. They talked to “female genital mutilation” is ongoing. infections, hemorrhage, fever and death. their imam, who, like many other men in Some groups, including Tostan, prefer For many of the women, this was a the village, had only a vague idea of what the former term because they believe the revelation: They all knew someone who the practice entailed. After some consul- practice isn’t carried out in an attempt to had suffered, even died, after cutting, but tation, he confirmed that the practice had mutilate or harm, but rather as a way to it was in the same way they knew women no religious basis; nothing written in the preserve cultural homogeny. who had died during childbirth. It was Koran required them to cut their daugh- Today, genital cutting is performed simply something that happened. ters, to remove parts of every girl’s labia annually on 2 million girls and women Most of them had never consciously and clitoris. The women regrouped and worldwide--in 28 African nations, some linked chronic health problems to geni- talked and thought and talked a while Asian and Middle Eastern countries, and tal cutting, which was as much a part of longer. among pockets of immigrants in Europe their culture as dancing, good-natured By June 1997, they didn’t need to and in the United States. It is often prac- teasing and impromptu singing. Some of talk anymore. Thirty-five women of ticed in secret, away from public view the women were angry with the teacher, Malicounda Bambara had made up their or documentation, which makes exact horrified that such a sacrosanct tradition minds, and they wanted to tell the world: figures nearly impossible to pin down. was being discussed in the open and in The last generation of their daughters had Mortality rates are also vague, as many such clinical terms. been cut. The declaration was made on communities have no official register for The months passed and the Tostan a scorching July day in 1997. It was the births or deaths. lessons continued, three days a week, for first public announcement of its kind in Most countries have outlawed fe- two to three hours at a time. The women Africa. male genital cutting, often referred to as FGC, but laws generally don’t make as recently as the 1950s in attempts to their mothers or another female mentor, much impact on cultural behavior. Sen- combat “illnesses” like masturbation and use a knife, scalpel or other sharp object, egal banned FGC in 1999, but more than lesbianism. A major misconception about often without sterilizing it, and almost al- 2,000 villages, or about 25 percent of the cutting is that it’s an inherently Islamic ways without using anesthesia. In some population, still perform it. (The Wolof practice; in fact, it is linked to culture and countries, including Egypt, there is a people, Senegal’s culturally and politi- ethnicity, not to religion. I spoke to many growing trend toward “medicalizing” the cally dominant ethnic group, do not en- women who were shocked to learn from procedure, taking it out of the villages gage in it, which is why the country’s their imams that they don’t need to be cut and into local hospitals or clinics. Anti- rates are relatively low.) to be a good Muslim. cutting activists fear this is an attempt to While the prac- legitimize cut- tice may seem barbar- ting by cloak- ic, even cruel, to any- ing it in clinical one unfamiliar with terminology and its cultural currency, white coats. it is not viewed by Another trend either men or women that concerns here as an act of vio- opponents of the lence, but rather one procedure: Girls of inclusion. Imagine are being cut at you’re a mother, and younger ages. you’ve been cut, and While the age every single other varies dramati- girl and woman in cally among your village and all cultures--some the surrounding vil- girls are cut as lages have been cut. infants, oth- How do you tell your ers right before daughter she can’t be marriage--many cut, because some bureaucrat who’s not Standards established by the World are cut right before puberty, between the even part of your ethnic group decided it Health Organization outline four varia- ages of 7 and 10. wasn’t a good idea? How do you tell her tions of FGC. Type I involves the removal This risky procedure can lead to that she’s going to be a social pariah and of the clitoral hood with or without exci- blood loss, chronic illness, even death. will never get married, because someone sion of part of or the entire clitoris. Type Short-term consequences can include outside your community passed a law? It II requires the removal of the clitoris bleeding, severe pain, shock and anemia. doesn’t work that way. with partial or total removal of the labia Infections from unhygienic tools and Tostan is one of the first organiza- minora. Type III is the most extreme, and urinary tract disorders are also common, tions to understand this, says Ann Ven- involves the removal of part or all of the and being cut increases a woman’s risk eman, executive director of the United external genitalia as well as the stitching of contracting HIV. Long-term effects Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). and narrowing of the vaginal opening. range from abscesses, cysts and scar- “The thing about Tostan’s approach is This is generally followed by binding the ring, which can cause serious problems that they respect culture,” she says. “So girl’s legs together for 10-14 days, which in childbirth and pregnancy or infertility. many organizations go in and preach, allows scar tissue to form. Girls who un- Some communities cut open and re-close ‘Just Say No.’ This is a 2,000-year-old dergo this form of the procedure are cut a woman’s vagina before and after she cultural practice, and that’s not going to open again after their weddings to allow gives birth, dramatically raising her risk happen. But Tostan gives the population their new husbands to penetrate them. for infection and blood loss. information about health,” and goes from Type IV is the catch-all for anything not Molly Melching came to Senegal in there. included in the first three categories, and/ 1974 planning to study linguistics for a Why are women and girls cut? Prac- or the piercing, cutting, stretching, cau- semester or two, then head back to the titioners cite any number of reasons, terizing or scraping of the clitoris, labia U.S. Instead, she made the West Afri- including perceived health benefits, an or any vaginal tissue. This iteration can can country her home, marrying a local attempt to control female sexuality, for also include the introduction of corrosive man, raising a daughter and creating To- aesthetic purposes (female sexual organs substances or herbs into the vagina to stan, which means “breakthrough” in the are considered ugly), and to ensure that cause it to tighten or narrow. In Senegal, Wolof language. a girl is acceptable to her future hus- both Type II and Type III are performed, Melching doesn’t talk much about band and in-laws. It’s worth noting that although Type II is more common. her personal life, but she’ll expound for certain forms of female genital cutting “Cutters,” female elders in the vil- hours on the academic minutiae of cul- were performed by doctors in the U.S. lage who have learned the practice from tural anthropology, and she’s endlessly inspired by the women she meets in her worse, un-African. region are connected--through marriage, work. She tells this story about a village “We went through a terrible period social groups and culture. For one village meeting shortly after the human rights when we were crying all the time,” says to abandon the practice without involv- lesson was introduced into the Tostan Mariama Traor, one of the women who ing its neighbors wasn’t just impractical, curriculum: “One woman stood up and attended the original Tostan classes. “You it amounted to cultural suicide. “After said: ‘My daughter is 9, but one day I saw can’t believe the noise and the confronta- Malicounda, we knew: Never again,’ “ her standing next to the other 9-year-old tions.” says Melching. “Never again would a girls in the village, and she looked 6. Ever “The people of the [nearby] Mbour village do this alone.” since she was cut, she’d had gynecologi- village were awful to us,” recalls Tako Malicounda Bambara doesn’t seem cal problems. Can you imagine, that little Cissokho, the midwife. “They were furi- like the kind of place where insurgencies girl with those kinds of problems? And, I ous and would tell us, ‘The white people are born. Located 45 miles east of the know, I did that to her. That’s my fault.’ came and gave you money to do this.’ Senegalese capital of Dakar, it looks just And we all cried that day. It was a turning And there was no money. This is about like every other village in the country’s point in the process.” knowing our human rights.” dry, northern region. The first part of its That’s just one of the scores of stories Melching was not in the habit of shy- name means “In the home of the Mali- to emerge from the Tostan classrooms. ing away from a fight, but she also knew ans,” a reference to the migratory pattern Women have described losing their this wasn’t her battle. If the women’s that brought residents west from neigh- daughters, sisters and nieces to the af- groundbreaking announcement was go- boring Mali, a country in which some 93 termath of cutting. They remember their ing to stick, it had to be because they percent of girls are cut; “Bambara” is the own conflicted pain -- the searing, slicing were dedicated to an idea, not because town’s dominant ethnic group. agony of the procedure, but also the pride she, or anyone else, was telling them The village, home to 3,000 people, they felt when it was over. They were real what to do. consists of a group of low-slung build- women now, ready for husbands, for the “I never dreamed when we created ings--a school, a meeting house, a com- rigors of their adult lives. this curriculum that anyone would aban- munal kitchen space--fanned out around At the heart of Tostan’s teach- don FGC,” says Melching, shaking her a large dirt field dotted with a few mango ing method is what Melching calls “or- ganized diffusion,” a social scientist’s term for harnessing the connections in a social structure. “Our approach revolves around community- based decision-mak- ing. When we work with one village, we’re working with all the intertwined social networks, and all the villages whose livelihoods are bound up in one another’s.” Melching and the rest of the Tostan staff learned this critical lesson the hard way. In the grim days that fol- head at the memory of that day a decade trees and one large baobab tree, its thick, lowed the Malicounda Bambara declara- ago. “I never thought it. I never dreamed ancient branches the sole source of shade tion, Melching was heartbroken by the it. . . . I felt so guilty about the situation.” from the brutal midday sun. Arid winds abuse inflicted on the 35 women who The vicious aftermath of the Malicounda bring sand from the encroaching Sahara, led village’s decision to end FGC. They declaration served as a valuable lesson coating the cheaply constructed buildings became outcasts in their own community for Melching and the Tostan staff. The with a thin brown film. and neighboring villages. They were spat problem wasn’t the declaration itself, it Outside the main village lies a string on, ridiculed, harassed. They were ac- was the fact that the village--and the To- of small compounds, each consisting cused of taking bribes, of colluding with stan approach--hadn’t taken into account of rooms for the head of the family, his the white devils, of being unfeminine, or the extent to which communities in the wives and their children, a kitchen and a shared outdoor space. Laundry flutters licounda declaration, another 13 villages, history was very much on Melching’s from clotheslines, children and chickens including Keur Simbara, abandoned cut- mind in August, when thousands gath- run from one another, kicking up red ting. In 2001, another 173 villages fol- ered in Malicounda Bambara for a trium- dust. lowed suit. From 2002 to 2007, at least phant celebration of “the Amazons who Before the summer of 1997, no one 1,820 villages officially denounced the dared.” would have guessed this unassuming practice. This year, Tostan announced a The crowds moved slowly along the place would become a national symbol new goal: ending FGC in Senegal by the roads of the tiny village, inching like a in a movement centuries in the making. year 2012. lethargic snake behind the lumbering For Cissokho, whose work as the Tostan’s unprecedented success is pickup trucks, blaring celebratory music village’s midwife had exposed her to based on finding--and pushing beyond-- and honking their horns. Groups of girls the worst of cutting’s aftereffects, the the tipping point in communal behavior. in white Tostan T-shirts carried hand-let- women’s decision was necessary. “I “As the critical mass grows,” says Melch- tered signs listing the towns and regions had been trying to that had made pub- get the village to lic declarations. As abandon FGC for they passed under years,” she said in the entrance to the an interview ear- square, sandy field lier this year. “I in the town center, didn’t know how a banner twisted to get the message between two poles, across because no its careful lettering one would listen to rendered unread- me.” able by the wind. But people did The women of listen, she found, Malicounda Bam- when Tostan pro- bara, who had been vided information, preparing for this rather than lectur- day for months, had ing at the villagers. dressed carefully “I’d been saying in matching bright these things for years,” she says, “but I ing, “and more and more people declare, blue boubous, a traditional, draped shift wasn’t giving them the information they we have seen that many who initially op- dress. They stood watching the throng needed.” posed it are now actively campaigning make its way toward the center of the At first, the women of Malicounda for abandonment.” village. The sun was relentless, and the didn’t get much help from their husbands Over the years, reports have surfaced women were eager to find a spot in the and brothers. “We were humiliated, and charging that the public declarations are shade. the men in the village told us we had to simply for show, that cutting continues in They wore their celebrity with typi- stop talking about [cutting]. So we said, those villages, it’s just been driven fur- cal, unsmiling composure, greeting the ‘Fine, you can have your opinion, but we ther underground. Like the rest of the To- strangers who had come to celebrate their are not going back, whether you like it stan staff, Melching is largely unruffled audacity. This included a large group or not.’ “ Eventually, the men, many of by these charges. “Tostan knows that 100 from Mbour village who had vilified the whom said they were shocked to learn percent of the population doesn’t always women after their declaration in 1997, what happened during the cutting ritual, abandon FGC during the public declara- and as recently as last year had refused to came around. tion,” she says. One woman, Melching even discuss the subject. “We never backed down,” says Cis- remembers, came to see her in 1998 to “I am 60 years old. I was a cutter sokho. “I am proud that no matter how explain that while her village had de- for 30 years. It was a practice I inher- hard things got, we never abandoned our clared recently that it would abandon the ited from my mother, who inherited it beliefs.” practice, there were women who couldn’t from her mother. And I taught it to my Villagers in nearby Keur Simbara, give it up just yet. own daughter . . . I can’t even count the another Bambara community, were al- “It seems that her ethnic group mar- number of girls I’ve cut. Ten years ago, I ready taking up the cause. After complet- ries into communities that refuse to inter- stopped.” ing the Tostan program, they were think- marry with those who’ve made the pub- Oureye Sall, an ebullient, compact ing of making their own declaration. lic declaration,” Melching says. So the woman, was speaking to a well-dressed But first, the elders insisted, they had to woman recruited others, and they began crowd on the roof of New York’s Wal- consult the surrounding villages and their visiting the resistant villages together. dorf-Astoria hotel. She is there with villages back in Mali. In April 2000, this new community Melching, who was receiving the $1.5 In the 12 months following the Ma- came out against FGC. This bittersweet million Hilton Humanitarian Prize, awarded to Tostan from a group of 250 science at the University of California at garb, a turquoise wrap sweater draped applicant programs. San Diego and an authority on normative over a black shirt and pants. Her large “I was married at 8 and had my first political theory and social choice. Mack- hands are in constant motion, heavy child at 15. Many of my children have ie, along with University of Chicago pro- silver rings flashing in the sunlight that died,” she told the room, now silent, the fessor Martha Nussbaum, is widely cred- bounces into her office on the second sound of forks against china replaced by ited with creating the model upon which floor of Tostan’s headquarters in Yoff, a the rise and fall of Sall’s voice. “It was Tostan’s methodology is based. fishing village located at Dakar’s north- only when I went to the Tostan classes, For many years, Mackie says, “An- ernmost point. and we began studying human rights and thropologists insisted that human emo- The offices feel more like a home health and hygiene, that I began to think tions are relative from culture to culture. than a place of business. Everyone--staff, more about cutting, and about the things That belief has been robustly falsified. I volunteers, drivers--eats lunch together, that had always bothered me instinctively, argue that if one lived in the circumstanc- sitting on the floor around platters heaped but that I could never quite articulate.” es, one would have one’s daughter cut as with spicy rice mixed with meat and fish. Since then, Sall has become one of well, but that is not the same as saying It’s the most democratic of meals, typi- Tostan’s star emissaries, traveling with that it is ‘right for them. ‘ “ It simply cal of both Senegal and the environment fellow elders to far-flung villages. She means, he says, that the key is for every- Melching cultivates. carries one of her old razor blades with one to give up the practice together, so She was raised in a working-class her and will sometimes elaborate, in a that girls’ marriageability is preserved. family in Danville, a blue-collar town low, even voice, on the procedure itself Mackie remembers asking a group 120 miles south of Chicago. Her sister, and the pain it causes. She has experi- of Senegalese women about the idea of Diane Gillespie, now a professor of arts enced it firsthand, not only as a woman preserving tradition in their village. “The and sciences at the University of Wash- who was cut as a child, but as a mother women said they did not want to be a ington-Bothell, remembers that their par- who nearly lost her daughter to hemor- museum exhibit for European tourists,” ents nurtured their daughters’ creativity. rhage. This experience, and her role as a he says. “They want better lives for their “They gave us both piano lessons, former cutter, gives her credibility when children. They also say that they love and we were always surrounded by mu- she answers those who wonder: Did To- their traditions, just as we do, but will sic,” says Gillespie. “I remember ‘Tristan stan pay her to stop cutting girls? Didn’t change any that they discover to be mis- and Isolde’ was always blaring through they come in and force her village to give taken.” the house.” up the practice? Melching is a tall, solidly built An industrious student--at least in “Money could not have encouraged woman, with short chestnut hair and a the subjects she loved--Melching was me; there was no way I could have been smattering of freckles across her nose. president of the high school French club paid to end this practice,” Sall said in She often wears traditional Senegalese and spent a summer in France. After New York. “I was making far too much clothing, and when she’s in the villages, graduating with a B.A. from the Univer- money as a cutter for Tostan to replace she’s surrounded by a group of chattering sity of Illinois, she spent a year teaching that money. It was only the education, the women; she chatters back at them in their in an inner-city public school in Toledo. knowledge of the consequences . . . [that] language, her loud, staccato laughter ris- “That really affected her,” says Gillespie. confirmed my sense that the practice was ing above the din. “She’d always had these really principled not the right thing to do.” At our first meeting she’s in Western ideas about education--you can’t do any- In a conversation about cutting, someone invariably will introduce the issue of cultural relativism--the idea that there are no uni- versal absolute definitions of “right” and “wrong.” Instead, the argument goes, each culture or society has the right to determine its own code of conduct. Who are we to force our Western ideas on people who have lived for centuries without the benefit of our intrusive, culturally imperialistic “help”? Gerry Mackie is an as- sistant professor of political thing from the outside-in, change has to that fits seamlessly into the Senegalese “She’s expended a lot of effort to come from the inside-out,” but that year way of life. overcome that obstacle,” says Gibbons, in the trenches brought the theory to life. Melching counts among her sup- the Tostan board member. She’s fluent In 1974, as a graduate student at Il- porters some big names in Washington, in two African languages, including the linois, Melching became the first par- including Sens. Hillary Clinton and Dick purest form of Wolof, which once moved ticipant in the university’s fledgling Durbin, who has pushed for increased her housekeeper to tears. “She couldn’t exchange program with the University foreign aid focused on female health is- get over it,” says Gillespie. “She just kept of Dakar. Her goal was to study Franco- sues. saying, ‘You speak Wolof like my grand- phone African literature under famed an- “I’m very impressed with Molly,” mother did.’ “ thropologist Cheikh Anta Diop. Durbin says. “She is not in Senegal to By the end of the long, celebratory “She’s always told the same story dictate U.S. policy to the Senegalese. weekend in August marking the Mali- about the moment she set foot in Sene- She’s there working with communities to counda Bambara declaration, Melching gal,” says Gillespie. “She just fell in love. help them make choices to safeguard the looked drained, her usual exuberance And she’s never really come back.” well-being of girls and women.” slightly dulled by 48 hours of nonstop Melching was initially drawn to the If you ask Melching to explain To- activity. She’d attended meetings, held question of language in Senegal, a partic- stan’s success, she’ll never mention her- press conferences and danced under the ularly delicate subject for an indigenous self as a critical factor. She says that all hot African sun. She’d been embraced by people expected to function in a colonial she did was push “a snowball,” and the crowds of men and women and scores of language--in this case, French--while lo- programs gained speed and power. Her children, including girls who will never cal languages, most notably Wolof, were goal, she says, is to make every Tostan be cut, thanks to Tostan. either suppressed or ignored. regional office--in Senegal, Somalia, “I know she’s so proud of what hap- Stunned by the lack of reading mate- Gambia, Guinea and Mauritania--auton- pened in Malicounda,” says Gillespie. rial available to schoolchildren, Melching omous. That pride came at a steep price, paid wrote a book in Wolof called “Anniko.” “We want them to be equipped to by both Melching and the women of the She later helped create a children’s cen- meet the needs of their region,” she says. village, whose determination to stand by ter in Dakar, where kids could learn, sing “To be strong enough in management and their decision to end FGC caught even and perform in Wolof. in grant-writing to see what their needs Melching off guard. “Molly called [me] This was a critical moment for are and translate that into proposals. And and said, ‘I told them they didn’t have to Melching’s future in Senegal, says Mi- then we can support them in helping their do this.’ “ her sister recalls. chael Gibbons, a Washington, D.C.- local populations.” “And so I told her, ‘Do you know based education consultant and Tostan It also means Melching and her hus- what, Molly? Where there are two wom- board member. band, Malick Diagne, Tostan’s deputy en, there is hope. And where there are 35, “The language you were born into director, can concentrate on fundraising they can change the world.’ “ and grow up speaking is the language you and big-picture plans, which include ex- can learn in, feel powerful in,” he says. In panding Tostan’s global reach. When I 1982, Melching and other volunteers be- point out that handing over the reins to gan developing an educational program local offices isn’t part of the MBA play- based on their collective experience and, book, Melching laughs. “That’s why so more critically, feedback from village el- many [non-profits] in Africa have failed,” ders and participants. The three-year im- she says. “They’ve had all these manage- mersion formed the roots of Tostan. ment problems.” A lot of their money, she Twenty-five years later, Tostan is notes, goes to big offices and big salaries widely considered the blueprint for all in the U.S. “So I wondered how to do this campaigns to end female cutting. The in a way that puts all of the money in Af- organization also addresses other issues, rica. I’m the only paid American staffer including the lack of adequate education- in Africa, and I keep my salary low.” al opportunities for girls, the mounting (Public tax records show she earns less problem of the talibes (children in certain than $50,000 a year.) “We decided . . . to religious schools who beg in city streets run [an] organization, where people are as part of their education) and creating empowered at all levels.” financial opportunities for women. Melching also takes pains to remem- She has spoken to international man- ber that while she may feel Senegalese, agement groups, to health consortia, to she’s still perceived by some in her ad- the UN--all eager to understand how this opted country as a privileged white for- woman from Illinois created a program eigner.