In an ABC news article released on March 17th, Dr. Richard Besser, Senior Health and Medical Editor at ABC News, writes about his recent experience with Tostan in Senegal. The article begins with Dr. Besser recounting a conversation he had with Molly Melching, Tostan’s Founder and Executive Director, and Demba Diawara, imam and spiritual leader of Malicounda Bambara. The topic of conversation was female genital cutting (FGC).
After learning more about the movement to end FGC in Africa, Dr. Besser concluded that while top-down approaches-like laws criminalizing FGC-discourage some from continuing the harmful traditional practice, it is respectful community-led approaches like Tostan’s that are creating the most sustainable change. He noted, “The focus of Tostan is not female genital cutting; it is literacy, problem solving, women’s health, negotiating, and human rights.” Instead of attacking a practice, Tostan encourages communities to learn about their human rights and to start a dialogue on what they see as constructive goals for the future of their community.
Dr. Besser continues, Tostan participants “are empowered to take their knowledge and make decisions to improve their lives. There is no condemnation of traditions, beliefs or practices. Women learn the health consequences of cutting and they make the connection between human rights and the right to health.” The decision then to abandon the practice comes from within the community, by the community.
When asked how he felt when he realized the practice of FGC was harmful to his daughters, Demba responded, “When everyone wears no clothes you don’t notice that you are naked.” Confused by this response, Melching clarified the meaning behind Demba’s phrase: “He is saying that there was no recognition that what they were doing was harmful. Their daughters were cut because that was what was done to ensure a good life.” She explained, “When they found that it was not required [by Islam] and that it was dangerous to health, change was easy.”