Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Melinda Gates: 5 Questions for Tostan's Molly Melching

June 25, 2013

Last month I wrote about "However Long the Night", by Aimee Molloy. The book tells the story of Molly Melching, founder of Tostan, and the community-led social change (including contributing to the ending of female genital cutting in over 1000 Senegalese villages) the organization supports in eight African countries. Molly and her work are huge inspirations for my work with the foundation. As I head back to Senegal this week, where Molly’s work started, I took the opportunity to ask her some questions. I hope you feel as energized as I do by Molly and the work of this incredible organization. 

Melinda: Your story of how you came to do the work you do with women in West Africa is truly inspiring. What led you to move to Senegal as a graduate student and work with the women there? 

Molly: From a very early age I was interested in other cultures. At first I explored French language and culture, and then became interested in Africa. When my school offered the chance to go to Senegal, I jumped at it.  Once I arrived, in 1974, I was fascinated and really fell in love with Senegal and the culture. I was so lucky to be able to meet and interact with many different types of people - from leading intellectuals and writers to villagers and street children in the most populous area of Dakar, the Medina.  I opened a children's center there and realized that the mothers loved the reading and cultural materials we were developing as much as the kids did as they crowded into the center each day.  After six years, we moved our center to a small village about an hour away from Dakar - Saam Njaay.  The women wanted so desperately to learn, as no one in that village had ever been to school and of course no one spoke French, the language of instruction.  So we started by teaching them in their own language - Wolof - things they wanted to know - about health, hygiene, the environment, reading and writing.  Many of the sessions we developed together, sitting out under the neem tree next to my hut, were eventually incorporated into what is today called the Tostan "Community Empowerment Program."

 It is of course understandable that people are outraged when made aware of some harmful practices which still exist, but I learned in Senegal that aggressiveness does not lead to effectiveness.

Melinda: In your biography ‘However Long the Night’, a Tostan board member is quoted saying “It may sound strange to say, but if Tostan is remembered in the history books only for the end of FGC (Female Genital Cutting), it will be a tragedy. If we were to get the support needed to take this model to thousands more communities, this is a model that can transform Africa.” Can you tell us about the community empowerment model that shapes Tostan’s work and the different areas where it has had most impact?

Molly: I was so glad to see that quote in the book when I read it the first time. One of our biggest challenges over the years has been helping others understand that we do so much more than work on FGC. This is tricky because we're deeply proud of the grassroots movement to end this practice, and we live in a world that is accustomed to nonprofits focusing on isolated issues. But our program is more comprehensive and holistic. The hundreds of sessions in our three year program cover democracy and human rights, problem-solving, hygiene and health, literacy, technology, as well as project and financial management.

For example, in order to run a successful community-based health center with full women's participation, people first need to discuss everyone's right to be free from discrimination, and the right to health, and have knowledge on hygiene and health, but also have good management and leadership skills. As the Wolof proverb says, "One finger alone cannot lift the stone."


Melinda visits the Gaspard Camara clinic in Dakar, Senegal this week.

Anyone who has visited the communities where we work will see the importance of a more comprehensive approach immediately. Even in communities that are working to end FGC, the women are also running vaccination campaigns and implementing income-generating projects and discussing how to overcome different discriminatory practices which exist in the community. I've often seen communities build their own schools and then have the confidence to negotiate with the government to get teachers, all the while ending child marriage so that girls will not be pulled out of school at age 12 or 13. 

Of course, part of this is also about the really big picture, beyond any one area or issue. At the very core of Tostan's model is the belief that every community does better by beginning with a foundational education program taught in the mother tongue, and every development project works better when run in a community prepared with the knowledge and skills to own and sustain that project. We're going to be making that case in the coming years--we think this has been the missing element in many efforts, and can absolutely revolutionize development.

Melinda: In the context of our work in family planning, we often talk at the foundation about the importance of working with community leaders and religious leaders to make sure change can be meaningful and ultimately, sustainable. You worked extensively with these leaders in Senegal to get to where you are today. In the book, Thierno Bah, one of the most respected and revered religious leaders in the region, recognizes your ‘respect for the culture and religion of Senegal’ Can you talk to us about your experience with them and how you established such strong relationships?

Molly: I have learned many lessons from living with Senegalese villagers, but perhaps one of the most important is that positive change can come about more quickly and with less conflict by peacefully building relationships rather than by creating enemies.  


Having gone through the late sixties in the United States which was a time of revolt, anger, and aggressiveness, this was an important lesson for me to learn. It is of course understandable that people are outraged when made aware of some harmful practices which still exist, but I learned in Senegal that aggressiveness does not lead to effectiveness.  I observed that combative, judgmental methods actually led to people shutting down and turning off rather than being engaged in dialogue and exploration of the issues, which can quickly lead to decisive action for change.

When I began understanding the deeper aspirations of the villagers, I realized that peace, solidarity and well-being were of utmost importance to everyone.  So by using respectful methods of awareness-raising that built upon and reinforced these deeper values, people welcomed dialogue and when they themselves learned that certain traditional practices actually were not helping them achieve their most important goals, they started organizing within their social networks to bring others on board for change.

 I think globally we have dramatically underestimated the importance of religious leaders as potential allies.

In the Tostan program we try to always remain non-judgmental.  We never accuse or fight the men, particularly the traditional and religious leaders.  Rather we see them as allies, as important leaders for change in the movement.  We look for connections and talk about our shared values and vision for a better future for all human beings, visions of peace and well-being that are found in all religions as well as in traditional African proverbs and stories.  This approach has led to religious leaders becoming major supporters of the women. There are many male heroes in this movement in the eight African countries where we have been working and we often honor them for their engagement.

I think globally we have dramatically underestimated the importance of religious leaders as potential allies.  In fact later this month, I will attend a conference at the Carter Center to continue working with faith leaders and civil society leaders of Tostan and many other organizations, to support President Carter's efforts to encourage a broad movement to include religious leaders in supporting girls and women's rights.

Melinda: Bill and I have often referred to advice Warren Buffett gave us early on. He told us: “Don’t go for the easy pitches.” Taking on a practice like female genital cutting is certainly a testament to this. What advice would you give today to the social entrepreneurs striving to create change in the developing world?

Molly: Having results in ending FGC - a practice that many said would take hundreds of years to end - has indeed provided incredible insights into how change can happen.  

My advice to others?  The book on Tostan and my life, "However Long the Night" begins with a Wolof proverb which sums it up for me:  "It's better to find a way out than to stand and scream at the forest."   It is not always easy to find the way out, but rushing and anger will never help. I think messaging and telling people that what they are doing is bad, when they believe it is good, is also not the way to bring about deep and lasting change.  I have always said that empowering education is the key to creating positive change anywhere in the world.  When people deliberate on their values, then are provided with good information from within a human rights framework, I have found people generally make good decisions.

Really listening to people, understanding them and working alongside them rather than for them, also helps in building respectful collaboration for together creating a more positive future.  Of course, patience and perseverance are also key. 

Melinda: Who are your role models?

Molly: Many people have inspired me along my journey - women, men and youth, both well-known and not, but often little-known villagers living in remote areas of Africa have been the real role models for me. The courage of the rural women in this movement to end FGC has particularly amazed and deeply touched me.   In fact this was one of the reasons I wanted to do this book—so that their stories would be told alongside mine, and more people could discover them. When I think of their resilience, given all the challenges with which they are confronted on a daily basis, it encourages me to continue seeking support for their movement for a better future for their daughters.   

Tostan recently unveiled a new way to present their areas of impact: Education, Governance, Health, Economic Growth, and the Environment. The organization believes that all are necessary for sustainable development. Their new website ( is built around sharing efforts in each of these areas with stories to capture results.  

blog comments powered by Disqus