Development done differently – the story of Senegal’s Tostan

What strikes me most when I read about, and listen to, Molly Melching is her humility and willingness to learn about the people of a society she loved from the first time she met them. It led her to create a model of development that is rooted in believing that people themselves will willingly change social norms if they understand how such norms hold them back from creating the kind of society they want for themselves.

It is not the ethos of most international development organizations, who want to change people so their societies look more like ours, and Tostan’s community empowerment model does not look like the one that is used by most western international development agencies. But you cannot argue with the results achieved over the past 30 years.

More than five million people living in nearly 9,000 communities in eight African countries (Djibouti, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Mauritania, Senegal, Somalia, and The Gambia) have publicly declared their decision to abandon two powerful social norms – female genital cutting (FGC) and child/forced marriage – following their engagement in Tostan’s Community Empowerment Program (CEP), which has been implemented in 22 national languages in 10 countries.

But while it may be best known for helping people to change that particular cultural tradition, Tostan’s most powerful impact during its three decades of work has been in changing the notion of how development is done.“This is about a different approach to development,” Molly explained in a 2014 interview. “It’s about the systemic change that can happen when people get access to good information – in their own language, designed for people that have probably never been to school – and giving them the opportunity to peacefully discuss their own hopes for their future. FGC abandonment is just one result.”

The key to Tostan’s success is the 30-month Community Empowerment Program. This is how facilitator Diatou Ndiaye describes it: “The CEP is a three-year non formal education program created to reinforce the capacities of African communities to lead their own sustainable development and achieve positive social transformation, grounded in respect for Human Rights. Notably, the CEP reinforces the confidence of women who have never been to formal school to recognize they have something valuable to say.”

It does this in a participatory, respectful way that integrates local culture, is conducted entirely in local languages, and is grounded in human rights. The facilitators come from the same ethnic group as the community they teach in, speak the same language, and live in the communities for all three years. But because they will eventually leave, the facilitators make sure everyone is involved. “They engage influential people in the community to ensure buy-in and participation in achieving the community vision – including the village chief, religious leaders, midwives, youth associations, etc.”

The CEP has two parts – the Kobi and the Aawde. During the Kobi, participants discuss democracy, Human Rights, problem solving, and health and hygiene, and during the Aawde, they learn to read, write, do calculations, and project management skills.

From the start, the program puts communities at the forefront. “We always begin by identifying what is already done well in the villages that empowers everyone and respects everyone’s rights,” says Rose Diop, now National Coordinator of Tostan Senegal, who started as a facilitator in 1997. “A Community Management Committee (CMC) is also founded during the program to help put into effect and monitor the impact of the decisions made by the community.”

In 2007, Tostan was awarded the world’s largest humanitarian award, the Hilton Humanitarian Prize. “Through Tostan’s Community Empowerment Program, villages have reduced infant and maternal mortality, lowered the incidence of domestic violence, improved community health services and nutrition, and provided education for their children,” said Steven M. Hilton, the foundation’s president and CEO. “Microcredit, environmental, and income-generating projects have mobilized communities to work together to improve their lives.”

A new worldview

Molly Melching was 24 when she first arrived in Dakar, Senegal as a University of Illinois exchange student in 1974. “She quickly fell into the rhythm of Senegalese life – in some ways, she says, feeling more at home than she ever did.  School ended, but stayed, teaching English at three different cultural centers to cover the rent of her $40 room. “It was enough to keep me there,” she remembers with a laugh.”

While she spoke fluent French, it was when she decided to study Wolof that a whole new worldview opened for her.

She first heard about female genital cutting when a friend invited Molly home to her village, where she met a doctor from Dakar whose daughter was being cut. She didn’t understand why he, a medical professional, didn’t stop it. But he explained that this social norm was so deeply ingrained that the women would do it even if he refused, and that socially, it was a necessary ritual for the girl’s transition to womanhood. All he felt he could do was to be there so he could care for her afterwards.

This was extremely difficult for her to understand, especially to grasp that the motivation was love and the desire for their daughters to be fully part of their communities. But as a westerner, she was reluctant to discuss such a culturally sensitive issue. The initial discussions were in fact driven by women themselves when Tostan introduced human rights into the curriculum in 1996, Molly explained in a 2014 interview.

It took time, experimentation, and much community feedback to develop the model, and there was a lot of learning along the way. A key part of that learning – the discovery of the powerful concept of ‘organized diffusion’ – came after the 1997 declaration by a group of women in Malicounda Bambara that they would no longer let their daughters be cut. A wise religious elder from a neighbouring village helped Molly understand why the womens’ declaration sparked off an uproar and had such painful consequences for the women. 

He explained that social change happens not because an individual, or even an individual group, decides to make a change in a group norm that has lasted centuries. That disrupts social cohesion in a negative way. But when a whole social network changes that process themselves, it is a positive disruption that creates a new norm. It was the elder’s subsequent work with his entire social network that led to the first public declaration to end FGC in 1998 – the first time this had happened in Africa. (The same process led to footbinding being abandoned in China within a single generation at the start of the 20th century, says sociologist Gerry Mackie.)

“What is remarkable is that FGC, for example, is slowly becoming a subject people are willing to talk about publicly when it was previously considered taboo,” says Rose Diop. “Communities that formerly practiced FGC are now actively raising awareness about its harmful consequences. This alone is a huge step. But we are also seeing more children registered for school and being vaccinated and more women giving birth in health facilities. But while we are known for our results on FGC, the CEP has a holistic approach. By sharing information on multiple development themes, we see behavioral change across all of them.”

Such work takes time – and that has been a problem for funders who think change should be done more quickly. “A lot of donors say that our model takes too long; they say that three years to end FGC is too much time or too much money,” says Molly. “But we are having incredible results, and it goes so far beyond just ending FGC. We are seeing amazing results in health, economic growth, education, environmental impact, and governance. Women are running for office, villages are financing their own projects, children are staying in school, and villagers themselves are discussing and debating – so at the same time FGC is abandoned, child marriage is abandoned, and domestic violence is lowering. We are really affecting generational change – in only three years!”

It takes time because empathy takes time. “I feel that empathy is often forgotten in the world of development,” she says. “People are outraged about what’s going on in the world – and with very good intentions, they translate their outrage into telling people, “This is wrong!” or “Stop this immediately!” But we are talking about systemic change, and that goes deeper than telling people what to do.”

One thing almost always happens after she speaks in North America, she said in 2014. “In every presentation, someone has asked how they can adapt a program for the United States. That’s reinforced the idea that empowering education and human rights is something that we need everywhere – not just in Africa.”


Transformative impact at scale in Senegal. Diatou Ndiaye in Views and Voices, Dec. 14, 2020

Empathy and Social Change. Interview by Doug Fabrizio, Radio West, Sep. 29, 2014

Molly Melching of Tostan – Dignity for All. Skoll Foundation, Oct. 21, 2013

Molly Melching Positive Disruption From the Inside Out. 2013 Skoll World Forum. May 9, 2013

Remarks by Molly Melching. USAID, 2008.

More about the topic:

Risking a Society’s Retribution, Growing Numbers of Girls Resist Genital Cutting. New York Times, Jun. 14, 2022