Mali: FGM and early marriage violate human rights, women activists say

Early marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM) are widely practiced in impoverished Mali where together they constitute the single biggest threat to the human rights of young girls, according to aid organisations.
In the village of Yelimane, 125 km north of Kayes and close to the Mauritanian border, nearly all girls undergo some form of female circumcision before they are married off at puberty.
For residents of Yelimane, like many across impoverished Mali, the two violations have become traditional culture.

"In Mali, the two forms of human rights abuses most widely faced by children are early marriage and excision," said Berthe Aissanta Bengaly, minister for women, children and the family.

Both practices are widely justified as part of the cultural emphasis on the importance of family, while early marriage is also seen as a way to protect daughters from unwanted advances from men.

But the impact on the young girls is devastating, according to Taore Oumo Toure, an activist for women’s rights:

"Early marriage deprives young girls of their adolescence," she said. "It forces them into sexual relations and denies them their freedom, and this has psycho-social and emotional consequences".

Girls are not given a choice over who and when they marry or whether they are excised despite laws against both practices.

For example, forced marriage can earn the guilty party a jail term of between one and five years. If the girl is under 15, the jail term can be as much as 20 years behind bars with 10 years hard labour.

Law enforcement problems

But enforcing the law is difficult as family members are complicit in the arrangements.

"Very often, officials have no idea that the marriage is taking place without consent," said lawyer Bintou Bouare of a legal aid centre for Malian women.

Since the 1990s, the government has taken a softly-softly approach to tackling FGM, backing information and sensitisation campaigns, but falling short of outlawing the practice.

Health risks

A crudely performed operation to remove the clitoris from adolescent girls has been misinterpreted in many strongly Islamic regions of Mali as a religious rite of passage. The Koran does not call for female circumcision.

According to NGO Plan International, the practice is particularly common in the densely populated southeast. It found that in the districts of Kayes, Koulikoro, Segou, Sikasso and Mopti, 92.5 percent of adult women were circumcised.

Infections following such an operation, often carried out with rudimentary levels of hygiene, are common and can lead to sterility, severe period pains and complications during childbirth, not to mention loss of pleasure during sex.

In fact, for circumcised women, sexual intercourse is often a painful experience, according to doctors.

Health experts agree that as well as the immediate side effects of excision, which these days include the transmission of HIV, complications during pregnancy can be particularly severe.

Chances of death through haemorrhaging are increased and delivery can damage delicate tissue around the vagina, creating fistulas or large holes in the muscle wall, which leave a woman incontinent.

Brides who are pregnant before their young bodies are sufficiently developed to carry a child are particularly at risk of fistulas.

Poverty trap

For Aly Toure who lives in the western town of Kayes one of the main causes of early marriage is poverty. Impoverished parents, he says, are eager to have one less mouth to feed and receive the traditional dowry from the bridegroom.

But raising a dowry is a difficult job for a young man and it is common for new husbands to be substantially older than their brides.

Mali is one of the poorest countries in the world. A government survey in 1999 revealed that 63.8 percent of the country's 11 million population were living in poverty and a further 21 percent in extreme poverty.

According to the United Nations Programme for Development (UNDP), the average per capita income in Mali is just US$ 190 a year.

Child empowerment

When, earlier this year, a 14-year-old girl from Kayes was to be married to a religious leader, or marabout, in his 70s, local children educated about their own rights as part of a campaign by the UN's children's agency UNICEF, stepped in.

"The children arrived and told us what was going on and they even took the girl’s mother to the police station," Moussa Cissoko, a UNICEF representative, told IRIN.

UNICEF is working in schools to set up 'governments of children' to tackle the problem through a programme dubbed 'school is a friend to kids, a friend to girls'.

"Here in Kayes, the majority of the 13 and 14 year old girls are taken out of school to be married," teacher Dembele Makouma Diarra told IRIN.

But according to Dioumara Cissoko, the president of a women's group based in Bamako, women are becoming more empowered.

"Before, we committed the misdeed of marrying off our young daughters very young," she acknowledged. "But now we have seen that women can do everything that men can do. We have female ministers and women deputies, and we will continue to fight to give a chance to our daughters."