TOSTAN’s seminal role in the cessation of Female Genital Cutting gets formal UN backing

By Donald A. Collins | 22 December 2012
Church and State

(Credit: Tostan International / YouTube)

Joe Bish of the Population Media Center just posted the good news from the UN about its action against female genital cutting or FGC.

“I am pleased to report that the United Nations has resolved, on December 20th, 2012, that female genital mutilation (FGM) should be banned globally. As you may, or may not know, PMC regularly works on the issue of FGM. I have included two articles below, both reporting on the UN’s move.”

The background to this landmark decision is worth repetition. For some years, a small dedicated NGO named TOSTAN has been quietly at work in Senegal and other African countries to eliminate the odious practice of female genital cutting or FGC, sometimes called female genital mutilation or FGM.

However, this latter term, FGM, did not properly reflect the fact that this practice was a culturally imbedded practice for a long time in several countries in Africa from Senegal to Egypt, which was largely assumed to be pro forma by males and females and actually performed by women cutters who made a living doing FGC.

The history of how TOSTAN’s founder Molly Melching began this work is fascinating. Its excellent web site states that its mission “is to empower African communities to bring about sustainable development and positive social transformation based on respect for human rights.”

Tostan means “breakthrough” in the West African language of Wolof. Since 1991, Tostan has brought its holistic three-year education program to thousands of communities in ten African countries: Burkina Faso, Djibouti, The Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Mauritania, Senegal, Somalia, and Sudan.”

But it all began when Molly, an Caucasian American woman, who, as a university graduate, came originally with the Peace Corps to Senegal and has lived there for decades, began her work by teaching local women about the importance of basic human rights.

As a result, she was approached by some local women from one village who were against FGC and had personally experienced its dangerous and painful results, including deaths. This small group of women first went to their local imam who told them no mention of FGC was in the Koran. When they discussed FGC with their local head man, the village chief, he pointed out that they would have to get other villages to abandon the practice because of the strong cultural moray that no woman was fit for marriage unless she was cut!

This prompted the group which now included the imam and their village chief to go to a dozen other villages and together with the approval of the chiefs and imams, there occurred the initial ceremony at which all agreed to abandon FGC.

My wife, Sally Epstein, learned of this program almost at its inception from a Oxford teacher named Gerry Mackie, who visited Senegal because it had the potential to get the relatively rapid abandonment of FGC like what occurred with the bad cultural practice of female foot binding in China which was eliminated in about a decade in the early 20th Century, again at the instigation of a white woman living there who saw its dire health consequences.

Consequently, after meeting Molly, Sally and I made two trips to Senegal and visited TOSTAN’s training center and a number of the villages which had abandoned FGC. We found that in making these decisions the males from the chiefs and imams on down were pleased to participate in the improvement on health but also in the enrichment of the overall well being of village life including education, basic sanitation and the wide spread adoption of solar panels for electricity and solar cookers for preparing food.

On one of our trips we joined the original TOSTAN team on a visit with Senegal President Wade, who strongly endorsed what these pioneers were doing.

Along the way, it became possible in many villages for TOSTAN to introduce family planning where it had not previously been available.

The progress of FGC abandonment since those initial villages made it happen has been phenomenal. Not only has the practice been almost eradicated in Senegal but it has spread across to many other countries where FGC was (and still is) being performed.

TOSTAN has been recognized by many developmental agencies as the most successful pioneer in stopping FGC and received several years ago an impressive monetary award from the Conrad Hilton Foundation in recognition of its accomplishments.

Much remains to be done and TOSTAN in keeping with its basic approach to giving women and men basic human rights just announced more progress on its web site,

Of course completely eliminating a culturally embedded practice of many generations will require more education by TOSTAN and hopefully others, which will certainly be aided by this important UN pronouncement.

Just this past week TOSTAN announced another abandonment:

“On December 20th, 301 women, men, and children from 40 surrounding communities arrived in the village of Pirada in Guinea-Bissau to participate in the country’s second ever human rights declaration. By declaring to promote the respect for human rights along with the abandonment of female genital cutting (FGC) and child/forced marriage, the 40 participating villages are spreading knowledge and creating new social norms in line with human rights principles.

Learn what community members at the declaration shared about their understanding of human rights.

Also, read more about the first human rights declaration held in Cambadju on December 10th.”

The UN press release does not mention TOSTAN. It reminds us again of Margaret Mead’s famous line, “A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” Or perhaps the line attributed to the late Ronald Reagan, “It’s amazing what you can get done if you don’t have to get credit for it.”

Former US Navy officer, banker and venture capitalist, Donald A. Collins, a free lance writer living in Washington, DC., has spent over 40 years working for women’s reproductive health as a board member and/or officer of numerous family planning organizations including Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Guttmacher Institute, Family Health International and Ipas. Yale under graduate, NYU MBA.

This film describes how Tostan’s unique Community Empowerment Program (CEP) has successfully promoted human rights and health in villages throughout Africa. Through interviews with Tostan’s Executive Director Molly Melching, UNICEF’s Director of Programs Dr. Nick Alipui, and past participants of the CEP, viewers will learn about the social structure of female genital cutting (FGC), and how Tostan’s approach of community led development has led to the abandonment of FGC practices in thousands of villages.

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