Heard on Campus: Nonprofit leader on creating lasting change in Senegal

September 25, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Molly Melching, founder of nonprofit organization Tostan International, spoke at the first installment of the Penn State Forum Speaker Series for the 2019-20 academic year on Sept. 25 at the Nittany Lion Inn on the University Park campus. Her address, “The Hidden Heart of Human Rights Transformation,” explored her organization’s approach to promoting human rights, changing social norms and ending the practice of female genital cutting (FGC) and child marriage in Senegal and other African nations.

“This is a woman I’d like to introduce you to, a very brave and courageous woman, whose name is Marième Bamba,” Melching said, displaying a portrait of a beaming Senegalese woman. “Marième was married at 13, and also went through the practice of female genital cutting. And her role was to cook and clean, to work in the fields, to take care of the children, and very rarely did [women] have a public voice in their community.”

Tostan International first began work in Bamba’s village 25 years ago, and in the time since, she and her community have experienced major breakthroughs in advancing public health and education, promoting human rights, expanding the role of women in public life and changing the social norms and misconceptions that contribute to communities practicing FGC and child marriage. The organization's approach has led to more than 8,800 communities in Africa publicly declaring an end to FGC and child marriage. 

“Marième’s village abandoned FGC and child marriage, they built a health center and they trained health workers, and two women were elected to office with the district council,” Melching said. “Marième became a solar engineer. I don’t know if you’ve heard of the Barefoot College in India, but she went off for six months to India. Her husband said, ‘You know, if I hadn’t gone through Tostan, I would have never let my wife go off to India.’”

Melching shared that her organization's process is designed around empowering communities to identify the values that are important to them, and using those values as a starting point for dialogue about human rights and dignity and educational programs about public health and hygiene. By grounding these discussions in community members’ shared values and their own aspirations for their communities, Tostan International has found great success in affecting lasting, transformational change that community members continue to champion for future generations.

“In one generation, change can happen,” Melching said. “But it really depends on the approach one uses, and I believe, really, that it’s based on approaching people with a great amount of respect, respecting their dignity, respecting the fact that they have reasons for why they do what they do, and above all, listening very carefully and working with them -- not trying to go in to change people to be as you would like them to be.”

The Penn State Forum Speaker Series is open to the general public. Tickets for the Penn State Forum are $25 and include a buffet lunch. Tickets may be purchased through the id+ office in 103 HUB-Robeson Center, or by calling 814-865-7590 or emailing idcard@psu.edu. For more information, visit http://sites.psu.edu/forum/.

Last Updated September 26, 2019