Dr. Besser's Notebook: Women's Rights in Senegal

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Molly founded Tostan in 1991. She came to Senegal in 1974 right out of college and immediately fell in love with the people, the culture, and the beauty of the land. She knew this was where she wanted to spend her life. She comes from a line of teacher and took that tradition in new directions. Through Tostan she is spreading a form of education that is both extremely powerful and empowering. Since 1998, more than 6,000 villages in five African countries have publicly declared their abandonment of cutting. They estimate that these declarations have spared 800,000 girls this pain.

Molly wanted to make sure I met Demba and that is why we are sitting under the shade of the giant neem tree. Demba is the imam and spiritual leader of Malicounda Bambara. His lined faced and sharp eyes exude a sense of total peace and incredible wisdom. He was an early participant in Tostan and his village was one of the first to stand up and say to all that the tradition was over.

How did you feel, I asked him, when you learned that what you had been doing for centuries was so harmful to your daughters? That must have been very difficult.

"When everyone wears no clothes you don't notice that you are naked."

Molly explained. 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. They thought it was prescribed in the Koran but learned after consulting Islamic scholars from Egypt that it was not. When they found that it was not required and that it was dangerous to health, change was easy.

He and his village decided to end the practice of cutting but he made an important observation. They couldn't do it alone. Their village is part of a much broader social network of villages with which they intermarry. Genital cutting was a prerequisite for a girl to find a man to marry. If their village gave up the tradition alone, their daughters would never marry. Armed with this knowledge, he set off on foot to speak with the 13 communities that formed their intermarrying network.

I asked him how he did it. Did he tell the villages that they had to stop the tradition?

"If there is a song that will sink a boat, you don't sing that song while the boat is in the water."

Molly interpreted this for me. You cannot accuse. If you do, you will fail. You must speak in the right voice.

In April Demba Diawara and Molly Melching bring their joint voice to a human rights conference at the Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia. Molly will speak in English, Demba will speak in Wolof parables, and if people are willing to listen, they will hear a message that can change the world -- slowly, peacefully, and respectfully.

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