In southwestern Mali, a small, but powerful movement is growing.
In 2014, 40 Malian communities started Tostan’s Community Empowerment Program (CEP). Despite the fact that the CEP has not been completed, 27 of those communities have already decided to abandon female genital cutting (FGC). They will in turn join the ranks of the 61 communities in Mali who, since 2006, have also abandoned the practice.
While these 27 communities have not (yet) organized a public declaration, they are tapping into their social networks, reaching out, and have plans to expand their movement to others in the future. “Organized diffusion,” as such has very much been at play. In fact, one of the 27 communities, Choala, was an “adopted community” that had not participated in the CEP directly.
Choala is the second largest village in the area with a population of 2,115. In the beginning, this community jumped at the opportunity to participate in the CEP as one of Mali’s first 40 villages selected for the Generational Change in Three Years campaign. However, the people of Choala withdrew from the program before it began as some community leaders opposed the teachings regarding FGC.
As the program progressed in Katiola, a neighboring village about five kilometers away, participants and Community Management Committee (CMC) members began conducting awareness-raising sessions in Choala. The sharing sessions and skits presented the lessons they had learned on human rights and responsibilities, and helped establish an open dialogue. This in turn inspired newfound interest within the community of Choala.
As one Choala community member explained: “This decision [to abandon FGC] was made easier thanks to the knowledge gained in the weekly Tostan sessions by the Katiola participants and facilitator. In addition, the awareness-raising activities organized by the social mobilization team, plus radio broadcasts, made us understand the harmful consequences of FGC on health. So we decided to take our courage in both hands and hold a large awareness-raising campaign ourselves with men, women, and traditional and religious leaders about the dangers of these practices.”
Over time, the movement to abandon FGC in Choala gained momentum within the community and eventually reached a critical mass (necessary when taking on such a long-standing social norm). In January of 2016, community leaders and other key actors in Choala made the decision to officially abandon FGC on behalf of their community.
One community leader described the atmosphere necessary for this change: “Youth played a leading role in the process, as did women. The youth leader, Tiègnon Traore, knew how to provide the words and ideas we needed to convince leaders to join the social movement already underway. Oumou Coulibaly, President of the women’s group, and Mariam Diarra, an influential member of the community as the CMC Secretary and the village imam’s wife, was able to tactfully bring awareness efforts to her husband in order for him to agree to the abandonment. Imam Oumar Traoré, renowned for his faith, greatly contributed to convincing the village chief to abandon as well.”
Traoré recounts, “I was convinced by the awareness-raising carried out on the consequences of FGC. From my point of view, there is no obligation to practice FGC that is linked to Islam. This is what led me to agree to sign the commitment of abandonment in our community. For a Bambara [his ethnic group], to sign a commitment is to swear to it.”
Community members say that they have not seen any negative reactions in Choala since abandoning as the leaders of the different social groups have the full confidence of the community. All have expressed their support for abandoning FGC, as well as child/forced marriage to improve the health in their village. Many are even looking to raise awareness in five neighboring communities, so that they may too join the movement to abandon these practices.
Their strategy for spreading the message to other communities is clear: start discussions with the chiefs of neighboring villages, who are currently opposed to abandonment, and extend the same awareness-raising process that brought the people of Choala to embrace and enact positive change.
In the meantime, members of the Choala community stand firm in their decision to abandon FGC. The health center leader, Mariam Coulibaly, proclaims, “I am proud to have contributed to the process of making this historic decision and to be one of the people who signed the community commitment document.”
With contributions from Moussa Diallo