“An uncircumcised girl will have excessive desire and is at risk of losing her virginity very soon. Girls who are not circumcised are considered “dirty”; according to religion, they are not clean. They will not have a husband, they will be ridiculed, they will be a disgrace to their family.” This is how Koura Diallo, a farmer from the community of Sansankidé (west of Mali), describes the social pressure to subject girls to female genital mutilation (FGM). undergo.
What lies behind this patriarchal practice are devastating consequences for their health: pain, bleeding, infections, fistulas, complicated births and psychological trauma.
There is currently no law in Mali that specifically criminalizes female genital mutilation. A lack of legislation and social pressure makes it very difficult to end this practice in this country of 22.5 million people, where almost eight million girls and women have been subjected to the procedure. But despite the risk of social stigma, there are women who challenge traditions.
FGM is just one of the sexist acts of violence that women in Mali are subjected to, with serious consequences for their lives, education and autonomy. Dolo Oum Jomele leads Iamaneh Mali, an association that promotes the exercise of sexual and reproductive rights and economic autonomy for women, while challenging traditions and social norms. “We are carrying out educational work at all levels to put an end to the so-called 'disastrous traditional practices', i.e. those customs that violate human rights, especially those of women and girls.” We are talking about female genital mutilation, but also child marriage and forced marriage or domestic violence,” says the director. Iamaneh, with the support of Farmamundi, is training health workers in the Kayes region and improving health center facilities to prevent and treat health complications resulting from mutilations.
Dolo Oum Jomele, in the middle, director of the reproductive rights association Iamaneh Mali. IAMANEH MALI
Hinda Keita is a midwife at the Diema Community Health Center, where she sees the risks of giving birth with FGM for mother and child every day. For this reason, Keita is very committed to raising community awareness. “People believe that mutilation is an obligation prescribed in the Quran, but it is not mentioned. We are trying to convince women and their husbands not to subject their daughters to this practice and thus avoid many unnecessary deaths,” says the midwife.
The use of contraceptive methods is another key point of awareness, as the lack of family planning also impacts women's rights: high birth rates, high risk of maternal mortality and low life expectancy. Mariame Soucko from the women's group Sansankidé explains the difficulties they face in accessing planning and that they have to deal – once again – with gender roles and machismo. “Many women in the village have their husbands abroad. If her husband is not present, the woman will be embarrassed to ask for family planning information. And if they try to talk to him about it, he will immediately think that they are trying to cheat on him,” he explains.
The result of these measures is beginning to reflect a change among women, particularly regarding the freedom to report violations of women's rights, which was previously taboo. There are community committees against “harmful traditional practices” and campaigns and workshops are held involving women and men of all ages, including local leaders.
Organizations advocating for women's rights in Mali emphasize the need for a law banning FGM, as changing the law would promote social change. Mali has ratified several international agreements requiring it to take measures to eliminate female genital mutilation, such as the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Maputo Protocol. However, all attempts by civil society to pass a law were unsuccessful.
Julieta Meana is a lawyer specializing in human rights and works as an international associate in the Sub-Saharan Africa team of the NGO Farmamundi.
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