The founder of an international group that educates people about the dangers of female genital mutilation - also known as female genital cutting or FGM/C - says a growing number of women are refusing to undergo the practice.

Molly Melching, founder of the non-profit group, Tostan, says her community-based program of education and training has helped reduce the practice in more than 6,000 communities in eight African countries.

Molly Melching says Tostan has been successful in changing attitudes about female genital cutting in countries such as Somalia, Guinea Bissau and Senegal - where her program is based.

FILE - American Molly Melching, from the organizat
FILE - American Molly Melching, from the organization Tostan, receives the 2005 Anna Lindh Award, in Stockholm, June 16, 2005, from Bo Holmberg, widower of the late Swedish politician Anna Lindh who was murdered in 2003.

On VOA's Press Conference USA program, she said her group's success has stemmed from an approach that begins first, with asking people how they want to live in their communities, and then raising their awareness about issues that include health and hygiene.

“It’s this awareness-raising that is so critical, which is not about going in and telling people ‘This is horrible. How could you do this? This is barbaric,’ which is what some people’s first reaction is. But we felt like it was not the way to go about changing something that people think is good," said Melching.

Melching says female genital cutting is considered favorably in parts of Africa, the Middle East and Asia because it has an impact on a woman's status in society.  Many believe it helps women control their sexuality, but it is also widely considered a human rights issue involving the oppression of women.

In practicing communities, women who do not undergo the procedure are often ostracized.

The United Nations’ Children's Fund (UNICEF) estimates that at least 120 million women and girls have experienced cutting in the 29 African and Middle Eastern countries where the practice is concentrated.

UNICEF specialist Cody Donahue says Somalia, Guinea and Egypt are among countries with the highest rates of cutting, but he says there are signs of change.

"Even in countries that remain high-prevalence countries, we are seeing some encouraging trends. One is in Egypt, where we do see a modest decline in the practice," said Donahue.

Both Donahue and Melching say one factor that often slows down change is a belief that female genital cutting is tied to religion.

But Melching says religious leaders in some communities have begun to speak out against the practice.

“My experience has been that when the religious leaders hear the women talk, often for the first time, they are really shocked," she said. "And the thing I hear all the time is, ‘I didn’t know. I just didn’t know that this is what was involved. I had no idea.’”

Donahue says the perceived link between Islam and female genital mutilation appears to be growing weaker.

"Increasingly, you have very public and well founded, well documented religious arguments stating categorically that FGM/C is not a requirement of religious teachings, especially from Islam, you are hearing this very strongly now," said Donahue.

In addition to changes in religious views, a growing number of communities are now enacting laws that ban the practice of cutting.

Melching says laws are good but they will not change "deeply entrenched social norms."

“There has to be a law, yes," she said. "But the emphasis, we believe and what we have seen has led to mass abandonment, large-scale abandonment, has been this community education."

She says her community-based education process allows people to draw their own conclusions about ending female genital cutting.

Melching's work with Tostan on the issue is featured in a new book called However Long the Night.