“Women Hold Up Half The Sky” Exhibit/Member Spotlight: Molly Melching
Change is possible. These three simple words sum up the message of the new exhibit at the Skirball Cultural Center. “Women Hold Up Half The Sky” is inspired by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s bestselling book Half The Sky. The exhibition addresses the oppression of women worldwide as the human rights cause of our time. It resonates with hope; change truly is possible. The Trusteeship got to experience this first hand during its visit to the cultural center on December 1st.
This exhibit is a milestone for the Skirball Cultural Center, whose mission is to explore Jewish heritage. “Women Hold Up Half The Sky” designates the first time the center has hosted an exhibit without direct Jewish ties. “The story is just so impactful,” Robert Krichner, the director of the Skirball Cultural Center, told the group, “We recognize its importance and its compelling utilization of global ideas.”
Housed in a bright and spacious room within the beautiful cultural center, the exhibit weaves a journey through stories of the women and girls featured in the bestselling book. These vignettes focus on themes such as domestic slavery, labor, human trafficking, and overcoming violence. Interactive stations bring select stories to life through video, photographs, visual art and innovative sound installations. One such installation covers the entire ceiling of the exhibit with plastic bird-like vessels created by local architects. We were encouraged to write uplifting notes to women, both that we know and those in other parts of the world, on blue pieces of paper that were then inserted into the clear vessels. The effect was a coloring of the ‘sky’ by filling the clear vessels with the different shades of blue paper. At the close of the exhibit, the well wishes will be sent to the Democratic Republic of the Congo as part of Women for Women International’s efforts to provide women there with support.
Another fascinating featurette focused on microloans and how women in the local villages were using microloans to change their lives. We were inspired by the story of Goretti Nyabenda, who turned a two-dollar microloan into a beverage business, serving banana beer to workers in her village. This empowered her with respect in her household, improving her abusive relationship and giving hope and stability to her six children and aid to her entire community. Talk about a successful entrepreneur!
The evening continued at the Luxe Hotel, where we gathered for dinner and to hear from the evening’s speaker, Molly Melching. Molly, a member of the Trusteeship, lives in Senegal and is the founder and executive of director of Tostan. The word ‘Tostan’ means ‘breakthrough’ in the Wolof language, and the group is dedicated to facilitating breakthroughs in African communities through social transformation in the respect of human rights. Molly’s dedication to Senegal began in 1974 through work with UCIEF, branching off in 1991 to form Tostan.
In its efforts towards human rights, Tostan has a large focus on changing local laws and regulations regarding Female Genital Cutting (FGC) in villages throughout Africa. “The first time I spoke to the Trusteeship,” Molly began with a twinkle in her eye, “Tostan had worked with and changed laws in 37 villages, and I was so proud of that! Today, we have 5,132 villages changed.”
While encouraging villages toward change, Tostan honors the local traditions of its participants. Its methodology is to allow communities to come together and discuss what they want their future to look like. “Blaming and shaming just doesn’t work,” Molly explained, “If a village is told we are there to fight for change in their customs, they respond negatively. But reframing that as moving toward human dignity evokes a positive response.”
Molly’s inspiring work has earned her organization several prestigious awards. In 2007, she received the Hilton Humanitarian prize as well as The Trusteeship’s Meredith MacRae Prize. “Every time I am here in America to visit, it is important to me to come see the Trusteeship,” Molly explained. “As a director of organization far away, with many men who aren’t used to working with women, I know how special this group is. I feel unbelievable support here.”
That support was palpable in the room the entire evening. “What you are doing takes a breakthrough attitude,” member Judy MIller, an initial touch point for Molly in the Trusteeship, praised. Member Barbara Casey is also active in volunteering for Tostan through doing PR work for the organization and also supporting a village. “It was great to be able to see the work that I was supporting first hand.” Barbara commented about her 2005 trip to Senegal, “Tostan is truly a remarkable organization.”