Molly Melching, Tostan Founder

by Jane Wallace

Molly Melching, founder of Tostan (
Molly Melching, founder of Tostan (

"When people are educated, when they have the information they need, when they have human rights and they know their rights...when they are working together...I think we will see a huge change in the world." Molly Melching.

 Molly Melching makes that long list sound so natural and sensible. And it is precisely that attitude, taught to thousands of African villagers, that has brought about at least one revolutionary change. Her organization, Tostan, is credited with ending the 2,000 year old practice of the genital mutilation of girls in Senegal. How did Tostan succeed where others had failed? Tostan means "breakthrough" in one African language--like the hatching of an egg--and peck by peck is how Tostan seems to work so well.


Molly Melching, now in her 50's, was an American exchange student to Africa who never returned home. She founded Tostan to educate Africans, one village at a time, from the ground up. What makes Tostan's program different is that it teaches villagers how to make change, not what changes to make. Melching believed educated villagers would empower women, eliminate harmful traditions, and seek economic advantage on their own--creating the kind of organic change that lasts.

The next phase of the Tostan program includes enough math and literacy to dial and text on a cellphone. Most villages had a phone, but many of the villagers didn't know how to use it. With open communication, ideas spread easily from place to place. Tostan teaches the village to use the phone for the good of community. News of a bad well, or a viral outbreak, is now instantaneous and clear. So are the advantages of solar lighting and cook stoves.

Melching realized that connectedness mattered for social change as well. She saw that large changes rarely widen from isolation. It is fine for a single village to make a small change, but it takes many villages acting together to make a big change.

Molly Melching with Tostan Facilitator Sen Konate.(usaid)
Molly Melching with Tostan Facilitator Sen Konate.(usaid)

And that is what happened when the women of Senegal announced they would no longer cut the genitalia of their daughters. The change was made by a few village women and spread to many more. Tostan's education revealed the practice was dangerous for women's health. The mutilation was not Muslim, it was simply a painful purposeless social custom. Precisely the kind of 2,000 year old custom that could be illuminated by the Tostan program's education. But it was the women of Senegal who made that change. And for girls in Senegal, that is a huge, huge change in the world

Page created on 8/19/2014 3:06:49 PM

Last edited 1/9/2017 6:08:16 PM

The beliefs, viewpoints and opinions expressed in this hero submission on the website are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the beliefs, viewpoints and opinions of The MY HERO Project and its staff.

Related Links

Tostan - MY HERO 2011 Film Festival winner by Cheikh Daru Seck
Tostan Organization - Tostan's mission is to empower African communities to bring about sustainable development and positive social transformation based on respect for human rights.

Author Info

View the award winning film, Tostan, by Cheikh Daou Seck, featured in the MY HERO Film Festival.