Summary of an article by Amy Yee, Correspondent, CS Monitor, July 20, 2017

Amy YeeTwo dozen men and women sit in a circle at a training center an hour’s drive from Dakar, the capital of Senegal. They are Muslim teachers, religious leaders, and community heads from Ghana and Nigeria who are participating in a workshop offered by Tostan, a Senegalese nonprofit. Molly Melching, a warm American in her 60s who is Tostan’s founder and chief executive officer, listens attentively as participants share what they’ve learned. A Nigerian woman wearing a niqab exclaims, “Women have the right to acquire property. Women have the right to work.”

With support from the Atlanta-based Carter Center, these individuals are learning about human rights at Tostan. The training workshop, held in Thiès, Senegal, is one of many activities the 26-year-old organization has undertaken to address a range of social issues in Africa.

Melching, standing tall in a flowing dress called a boubou, recalls how she came to Senegal in 1974 as a 24-year-old graduate student from Illinois. She thought she’d stay for six months to study Francophone African literature.  She “felt comfortable in this society that’s people-centric,” she says. She embraced Senegal’s “values of people, sharing, unity, and generosity.” Now, 43 years later, she’s still in Senegal after unexpectedly growing an organization that focuses on literacy, health, hygiene, community governance, and more.

Tostan offers education programs to villagers in a number of African countries. Since the organization’s founding in 1991 more than 200,000 individuals have participated in its Community Empowerment Program, benefiting 3 million people. Tostan is known globally for alleviating poverty, as well as for helping to reduce child marriage and female genital cutting in Senegal. Other countries where the organization has operated include Somalia, Guinea, Mali, and Mauritania.  Over the course of two decades some 8,000 communities in eight countries have publicly declared abandonment of female genital cutting, child marriage, and forced marriage. As poor villagers in Senegal learned about health, sanitation, and conflict resolution,

“People need to understand why they should want to change their behavior. I don’t go in telling them what to do,” Melching says. “I never went in and told them to change. I just gave them the information.”

“It’s not about the change you want,” Melching says, “but the change they want.”

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