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Mali - A Rite of Passage, Passé

A group of women © ACDI-CIDA/Darquis Gagne
Malian Women of Doura Nah hold a meeting to discuss their community's commitment to a local agreement banning the practice of female genital mutilation.

In several African countries female genital mutilation, or excision, is a rite of passage that marks a young girl's transition from childhood to adult life. This custom involves the removal the clitoris, the labia minora or majora, or all of the female genitalia. The conditions under which the excision is done-without local anaesthesia-makes the practice cruel and painful-and sometimes fatal.

In Mali, 92 percent of women undergo female genital mutilation. In most cases, this rite is performed during the first ten years of a young girl's life. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon to see baby girls mutilated. Female genital mutilation is an abusive practice that violates a girl's human rights, but it is also a matter of popular belief and tradition. Religion does not seem to play a key role in the practice, as the vast majority of women are mutilated, regardless of their faith. Female genital mutilation is mainly a matter of ethnicity and a traditional custom.

Yam-Giribolo-Tumo (YA-G-TU) is a Malian non-governmental organization (NGO) concerned with the advancement of women. By way of pictures, radio broadcasts, videos and stage plays, YA-G-TU has organized information sessions to stop female genital mutilation in eight villages in the cercle (a large administrative district) of Bandiagara. Aiguere Tembely, a well-respected woman better known as Madame Fifi, heads this national NGO.

"Through revenue-generating activities such as learning techniques for making soap and dye, YA-G-TU facilitators have met periodically with villagers, women, and men to discuss female genital mutilation,'' says Madame Fifi. ''Our organization was first active in family planning in 28 villages, with the support of the Canada Fund for Local Initiatives. In 18 months, the use of contraceptives in our villages increased from 0 percent to 40 percent. These activities enabled us to earn people's trust. Building on this success-still with Canadian assistance, but this time through the Gender and Development Fund-YA-G-TU expanded its activities related to nutrition, HIV/AIDS, and female genital mutilation to 40 other villages.''

A mother and her baby © ACDI-CIDA
This young mother is relieved to know that, thanks to the efforts of CIDA and its partners, her daughter will not have to undergo female genital mutilation.

Female genital mutilation has many consequences. The practice often leads to complications and injuries-sometimes even death. Sexual intercourse is extremely painful. Problems also arise in childbirth when the baby emerges from its mother. Female genital mutilation poses a serious threat to health. "If the mother isn't healthy, neither is the family," says Madame Fifi.

YA-G-TU's team of facilitators has worked extensively with all stakeholders since 2001. They began by engaging in dialogue with practitioners of female genital mutilation to explain the complications it causes and to persuade them to end the practice.

Since the project began, very few female genital mutilations have been performed in Bandiagara. In Mali, only traditional practitioners may carry out this practice since these women are familiar with medicine and traditional remedies, and are regarded as having powers that ensure the operation's success. It can take up to two years to persuade practitioners to abandon the practice. "Through information sessions, I learned of the damage that my practice did to women,'' says Lafia Tamboura, a former practitioner. ''I understood that I was partly responsible for the problems they experienced in childbirth. I wept bitterly, and decided to stop doing it. I paid a price: I lost my livelihood. Fortunately, YA-G-TU granted me a microcredit loan to help me make the transition to a new life. Now, I make and sell bogolan (wet-clay chemical and vegetable dyeing of cloth). I also run a small hotel in my home."

Madame Fifi's team then started going from village to village, debunking myths about female genital mutilation. The team was made up of influential people from the village such as facilitators, former practitioners, marabout (holy men), imam, Christians, and animists. They engaged in dialogue with both women and men in a surprising atmosphere of openness. "Until everyone is equally well informed, there will always be holdouts, cases of reluctance: it is important to engage everybody," says Madame Fifi. The team explained that no passage from any holy book justifies female genital mutilation, the practice does not guarantee a girl's virginity, and non-mutilated women enjoy intercourse without pain. As a result, interest in the practice has quickly diminished.

When you visit the villages of Bandiagara, you see the impact of YA-G-TU's work. Women are willing to talk about their experience-and testify-in front of men. Female genital mutilation and its consequences are discussed freely, without being minimized.

This long-range effort has yielded good results. A local agreement was drawn up to abandon the practice of female genital mutilation, receiving support from 180 villages in Bandiagara. Further, YA-G-TU members are regularly invited to share their experience and expertise at national consultations and discussion forums. "Awareness activities have enabled communities to make and implement decisions about female genital mutilation by signing the local agreement to protect women and children," says former YA-G-TU trainer Isabelle.

Thanks to Canada's financial support, fewer and fewer young Malian girls in Bandiagara undergo the practice of female genital mutilation. Key stakeholders, as a result of their awareness efforts and the ratification of the agreement to stop female genital mutilation, are very hopeful they will be able to change people's minds and end this ancestral practice.