Monday, June 27, 2011

Exclusive Article on Molly Melching in the Financial Times

Molly Melching, Tostan’s Founder and Executive Director, was featured in the Financial Times article “Turning Senegalese” on June 24, 2011. Interwoven within Melching’s personal journey to Senegal, the author, Candida Crewe, discusses the development of Tostan’s unique approach to creating positive change in African communities. She describes how Melching founded Tostan in response to the development initiatives she saw fail when outsiders acted without properly consulting village residents. In contrast, Tostan works collaboratively with communities to equip them with the knowledge and the confidence to realize their own development goals. Today, Tostan’s human rights education program is fostering sustainable development in eight countries in East and West Africa.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Tostan FAQ: FGC vs. FGM

A Facebook contact recently posed a question to Tostan asking about the use of the term female genital cutting (FGC) versus female genital mutilation (FGM) when talking about this cultural practice. Gannon Gillespie, Tostan’s Director of External Relations, responded:

Dear Walter,

Thank you for your question, which is one we have received regularly for many years. Let me begin by saying that terminology around this issue is challenging. Three separate terms have been widely used to describe the practice: female circumcision, female genital mutilation, and female genital cutting. We avoid the term “circumcision,” as it incorrectly implies a parallel between FGC and male circumcision. Unfortunately, all other terms have limitations as well, and fall clearly short of accurately describing this practice—which has four major and infinite minor variations in practice around the world. No one term is truly “accurate”.

But we must use words, and so among these options, Tostan has for over 13 years chosen the term female genital cutting (FGC) based on what communities that are giving up the practice have told us: the term “cutting” allows them to accomplish more than the others because it is less judgmental and value-laden. As a result, the term is more effective for engaging groups in dialog around this practice, and eventually bringing about its end.

Let me be very, very clear. We do not use this term in an attempt to excuse or diminish the impact of the practice. I think anyone who has taken the time to learn about Tostan and watched the testimonies given by Tostan’s local partners, for example that of Marietou Diarra, knows that we are very far from hiding or excusing the real, significant consequences of this practice. Yet despite its serious health consequences, we have found that FGC itself is not done with the intent to “mutilate” a girl. Rather, parents who have their daughters cut want the best for them, and the practice is seen as a necessary step to enable her to be a fully accepted member of the community.

It seems counter-intuitive, but in our experience, if there is a dominant emotion involved in FGC, it is love—because not cutting your daughter risks her entire future. As explained by a former cutter turned Tostan advocate, Oureye Sall, in communities where FGC is practiced, community members will not eat food cooked by a woman who is not cut, will not accept water from her, will not even sit with her. She will have difficulty getting married. An uncut woman is viewed as unclean and therefore unable to participate fully in the community. With these social pressures, if a family chooses not to cut their daughter, they have risked severely damaging her social status. To imply that parents are actually “mutilating” their daughters through a decision made with love and concern for her well-being is unfair to them and risks alienating and offending them rather than convincing them to abandon the practice.

In addition, we have found that many communities do not fully understand the consequences of the practice—the effects of which are not always immediate or obvious, especially in cases of infections, tetanus, etc. Without an understanding of concepts such as germ theory, recognizing the true long-term health implications of FGC is difficult. When communities do get access to this information, presented in ways they trust, they come to understand the harm the practice causes and decide to stop—but if the person bringing these messages begins with judgmental terms, the chance of reaching this breakthrough disappears.

We should remember that all of us, no matter where we are from, tend to greet judgmental outsiders in similar ways. When our beliefs and actions are challenged or condemned by a stranger, we are likely to become defensive; rather than taking their concerns to heart, we view their accusation as an unwarranted and uninformed attack on our character. We certainly won’t feel inclined to change in order to satisfy this judgmental critic; we may even respond by holding on more tightly to the belief or action being questioned. Our experience has shown us that it is dialog and discussion that can lead to change, and dialog requires a relationship of trust and respect. But calling the practice “mutilation” prevents this relationship from developing and invites defensiveness rather than productive discourse.

And, if we take the example of Oureye Sall—who transformed her experience as a former cutter into a source of leadership against FGC—it becomes clear that we must avoid demonizing those who perform the practice. Oureye is not a “mutilator” and villain; she is a hero driven by her new knowledge. When she had cut girls, she did so because the experience and knowledge available to her told her it was right to do so. When she decided to stop and to become a champion of the movement to abandon FGC, it was because new experiences and new knowledge showed her that the practice was harmful and that change was necessary. Tostan’s experience has shown this to be the case for almost all cutters; they are not evil, they do not seek to “mutilate” girls or bring them harm, but rather they are acting based on what they believe is right.

Perhaps most importantly, we should be very cautious in labeling and stigmatizing the girls and women who have been cut. We do not believe it is our place to tell them that they are “mutilated.” As with other victims of violence, we believe they have the human right to self-identify in whatever manner they choose. I have personally met many women who have undergone FGC. Some prefer to call themselves mutilated, others simply “cut”, many others say less, or nothing, as they are not yet comfortable being public about this very private matter. And all of them (even those who themselves identify as “mutilated”) agree: women should be free to choose the term that best defines them, and that the term “mutilated” should not be forced upon them.

In short, our use of the term "FGC" is not apology, nor is it political correctness. It is simple practicality: this way of speaking opens doors to dialog that have led to thousands of communities standing up to abandon this practice, doors that more accusatory language would keep shut. We choose to use language that is working, that community leaders and evaluation data alike are telling us brings real, concrete change.

In keeping with the above approach, I can also tell you that we are not posting this in an effort to "fight" others who use different language. We respect the many differences of opinion on this truly complex subject and the language that accompanies it. We do encourage others to study our experiences, both in relation to FGC and the many, many other areas on which our program works. We hope to continue supporting community-led work in the field to ensure all girls--cut and uncut--have human dignity. These actions are our main focus, and we believe they speak much louder than words.

For those interested in learning more about FGC as a social norm, I recommend that you read “Female Genital Cutting: the Beginning of the End” an article by political scientist Gerry Mackie. The article explains why a program like Tostan’s can be effective in sparking a movement to abandon FGC. The section on pages 277-278 entitled “Propaganda and Prohibition” discusses the results of respect-based approaches versus shame-based approaches to effecting social change.

Gannon Gillespie

Friday, June 17, 2011

African Youth Day Spotlights New Opportunities for Youth Prison Detainees

Story by Eliane Luthi Poirier, Communications Assistant in Dakar, Senegal, and Alisa Hamilton, Program Assistant.

After learning about Tostan’s work partnering with Senegalese penitentiaries, we were thrilled to witness the impact of this partnership first-hand during the observance of African Youth Day at Hann youth prison in Dakar. On June 16, we joined other Tostan team members, prison staff, and notable guests, including the US Ambassador to Senegal Marcia S. Bernicat, in celebrating the day with the 59 teenage detainees of the prison.

US Ambassador to Senegal Marcia S.
Bernicat cuts the ribbon inaugurating
the well at the Hann youth prison.
 Since 1999, Tostan has partnered with Senegalese state penitentiaries, including the Hann youth prison, in a unique initiative called the Prison Project. As part of this initiative, inmates participate in a condensed version of Tostan’s Community Empowerment Program (CEP), focusing primarily on family mediation, human rights education, and skills training. With this new knowledge and training inmates can more successfully reintegrate into society once they are released.

This year’s African Youth Day provided a perfect opportunity for the community to celebrate the progress of the teens at Hann youth prison as they make changes in their lives that will lead to an empowered future. This day-long event consisted of motivational speeches, the inauguration of a well for the prison, and enthusiastic dance performances and wrestling competitions.

Tostan Program Officer Penda Mbaye speaks about
the significance of African Youth Day at celebration
hosted at the Hann youth prison in Dakar.

Speaking to the crowd, Tostan Programme Officer Penda Mbaye recalled the sombre origins of the annual celebration: the 1976 march of children in Soweto, South Africa, that tragically ended in 23 deaths. Ms. Mbaye then detailed the progress of the project running in Hann, before closing with the essential point that “the most important resource of any community is its children.”

Other speakers also praised the Tostan program. The Director of the Hann prison, Awa Faye Ngom, lauded the commitment of Tostan to African youth while the US Ambassador expressed her pride in the work of the organization, reserving special praise for Tostan Programme Officer Penda Mbaye and Tostan Executive Director Molly Melching. Concluding her speech, Ambassador Bernicat turned to face the inmates and appealed to them: “Your country needs you: your energy, your ideas, your vigilance, and your participation in the economy and in society.” 

US Ambassador to Senegal Marcia S.
Bernicat and Tostan Supervisor Aïssatou
Kébé pull out the first bucket of water

from the new well at Hann youth prison.
The well will provide detainees with water
for washing and benefit the agricultural
training program initiated by Tostan.
 After the speeches, we made our way to the garden of the prison for the inauguration of a new well on the prison premises, the construction of which was funded primarily by a private donor. Ambassador Bernicat cut the ribbon with Tostan Supervisor Aïssatou Kébé at her side.

During lunch, which featured a traditional ceebu yapp dish of rice and meat, we spoke with Marie Nazon, a Haitian-American Fullbright Scholar working on the Prison Project. She stressed the value of the well as a source of clean water. Potable water was a major issue in the Hann facility prior to Tostan’s arrival. Before the well, she explained, the boys wouldn’t take part in sports, as they had nowhere to bathe after exercising.

Ms. Nazon told us that the well will also support the prison’s gardening project, in which inmates learn agricultural skills. She was excited by plans to expand the Prison Project at Hann to teach young prisoners to raise chickens and harvest eggs. Ms. Nazon stressed that learning such skills for income-generation is key to preventing recidivism.

Ibrahim Cissé, the Garden Supervisor, talks about the importance of the well at the prison.

The festivities continued into the afternoon with a traditional Senegalese wrestling competition. Five rounds of fighting took place with commentary by a charismatic prison employee. After each victory, the other boys would rush into the arena to cheer and dance for the winner and even the director of the prison joined in the dancing after the final match. Following the competition, the boys performed a skit, a rap, and a song to entertain the audience

Ms. Ngom brought the African Youth Day celebration to a close with her final, inspiring remarks directed at the teenage inmates: "This is just a phase in your lives. Have confidence and perseverance and you will leave here and go on to live prosperous lives."

After these strong words, everyone, including the boys, prison guards, and audience members, broke into dance as people exited the performance area.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Power of 20 Watts

Story by Matthew Boslego, Assistant to the National Coordinator in Guinea Bissau

Volunteering is a time of self-discovery for many, and it wasn’t very long into my time with Tostan in Guinea-Bissau before I realized that throughout most of my life I have had what should be considered a superpower: freedom from the limitations of night and day. When I walk into a dark room, rather than stumble around, I simply flick a switch, thus turning darkness into light at my command. If I need to study, finish some household chores, or just hang out after dark I can instantly provide visibility for myself and those around me without much effort. As with many people who have grown accustomed to having this incredible power, I wasn’t able to fully appreciate the impact of having light regularly at my disposal. It wasn’t until recently, during a visit to communities in Guinea-Bissau that had recently installed solar panels for the first time as part of Tostan’s Solar Power! Project, that I realized what a huge difference a little bit of electricity can make.

My first visit to the village of Cambajú took place in February to report on the delivery of the solar panels. Being my first trip to the interior of the country, I was fascinated by the new scenery around me: villages with enormous mud-brick granaries, swamps filled with wild birds, and herds of cattle. As we approached, I began to hear singing and drums above the din of diesel engines. Upon entering the village, we were received by a parade of women, children, and elders who welcomed us. Everyone was so excited that the village would soon have access to electricity, which awakened my curiosity. I wondered how electricity would change village life and how people would use it. I resolved to return to Cambajú following the installation of the panels to witness the impact of electricity myself.

A couple of weeks ago, I finally got this chance. Once I returned to Cambajú, the first person I talked to was one of the Solar Power! Project engineers, Assanatu Baldé. The central mission of the Solar Power! Project is to train women—specifically mothers and grandmothers—to become solar electrical engineers. Often illiterate and with little or no technical knowledge, the women go to Barefoot College in India for a thorough six month training course where they learn how to assemble, install, and maintain solar panels. After the engineers complete their training, they then return to their communities to install and maintain the panels that bring electricity to their communities for the first time.

Assanatu’s and the other solar engineers’ knowledge of solar electronics was incredible; a large pile of assembled circuits attested to their abilities. Their mastery of their task was proving to be a huge asset to their village, ensuring that all the panels ran smoothly for the beneficiaries. I left the engineers to their work and headed back into the village.

I later ran into Idrissa Baldé, better known in the village as “Jorge da Mata,” and his wife Cadijatu. Idrissa was very enthusiastic to talk about the solar panel that Assanatu recently installed on his home. Following introductions, I asked Idrissa how the panel had improved his life. “Now,” he said, “my kids can stay up later and play safely instead of having to go to sleep right after sunset. From now until they grow up this will be great for them.” The family’s children are just starting school so they don’t have much homework yet, but, looking to the future, Cadijatu explained that, “at night if they have work, they can just sit down and do it.” Before having solar electricity in their home such a simple thing as being able to do homework at night was impossible.

I then met with a representative of the village Imam, Sadu Baldé, to get a feel for the community-wide impact that the panels were having. Sadu himself had a panel running at his home and appeared very satisfied. “It’s great!” he said. “During the day I can focus more on my work, and at night I can study the Koran at home with my family. Before it got so dark at night, but now each house with a solar panel is illuminated as if it were daytime. We don’t live in darkness anymore.”

Seeing the way solar panels could change life in a community has been one of many perspective shifting experiences I´ve been through since arriving in Guinea-Bissau. I was amazed by the impact of the panels - so many simple things I’ve always taken for granted, like being able to read at night, were not possible before the panels arrived. I left Cambajú more appreciative and proud to be helping with such a meaningful project!
Blog adapted by Salim Drame