By Katherine Schwarzenegger
Next Stop: Senegal
Senegal is an amazing country. One minute you feel like you’re on a beautiful beach in the south of France, and the next minute you’re in a rural slum, jam-packed with people selling handmade goods in order to survive. It was in Senegal that I first met a passionate and fascinating woman whose extraordinary work has empowered so many women to take a stand to change their lives.
Molly Melching moved to Senegal in 1974 and created Tostan, an NGO (non-governmental organization) to empower the people in Senegal who don’t have access to proper education. Tostan specifically addresses issues such as child welfare, hygiene, environment, and human rights.
Sitting together at a beautiful restaurant on the beach, Ms. Melching began to tell me about her campaign against Female Genital Cutting (FGC), which is most common in areas of Africa and Asia. FGC is a traditional or religious procedure in which the female genitals are partially or completely removed partially. It’s done with the consent of an adult, usually a parent. FGC is performed for a variety of reasons: to prohibit women from experiencing pleasure during sexual intercourse or to ensure that they remain virgins until they are married. Their husbands can choose to have part of the procedure “reversed”, but only with certain types of FGC.
Through Tostan’s education and empowerment for women on health and human rights issues, women in Senegal have learned about the negative consequences of FGC and have started saying no to this procedure. The more immediate risks include severe pain, infection, shock, and hemorrhaging leading to death. If the person survives, the long-term risks include infertility, higher risk of labor pains and pregnancy complications for both the mother and her baby. The use of unsterilized knives can also result in the transmission of HIV/AIDS to the women and children they bear.
Due to Tostan’s work, a group of Senegalese women spoke out in 1997 and vowed to terminate the practice of FGC altogether. Since this promise, more than 4,000 other communities have followed their example and joined the fight to eradicate FGC.
To help raise international awareness of this issue, Ms. Melching told me that the following day, she and a Senegalese woman she befriended would be traveling to a conference in New York, where the woman would share her own heartbreaking story. Her first daughter, cut at the age of four, bled out due to complications during the procedure and died. When her second daughter reached the age of four, the woman chose to have her cut, too. This second daughter also was unable to survive the extensive bleeding.
I was shocked by this woman’s story. I couldn’t help but wonder why she consented to have both of her daughters cut, knowing the extreme risks and that the procedure knowing of the extreme danger. After her first daughter had died, how could she risk the life of her second daughter?
Ms. Melching told me, “If everyone in California started driving on the wrong side of the road, wouldn’t you follow them and do the same?” I was very confused at first, but then responded “yes.” She explained how hard it would be for one person to suddenly go against her religion and village traditions and norms, just out of her own fear. Cutting was a rite of passage for every female child in the village. I understood what Ms. Melching was saying, but I still couldn’t wrap my head around this woman’s horrific story.
While Tostan’s work has educated the women in these African villages, the issue of FGC is still a prominent one. According to the Tostan website, FGC is practiced on more than three million women worldwide each year.
Meeting Molly Melching –- a true Architect of Change -- was a privilege, and hearing about her tireless work is an experience that I’ll never forget. When I left our lunch meeting, my mind was buzzing with extremely valuable and disturbing information on a topic I’d really known nothing about. I was so impressed with Ms. Melching’s passion and activism, I wondered if she would come share her story at the California’s Women’s Conference in October. I’m happy to say she agreed to come and participate. Make sure to keep an eye out for her session. I guarantee you, it will be an eye-opener.
While writing this piece, I couldn’t help but realize it would be posted right around Mother's Day. On this Mother's Day, I’ll be thinking of all of the mothers who’ve lost their daughter to FGC – and those who are using their voices to empower women to speak out, so other mothers don’t have to experience the same heartbreak.
To learn more about the issue of FGC and what Tostan is doing to help empower women of all ages to improve their lives -- visit www.tostan.org.
Katherine Schwarzenegger is a sophomore at the University of Southern California and is majoring in communications with a minor in gender studies. She created VIDA Bags last fall to promote the awareness of maternal mortality and is currently working on a book to be released in the fall on body image. You can follow Katherine Schwarzenegger on Twitter @KSchwarzenegger.
Read Katherine Schwarzenegger's earlier post, Saving Lives in Ghana