This week, I’ve been reading a powerful book called However Long The Night by Aimee Molloy. The book shares the story of Molly Melching, a woman you have probably never heard of, whose work is dramatically affecting the lives of millions of African girls.

Melching has received numerous awards for her work in empowering African communities through education and training in proper health practices and entrepreneurship. Most importantly, Melching’s organization, Tostan, has done something no other organization has been able to do before: helping to bring an end to the practice of female genital cutting (FGC).

FGC is a 2,000 year-old circumcision rite that is still practiced on young girls in 28 nations in Africa and Asia. It’s estimated that over 3 million girls/year endure this ritual. It has no medical purpose, is incredibly painful and in many cases leads to serious health issues throughout life. In some cases, it results in death.

Since Tostan began its work on this issue in 1997, nearly 5,000 communities in Senegal have stopped the practice of FGC. Much of their success has come from incorporating human rights education in their training, which has empowered the women of the community to make the change themselves. The government believes that by next year the practice will be completely abandoned.  This is an amazing story of perseverance and transformation that is spreading to other nations in Africa.

 Learning From Tostan: Principles For Changing Culture

One of my main focuses in starting Vanguard Creative has been to help leaders who are called to impact culture.  I think the success of Tostan highlights several important principles that we can learn from.

BEFORE YOU CAN CHANGE CULTURE, YOU NEED TO UNDERSTAND IT

I had always assumed that men imposed FGC upon women, but as I read the book, I discovered that FGC has been perpetuated by women who consider it an act of love.

Cutting one’s daughter is critical to her future, ensuring that she will be a respected member of their community and preparing her to find a good husband in cultures where marriage is essential for a girl’s economic security and social acceptance. To not cut one’s daughter would be unthinkable – setting her up for a lifetime of rejection and social isolation. – Aimee Molloy

If a girl didn’t go through FGC, the women of the community would isolate her and finding a husband would be impossible because the mothers of the community wouldn’t allow their sons to marry “that kind of girl.”  Despite what a mother might feel, she saw no other option for her daughter.

No one talked about it…no one thought to stop it.

Women perpetuating a horrific practice against other women – out of love.  As a mother of a daughter, I find it unfathomable, but for these women to not do so was unfathomable.

Things like FGC make no sense to our western minds, but without understanding the dynamics of the culture or the ramifications of change, there is no way that Tostan could have made the impact that it has.  This is important to understand if we are going to be effective in changing culture.

Do we really understand the problem we are trying to tackle? How is it imbedded in the culture? What are we asking people to do? What kind of courage will what we ask require?

In this case, letting go of FGC was asking women to potentially set their daughters up for a life of even greater poverty and abuse. It took incredible courage for these women to stand up and say, “no more!”

If we are going to be successful in our attempts at changing culture, we are going to have to leave our assumptions at the door and really take the time to understand THE ISSUE and THE PEOPLE we want to impact.  Things aren’t always black and white.

YOU’LL NEVER CHANGE A WAY OF THINKING BY DIRECT ASSAULT

In our culture, we look at FGC as absolutely unthinkable. How could this still be happening in 2014? It would have been easy to come in guns blazing and attack the practice, but the women would have just become defensive and shut them out.

Instead, Tostan took the approach of educating the women on human rights and healthcare principles. In every teaching, they invited dialogue, asking the women to share their experiences and opinions. In a culture where modesty is held at a premium, the subject of FGC was initially met with painful silence, but gradually the women began to look at their own experiences through the lens of truth.  Eventually they stood up to change their communities.

The same principle applies to our work.  As Christians, we need to use the truth as a lens rather than a hammer.  We can see how people are being affected by choices that lead to oppression, but we can’t force them to change. Our job is to shine a light on truth and expose the reality of what holds them captive.

 CHANGE TAKES TIME AND PERSISTENCE

It took many months of work before the women of the first village began to understand and embrace the truth about FGC. Week after week passed with teaching punctuated be uncomfortable silence.  Then one day, the women began to open up. Those same women worked for months to change the mindset of their village.

In 1997, the women of the village became the first to publically stand up against the practice. Reporters from all over the world publicized what was happening, putting further pressure on the women, but they stood with resolve.  Now, seventeen years later, Senegal stands on the brink of change that will have a rippling effect on the destiny of it’s people.  It didn’t happen overnight and it wasn’t easy, but it was worth the effort.

If we want to change the culture around us, it is going to take that kind of commitment and determination.  Have you hit a wall in your work?  Are you frustrated by lack of progress?  Let this story encourage you.  Don’t give into the voice of discouragement.  Sometimes God changes things in a moment, but often change happens through years of faithful effort.  Ask God for wisdom and strategy and trust Him to empower your work.

You also need to remember that the enemy would like nothing more than to discourage you.  He sees what God wants to accomplish through you and he doesn’t want to give up his territory.  Discouragement is his way of getting you to stop right at the edge of breakthrough.  Don’t listen!

GENERATIONAL ISSUES ARE A PART OF OUR CULTURAL IDENTITY

That’s what makes them so hard to deal with.  As I was reading Molly’s story, I began to see how the enemy works to keep people in captivity. In the case of these women, centuries of practice had engrained FGC into the culture of the people.  At its heart were demonic principles, but it had become so much a part of society that the women just accepted it as truth.

  • They were only acceptable if they had gone through the ritual.
  • Not doing so would invite evil into their lives.
  • They assumed it was a religious requirement.

All Lies…that became so engrained into their culture that they believed they were true.

We’re not that different.

Our problems may be of a first-world nature, but just like these women, we all battle with generational issues that have come to define our identity.  People on the outside may look at us and wonder how we can be caught up in our struggles, but to us it’s not that simple.

Rejection, fear, sickness, or depression can become so much a part of our identity that we embrace fallacy for truth.

Creating change in others or ourselves requires dismantling generational issues that we have accepted as cultural truths.  We need the help of Holy Spirit to see things as they really are.  Molly and her team used knowledge and teaching to empower the women to change their lives.  How much more can happen when we embrace wisdom from the Spirit of God.

Wrapping It Up:

It’s exciting to see what’s happening in Africa.  Stories like Molly’s inspire me.  One woman saw a problem and thought, “I can do something about this.”  An issue that was entrenched for 2,000 years, effecting millions and millions of girls is beginning to crumble.  That excites me!

Let it encourage you.

God isn’t looking for extraordinary people.  He’s looking for ordinary people who He can use to do extraordinary things. That’s you and me.

What is God asking you to change?  Do you understand the spiritual and cultural issues behind what you seek to change? What challenges have you faced?  What successes have you had?

I’d love to hear about what you’re working on.