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Molly Melching (French, ’79) to receive 2015 U. of I. Humanitarian Award

2/2/2015  8:00 am

Molly Melching, (AB ’71, general curriculum; MA ’79, French) has been chosen to receive the 2015 University of Illinois Humanitarian Award.

This prestigious award is presented to graduates whose outstanding leadership and service have significantly enriched the lives of others and the welfare of humanity. Melching was chosen for the honor by her fellow alumni/ae.

The Alumni Humanitarian Award will be presented by the Alumni Association at the Alice Campbell Center during Commencement Weekend, Friday, May 15. Awardees will also be honored as part of the platform party during the campus-wide Commencement ceremony on Saturday, May 16.

In 1991 Melching created TOSTAN, a nonprofit organization that teaches an 18-monthlong basic education program—in the native languages—that emphasizes problem solving and is adapted to the villagers' way of life. Its name means breakthrough in Wolof—and what a breakthrough TOSTAN has been.

TOSTAN is one of the most successful literacy programs in Africa, winning substantial funding from UNICEF. Through TOSTAN thousands of Senegalese woman and children have learned to read and perform basic math. Armed with these skills, they have started local cooperatives, built wood stoves, and inaugurated health programs.

A startling outcome of TOSTAN was that its lessons on hygiene prompted villagers to question and later challenge the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM). This traditional right-of-passage into adulthood maims or kills millions of women across 28 African countries. It is performed without anesthesia or medical supervision, often resulting in debilitating infections, lifelong suffering, or death through hemorrhaging.

Tostan currently partners with communities to implement its Community Empowerment Program in eight African countries (Djibouti, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Mauritania, Senegal, Somalia and The Gambia).

Melching arrived in Senegal in 1974 as a graduate exchange student to be a participant in an exchange program with the University of Dakar. Upon her arrival in this former French colony, she immersed herself in the Senegalese culture and mastered Wolof, the native language spoken by 70 percent of the country's 7.5 million residents. Her intent was to study African culture and literature. She stayed on to promote literacy and to improve living standards of rural village communities.