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Humanitarian Prize Goes to Senegalese Group Fighting Female Genital Cutting

A Senegalese non-profit group, which has fought against female genital mutilation for more than 15 years, has won a humanitarian prize of $1.5 million dollars. For VOA, Phuong Tran has more from Dakar.

The non-profit group Tostan, which means "breakthrough" in a local Senegalese language, has worked with village leaders since 1991 to get them to abandon the long-held belief that cutting a young girl's sexual organ keeps her pure for marriage.

The cutting is normally performed by traditional practitioners using crude scissors, knives or even razor blades, often without anesthetics, leaving scars and long-term medical problems.

Tostan's founder, Molly Melching, says when Tostan started challenging what was considered a religious rule, she doubted whether people would actually stop doing it.

"Many people have said and I told myself, I am not sure I can do this. As soon as I said this is too overwhelming, too huge a thing to even work on, the women in the field would say to me, you have to support us because if you do not support us, who will," said Melching.

Aida Mandiang, 40, is a Senegalese woman from the Mandeng tribe that has long believed in cutting girls' organs. She had her own cut she she was 12 years old. But when her daughter turned the same age, Mandiang decided not to follow tradition.

Mandiang said she did not want her daughter to go through the pain, and she had learned about the health dangers.

Mandiang has been working with Tostan since 2000 to educate other families.

Melching says villagers like Mandiang have helped spread the message to more than 300 communities in Senegal, Guinea and Burkina Faso through village dances, songs, theater, and personal testimonies. Melching's staff of 370 is almost all African.

The founder says thousands of villagers have publicly promised to abandon the practice.

But Melching says there are still those who doubt Tostan can change deeply-held traditions.

"People will look to one or two people who may still continue [female genital cutting] and say their [Tostan's] work is worth nothing," she added.

Now, their work is worth $1.5 million more after the U.S.-based group Conrad N. Hilton Foundation chose Tostan from 250 humanitarian groups for the prize.

Tostan's current budget is $4 million. Melching says Tostan will continue to fight female genital cutting with the money, as well as expand its work into more countries, fight early child marriage, improve literacy and promote small business development.

Previous winners of the humanitarian prize include Doctors Without Borders, SOS Children's Villages and International Rescue Committee. The award ceremony will be held in New York next month.