Article translated from French in Le Soleil on Thursday, August 8, 2013

Tostan relies on an education program to provide people with the information they need to decide to abandon female genital cutting (FGC). Tostan’s Executive Director, Molly Melching, has no doubt about the sincerity of communities. She believes the movement to abandon FGC in Senegal is irreversible and expects results to be measurable [by the DHS] around 2020.

A recently published UNICEF report mentions a slight decrease in the practice of FGC in Senegal. What do you think about this report?

“We expected this result showing a slight decrease in the prevalence of FGC in Senegal. Women interviewed for the DHS 2010 survey were aged 15 to 49. This means that there could not be any significant decline between the DHS 2005 and the DHS 2010 because women who have been cut remain cut for life”.

When will you have the results of public declarations for abandonment during the last few years in Senegal?

“Earlier on, declarations were few and far between. They could not change trends at a national level. A critical mass of people who have abandoned is needed through acceleration of the movement. Concerning this survey [DHS], we cannot fully measure the results of FGC abandonment in Senegal in 2010 in relation to the work of Tostan and the UNFPA-UNICEF Joint Programme. We believe that measurement will only be possible in 2020 because it will only be at that time that girls who have not been cut because of public declarations will be interviewed in the survey.

In addition, there has been an important change in Senegal since 2010. The Government has become even more engaged through the National Action Plan 2010-2015, and a great number of people are involved in this movement: UNICEF, UNFPA, numerous NGOs, heath agents, local authorities, and many religious leaders. In every region, the Director of the Family has established a Child Protection Committee which follows through on the public declarations. Tostan has also partnered with the Ministry of Justice to translate laws into national languages and participated in decentralized trainings to ensure that people everywhere in Senegal have a better understanding of the law. An awareness-raising campaign has been implemented with support from the media (newspapers, radio, and television). So, when we talk about abandonment, we cannot question this movement”.

Has Tostan’s program related to FGC abandonment been externally evaluated? If yes, what were the results?

“Yes indeed it has; therefore, we were surprised to hear people say that Tostan’s program has not been successful [following the DHS].

Evaluations have been carried out in places where we implemented the program and they show significant abandonment. These evaluations were done by external institutions not related to Tostan and Unicef. For instance, one evaluation in 2008 showed that over 70% of the people had abandoned the practice. Other studies exist also. Ten UN Agencies decided to adopt this human rights approach based on those studies.

I want to emphasize that we do not know where the DHS was carried out. Perhaps the surveys were undertaken in areas where communities have not decided to abandon FGC yet. Tostan doesn’t work in all parts of Senegal, but we trust the people who have taken this decision to publicly abandon – in front of local authorities and the media, they solemnly declared their abandonment of FGC.  I believe that if they do this publicly, it is because they are sincere. Tostan has no doubt about the sincerity of communities who declare. I have learned from the Wolof: “Gor, du dellu ca la mu waxoon.” (An honorable man doesn’t go back on his given word.)

What actions will Tostan take to continue promoting FGC abandonment?

“Since 2010, there has been an acceleration of the movement. Tostan’s participants have become true human rights activists who walk from village to village – they are not paid. They have learned much and want to share their knowledge. They also work with the Regional Child Protection Committees and Community Management Committees in each village. There have been Youth Caravans in several regions and hundreds of youths are participating in this movement. When people receive good information, they understand.  We thus will continue to implement our basic three-year education program. It is a participatory education program that provides the information people need to make such decisions. Today, the only obstacle we are facing is the means that will make it possible to implement the program in all the places where communities request it.”

The same report says that financial support in favor of FGC has declined while 30 million of girls are still at risk. How can you explain this decline in support?

“FGC is one problem among many. That is why Tostan works in a large number of areas that impact the wellbeing of rural communities: governance through women’s empowerment to build the capacity of female leaders, birth registration, democracy, health, income generating activities, literacy, etc. In short, Tostan works in domains where populations basic education in their own mother tongue. In Senegal, we work in six national languages and in seven other countries in Africa, in 16 national languages. Our program is always taught in the learners’ native language. However, funding for education in national languages is difficult. It is a shame because education is the foundation for development. That is why we chose to implement our education program in national languages. Our results can be seen in health, hygiene, governance, environment, and the economy. We teach project management and communities are given small funds to implement individual or community programs. We have seen an improvement in their living conditions”.

With which partners do you work for the promotion of the abandonment of FGC in Senegal?

“We have partnered with Unicef since 1991. This partnership first began with the implementation of our basic education program in national languages to increase the health and literacy of communities. When Tostan developed its module on human rights and responsibilities in 1996, women started to gain awareness of harmful practices and confidently stood up with the support of their husbands and religious leaders, to end FGC. Other partners have then supported this movement, such as UNFPA, the Swedish, Norwegian and Spanish governments, foundations and individual donors in the United States, who all believe like us, that comprehensive education is the basis for progress in society”.

Interview by Mamadou GUEYE