From the time of its founding, Molly’s Tostan foundation has grown into a powerful driving force that has inspired numerous families all over Senegal, Guinea, and Burkina Faso to stop practicing Female Genital Cutting and forced child marriage.
Molly’s philanthropic work in Africa has earned her numerous awards, including a Humanitarian Alumni Award and a Sargent Shriver Distinguished Award for Humanitarian Service. She has also made various connections with other charitable organizations and is actively cooperating with them to help the women and the children of Africa rise from poverty and oppression.
Molly Melching’s Early Biography
Molly was born in 1950 on the less busy parts of Illinois. Growing up in a more relaxed environment outside the busy and stressful atmosphere of Chicago, Molly grew up normally like any other child of her age. And although her family was not very wealthy, she was fortunate to have her parents shower her not just with material gifts, but also with the love and compassion that would go on to influence her for the rest of her life.
That compassion would be further strengthened by witnessing the racial discrimination that prevailed as she grew up. In her high school years, Molly saw how her white friends would badly treat people of other races, especially the blacks in school.
Fortunately enough, Molly never got influenced by the racist attitudes of her fellow schoolmates and actually made friends with many black people in her class, helping her to understand their sufferings. This, in a way, birthed a desire in her to learn more about these people and help them, but it would not show up until she actually reached her university years.
Aside from being a kind and compassionate person, Molly was also very intelligent and skillful, something that impressed many of her professors and fellow students. She was a very bright student, evidenced by her high grades in school.
Molly Goes to Senegal, Africa and Writes a Book
Molly often involved herself in many of the school’s activities, especially those that allowed her to get in touch with the less fortunate members of society. She graduated from high school with amazing remarks, and went on to study college at the University of Illinois.
In the middle of her time in the University of Illinois, Molly was given an opportunity to go to Senegal, Africa as an exchange student at the Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar. In 1974, Molly transferred to the University of Dakar. As a student at the university, Molly was able to visit the children in the orphanages through the school’s charitable activities.
From that time on, Molly developed a love for children, and saw herself in the future as an advocate for promoting their rights. By the time she graduated, she was already heavily involved in charitable organizations that took care of the children’s needs. In fact, due to her time with the children, Molly was able to write and publish “Anniko”, an illustrated children’s book, with the help of the New African Editions, one of the major publishing companies in Senegal.
Two years later, in 1976, Molly joined the United States Peace Corps and was placed individually on the area of creating children’s books, where she continued to further improve the development and publication of books that would tailor to the culture and environment of the Senegalese children.
Helping Street Children through Demb ak Tey Center
She established the Demb ak Tey Center (which opened at the African Cultural Center), which she used as a base of operations for reaching out to the street children. Using her knowledge and experience from her two years of working with children, Molly trained several Senegalese workers and with them, used the center to serve the street children in Medina, the most populated area of Dakar.
Although the project was initially challenging, Molly and her team soon adapted to the needs of the children. Through the mixture of songs, proverbs, stories and other oral African traditions, Molly was able to reach out and promote children’s books that taught them about Western African culture. The project became successful, and soon enough reached more children. By 1978 the Demb ak Tey Center was among the leading groups in Dakar that catered to street children.
Partially satisfied with the results of the project, Molly soon enlarged her target; not just children, but a large portion of the Dakar population as well. Through her work with the Demb ak Tey Center, Molly discovered the amazing potential of using traditional African stories as a means of promoting education among the people.
She started a radio program in Wolof (one of the major languages of Senegal) that discussed various topics such as health and the environment, presented in the richness of traditional African culture. The radio program, which was aired weekly, became very successful, reaching thousands of families throughout the city and beyond, giving them relevant information that they can use to improve their lives.
Receiving Help from UNICEF
As with every charitable organization, Molly eventually realized that she needed more funds. The center that she founded was growing, and the costs were increasingly becoming burdensome. Molly almost decided to go back to the United States to start a fundraiser in 1982, but met with a sudden twist of fortune when she was awarded a grant by the Spencer Foundation to stay in Senegal and continue her activities.
Backed with funds, Molly moved the center to the Saam Njaay, a village in the region of Thies. Molly and her team then worked in collaboration with the locals, creating an informal education program that targeted the rural communities based on their culture and traditions. The program caught the attention of USAID, which helped grow the program by providing funds. The program became a success, and soon after, was being adopted by other non-governmental organizations as a basis for their activities.
In 1988, Molly was assisted by the Senegal branch of UNICEF to further improve the non-formal education program and expand its reach to cover the entire country of Senegal. One of Molly’s main priorities was the need for basic education and literacy training for women, who Molly recognized as crucial members of their own communities as well as the entire Senegalese population.
Through the support provided by UNICEF, the program expanded in such a way that it reached thousands of women all throughout Senegal; Molly and her team also developed a basic life skills approach to cater to at-risk and out-of-school adolescents.
In spite of the growing success of her programs and projects, Molly felt that there was still a lot to do. There were more than thirteen million people living in the country, and the few thousand they were already helping did not even account to a fraction of the goal she had in mind. Although this did bring quite a frustration to her, it did not stop Molly from devising a plan to improve and widen the program’s reach. She also made plans to redevelop the Saam Njaay center into something that would make a larger impact on Senegal and other African countries.
After months of planning with the team, gathering information, collecting lessons from the previous project, and organizing them, Molly soon established Tostan, a non-profit organization that grew from the center that Molly founded at Samm Ndiaye. Through Tostan, Molly was able to create the Community Empowerment Program, which delivers lessons through local languages on both adult and adolescent learners.
Promoting human rights was the primary driving force of the two modules used in the program: the Kobi (which in Senegalese means “to till the soil”) covered topics such as democracy, problem-solving skills, human rights, health and hygiene; and the Aawde (which in Senegalese means “to plant the seed”) which focused on small enterprise development, mathematical subjects and local language literacy.
Tostan Helps Thousands of Children Get Birth Certificates
Tostan grew rapidly with the support of Molly’s connections as well as the local communities. In brought a significant change in the lives of the women of Senegal, enabling them to realize the importance of making important decisions that would affect not just their lives, but the lives of the others surrounding them as well.
Through the various topics taught at Tostan, many of its beneficiaries become catalysts of change in their own societies; projects to reduce maternal and infant mortality rates were created, racial violence was lessened through peaceful protests, and campaigns to get thousands of children who did not have birth certificates into school were initiated and successfully conducted.
Tostan also assisted the local leaders to develop various income generating projects for the public. Most of all, the women have started to exhibit more confidence and leadership, and have started to participate in making important decisions for the community. This amazing accomplishment earned Tostan a place in UNESCO’s most innovative education programs in the world, and honoured Molly for founding this successful charitable organization.
Molly knew that one of the main keys to Tostan’s success was the heavy involvement of the local community, so she placed every effort into making the Senegalese people aware of their important part to play in the social transformation that has been occurring in their country.
In 1997, these changes became more prevalent, as more and more people publicly practiced the things they have learned. For example, on July 31, Malicoundra Bambara, a Tostan participant, announced his decision to completely abandon the practice of Female Genital Cutting and forced marriage in his community.
His declaration inspired numerous others, and throughout the year more than three thousand communities in Senegal have publicly declared the end of FGC and forced child marriages. These declarations rooted on the understanding that these practices harmed the women and children of society, which meant that their human rights were being violated.
Molly’s work with Tostan earned her special attention to many world leaders, more particularly in the United States. In 1997 and 1998, President Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary paid a special visit to Tostan to recognize their efforts in changing the society.
Alumni Humanitarian Prize Recipient
In 1999, Molly was awarded the Alumni Humanitarian Prize by her previous school, the University of Illinois, for her efforts in improving the lives of the citizens in Senegal and for promoting human rights in such a way that it brought tremendous change to the country. Three years later, Molly was given the Sargent Shriver Distinguished Award for Humanitarian Service during the fortieth year anniversary of the Peace Corps (to which she joined before).
In 2001, Tostan collaborated with Mwangaza, another NGO based in Burkino Faso, to promote human rights in twenty three villages and to educate them about the meaning of human life. Through the consistent programs that they established in the said communities, many locals began to know about the dangers of practicing FGC, and by 2003, all the twenty three villages declared the end of FGC practice in their communities. The same year, Tostan was named as the “Best Practice Model” by the World Health Organization for its simple and basic education approach for community development.
Molly Fights to End (Female Genital Cutting) FGC and Child Marriage
Molly’s success in her career did not make her stagnant. Although Tostan did cover most of Senegal, Molly’s dream in helping communities improve did not stop with that country. In 2004, Tostan began to expand to other countries such as Guinea and Middle Guinea.
Molly actively engaged the community leaders in promoting an end to Female Genital Cutting and forced child marriage, and by 2006, more than three hundred villages have publicly declared an end to the said practices.
In spite of the success and reputation that Tostan holds, Molly never stops to listen to feedback from various organizations and people on how their activities can be improved. Many of the NGOs that adopted the Community Empowerment Program continuously provide feedback on how the methodology can be improved to adapt to the ever changing society, and Molly never puts these feedbacks as unnecessary.
Molly and her team continue to experiment on change, and through constantly studying and finding ways to better their efforts they have become very efficient in running the organization.
In more recent times, Molly continues her campaign to promote human rights and end the FGC and forced child marriage practices. She constantly meets with leaders from various African nations and encourages them to keep on empowering their people and influencing them to promote the welfare of their women and children. Molly believes that her efforts do not stop at Senegal and its neighbouring countries – she aims on reaching the entire continent of Africa, believing that there is a better life in store for its citizens.
Organizations and Programmes Supported
- Skoll Foundation
- Aid for Africa
- Fundacion Cepaim
- Barefoot College
- Center for Effective Global Action (CEGA)
- Freedom from Hunger
- Construye Mundo
- ESRI France
- The Girl Effect
- Half the Sky
- International Center for Research on Women (ICRW)
- Malaria NO MORE
- Operation Smile
- Orchid Project
- Pathfinder International
- PSI Guinea
- Solar Household Energy, Inc.
Awards and Achievements
- 1999: Won the Humanitarian Prize from the University of Illinois Alumni
- 2002: Received the Sargent Shriver Distinguished Award for Humanitarian Service
- 2005: Won the Anna Lindh Prize for Human Rights on behalf of Tostan
- 2007: Won the King Sejong Prize for Literacy from UNESCO on behalf of Tostan
- 2007: Won the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize on behalf of Tostan
- 2007: Named as the OneWorld Person of the Year by the One World Foundation
- 2008: Received the Rising Voice of Woman Award from the International Women Associates
- 2010: Received the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship on behalf of Tostan
- 2011: Included in the 150 Women Who Shake the World by Newsweek magazine
- 2011: Included in the Most Powerful Women in Women’s Rights by Forbes magazine
- 2012: Included in the 150 Women Who Shake the World by Newsweek magazine
- 2012: Received the Award in Action from the Cecilia Attias Foundation for Women on behalf of Tostan