This woman may have upstaged Bill Clinton during his UConn visit

            When Molly Melching was younger, she traveled to Senegal for what was supposed to be a six month trip.  She stayed for 40 years.

            “Isn’t this article about Bill Clinton?” you’re currently asking.  Much of the commotion on campus Thursday did center on the former president’s visit, where he and Melching both received the Thomas J. Dodd Prize in International Justice and Human Rights in Jorgensen Theatre.

            However, Melching, founder of Tostan, a non-governmental organization affiliated with the Clinton foundation, is someone with an incredible story who has truly worked from the ground up to make a positive impact in West Africa, particularly for women.

Melching recieves the Thomas J. Dodd Prize in International Justice and Human Rights.(Photo by Peter Morenus/UConn Today) 

            As Melching spent time in Senegal, she was disheartened by the amount of projects that had been started to improve the community, yet had either failed or fallen into disrepair.  She believed that this failure was due to the government and organizations not collaborating with the communities to create sustainable solutions.  

Melching called to mind a popular West African proverb, “It is better to find a path out than to stand and yell at the forest,” and set out on her mission, creating Tostan.

            Tostan, which means “breakthrough” in the West African language of Wolof, takes a unique approach to spreading human rights.  Using what they call the Community Empowerment Program (CEP), Tostan workers do not “help” West Africans, they empower and inspire communities to create their own positive changes. 

            The organization aims to spur grassroots movements among the communities, rather than coming in and enacting change themselves.  Tostan has empowered countless West African community leaders to rise up and spread the message of human rights to other areas.

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            Through this method, over 700,000 West African communities have pledged to abandon the practices of female genital cutting and child marriage.

            Melching recalled a West African woman who became particularly active with Tostan, who experienced a turning point when she learned about human rights.

            “She realized she had choice…” said Melching.  She continued to recall the woman’s realization that she did not have to accept violence against women, and that it was possible to remake the rules of society.

            Clinton continued the night by adding his own remarks about human rights.  He referenced the human genome to remind the audience that humans are 99 percent the same, and thus need to find a way to share the world on positive terms. 

Bill Clinton accepts his award at the Jorgensen, but not all were in support.(Photo by Peter Morenus/UConn Today) 

            In reference to Melching, he said, “You may not want to want to go to an African country and spend 40 years, but you can help the people who do.”

            Clinton said that in today’s world, the Internet, social media and countless non governmental organization can allow everyone to be “soldiers for human rights.”

            Despite the warm reception inside, not everyone was satisfied with Clinton’s receiving of the award.  Students outside of the Jorgensen handed out flyers advertising Clinton’s actions in office they believed conflicted with his human rights message, including increased incarceration rates and the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.

(Thumbnail image by Peter Morenus/UConn Today)