Innovative Approach to Ending Female Genital Cutting in Africa Praised in New Book by Kristof and WuDunn

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"Half the Sky" devotes chapter to uplifting story of nonprofit Tostan and its founder, Molly Melching, whose grassroots program has empowered over 4,000 communities in Africa to publicly abandon this centuries-old practice and lead movements for change in many other areas of their lives.

Tostan, an international nonprofit organization whose programs have catalyzed more than 4,000 villages in Senegal, Guinea, The Gambia and elsewhere to publicly abandon Female Genital Cutting (FGC) and child/forced marriage, is featured in Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn's new book, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.

The book, due for release September 8th, is a tour de force of women's oppression worldwide and describes advances now being made by women that not only improve their lives but also the welfare of their families and communities in some of the poorest regions of the world. The book cites the "stunning difference" being made by Tostan and its founder, Molly Melching, in the lives of thousands of young women whose communities have decided to abandon the practice of FGC after going through Tostan's education program, which engages communities to work on democracy, human rights, health, literacy, microcredit, and leadership.

Kristof and WuDunn emphasize the unique approach developed by Tostan to successfully address the practice of FGC, based on a deep understanding of local culture and the need for grassroots community leadership, not a top down imposition.

"We have achieved this breakthrough mainly because we have listened carefully to the communities and have followed their lead," says Melching, an Illinois native who has lived in West Africa for the past 35 years. "As shocking as FGC may be to some, we have come to understand that people were not following this practice to harm their daughters but rather that it was deeply rooted in their culture, accepted as the norm by the community, and adhered to because they love their daughters and want them to be accepted."

The book also highlights the important role played by language and respect in Tostan's program, noting Tostan's refusal to use the phrase "female genital mutilation" or to claim that it is "fighting" this practice. Melching explains that "harsh judgmental messages or impositions from the outside don't lead to substantial change and can actually be counterproductive, stimulating resistance and anger."

As Kristof and WuDunn note, Tostan has instead focused on a key insight -- in most cases the practice can only be addressed when large social networks come together to make collective decisions.

"For one family to give up FGC means stigma and total exclusion; a social death that no parent would wish for his or her daughter," Melching explains. "This is why we work through social networks, so that communities can discuss this practice in a way that is uniting rather than dividing, and come to consensus. When communities make the decision to stop, they announce it through a public declaration, which sends a powerful signal to the entire group that they are making this change."

A UNICEF evaluation released in September, 2008, confirmed that Tostan's model leads to long-term abandonment of the practice, and the Government of Senegal has decided to fully integrate Tostan's model into its national strategy for FGC abandonment. Tostan also recently announced a plan for rapid expansion, committing to reach 3,000 new communities in the next five years.

"We know that foot binding in China ended in a similar way, in one generation" says Melching. "The same is possible with FGC."

About Tostan: Tostan, the US 501c3 organization that Melching founded in 1991, currently has over 1,000 full-time staff and community facilitators, and is working in over 800 communities in eight countries in Africa. Its US office is based in Washington, D.C. Tostan has been the recipient of several awards including the 2007 Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize, the UNESCO King Sejong Prize for Literacy, and Sweden's 2005 Anna Lindh Award for Human Rights. For more information, please visit


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