Skip to main content

To change society, first change minds

By Molly Melching, Special to CNN
updated 9:55 AM EDT, Thu October 31, 2013
Participants in a January 2012 session of Tostan's Community Empowerment program in Younoferé, Senegal.
Participants in a January 2012 session of Tostan's Community Empowerment program in Younoferé, Senegal.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Molly Melching says there were signs of inadequate health care when she moved to Senegal
  • She says real breakthroughs came when villagers were part of the process of change
  • By talking about human rights, people were drawn into the cause, Melching says
  • Solutions can't be imposed from top down; people must discover them for themselves, she says

Editor's note: Molly Melching is founder and executive director of Tostan, an organization that seeks to achieve sustainable development and social change in Africa. She is the subject of the book: "However Long the Night: Molly Melching's Journey to Help Millions of African Women and Girls Triumph." This is one in a series of columns CNN Opinion is publishing in association with the Skoll World Forum on people who are finding new ways to help solve the world's biggest problems.

(CNN) -- After arriving in Senegal in 1974, I lived in a small village near Thiès for three years. It was here that I realized a lack of basic, life-saving information was causing so much unnecessary illness, tragedy and death: Two children in the village were lame from polio; ordinary wounds became infected and led to hospital stays; there were many cases of measles; a baby died from dehydration.

It was also here that I began to understand why development projects have often failed and why they have even disempowered people at the community level.

To try a different approach, I partnered with the Senegalese villagers to design and implement a basic education program in African languages, and in 1991, I set up a nonprofit organization, Tostan, to continue that work.

Molly Melching
Molly Melching

In this program, people who had never been to school were for the first time able to understand why vaccinations are important, how to treat wounds in the village and how to ensure simple diarrhea does not lead to dehydration and death.

Watch an interview with Molly Melching

It was not until 1996, however, that we had a real "breakthrough" (which is incidentally what Tostan means in the Wolof language) when we added a learning module on human rights and responsibilities to our program. The results were transformational.

By providing a framework of human rights by which women, men and adolescents could discuss new information and issues that were important to them, we saw, for the first time, open dialogue around topics that would have been previously regarded as taboo.

Of course, there are things that are difficult for outsiders to accept. I have had to live through the sights and stories of little girls going through female genital cutting, which has led to hemorrhage and even death. And you feel outrage when seeing this. But with outrage alone, you can maybe save one girl, possibly a few girls. You need to understand fully and involve villagers to find a culturally relevant strategy that can reach a critical mass of people who can collectively make such practices disappear.

Nonprofit leader: Give Africa a chance
Bringing social change in Kenyan slums

And, this is not just about the abandonment of female genital cutting, for which Tostan is perhaps best known -- more than 6,500 communities in the countries where we work have publicly pledged to abandon this practice as well as child/forced marriage.

This is about a different approach to development. It's about the social change that can happen when people get access to good information using engaging and participatory methods -- in their own language, designed for and with people who have never been to school, and that facilitates their potential to shape a more promising future for their families and community.

Today, we run a three-year comprehensive nonformal education program in eight countries in Africa and in 22 national languages. Our Community Empowerment Program covers topics of immediate relevance to those in rural communities. We believe that to make any development initiative successful and sustainable, you need a foundation of education that should be delivered in a manner that is inclusive and leads to dialogue, ideas for taking action for change and positive outcomes.

This inclusive process also embodies what we frequently talk about as "empathy in development" -- something I feel is often forgotten in the world of development. People are shocked by certain harmful practices they hear about in developing countries -- and with good intentions, they translate their outrage into telling people, "This is wrong!" or "Stop this immediately!" But we are talking about systemic change, and it goes deeper than just telling people what to do.

Over the 22 years that we have been working as an organization, we have had many challenges and made many mistakes. Consequently, we have learned a great many things, and we are still learning. So much of what we do today is based on breakthroughs using knowledge we gained through thoughtful and lengthy discussions in classes or sitting under the neem trees or around a fire late into the night.

We have learned four key elements that we continue to instill in all our programs. First, begin with human rights -- empower people to claim their rights to health and well-being with confidence. Two, start where people are -- have empathy and respect while you understand their history, their language and culture and their priorities. Three, do not try to force change -- lay the groundwork for dialogue, introduce people to ideas, identify shared values and allow them to decide what the change will be and when they will make it. If you start by just fighting what they are doing, you're going to get resistance. Finally, and perhaps most crucially, remember the solutions already exist within the communities with which you work.

As my village father, El Hadji Moustaafa Njaay, a wise religious and traditional leader, once told me, "Even if you know what the answer is, and you know what is right, you must let people discover it themselves."

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Molly Melching.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
updated 9:38 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
updated 7:27 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
updated 9:56 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
updated 4:15 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
updated 11:35 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
updated 7:57 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
updated 10:17 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
updated 9:50 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
updated 11:07 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
updated 1:55 PM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
updated 3:53 PM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
updated 3:33 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
updated 6:11 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
updated 3:14 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
updated 8:06 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
updated 8:14 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
updated 4:16 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
updated 12:01 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
updated 12:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
updated 2:04 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
updated 11:18 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
updated 9:24 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT