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Crossing Continents Thursday, 2 March, 2000, 19:00 GMT
Cutting out a tradition in Mali
Fatoumata Sire has been fighting for women's rights in Mali for over 20 years
By Ruth Evans

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Hanging on the wall in Fatoumata Sire's office is a woven propaganda poster against female circumcision. On her desk is a framed photo of her receiving the Legion D'Honneur in Paris. Outside a queue of women wait to see this dynamic, busy woman, who has spent the last twenty years of her life campaigning against female circumcision in Mali.

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Her involvement started when her own baby daughter was circumcised without her permission or knowledge by one of her father's co-wives. Since then she has campaigned tirelessly against the practice.

Unlike many other African states, Mali has not yet introduced a law against female circumcision. It's estimated that perhaps 80 percent of young girls are still circumcised, and the Malian form of the ceremony involves cutting off a girl's clitoris as a way of initiating her into womanhood and preparing her for marriage.

"I prefer to use the term female genital mutilation, " says Fatoumata, "because circumcision suggests that nothing important is cut, whereas female genital mutilation acknowledges that a girl is deprived of a very important part of her body."

Fatoumata's campaign has given her a very high profile in Mali. She's a controversial figure who is either loved or loathed by her countrymen. Efforts to draft legislation for the government have resulted in a backlash from conservative forces in the country.

"I have death threats against me" she says, " there have been attempts to burn down my house, I have been in three car crashes and every day, Islamic radio here in Bamako broadcasts curses against me." But she is undaunted by what people think of her, and it seems clear nothing will deflect this determined woman from her campaign.

An uneasy encounter

Mahmoud Dikko is Director of the Islamic radio station that Fatoumata says has been threatening her. We went to visit him in his office overlooking Bamako's Central Mosque and the busy market. At first he refused to shake my hand or to let me into his office. We put Fatoumata's allegations to him and he said "No, it's not true, it's all in her mind, it's not true!"

Around 80% of Malian girls are still circumcised
Asked what Islam teaches about circumcision, he told us that "Circumcision is a very ancient custom here in Mali. Islam found it when it came and Islam tolerated it, but it does have a moral value because it has to do with chastity. It helps to keep women chaste within marriage because it controls their sexual needs."

Mahmoud Dikko denounces what he regards as a Western-inspired campaign against circumcision. People like Fatoumata Sire, he says, are simply dancing to the West's tune and this amounts to nothing less than "cultural aggression."

"What right has the West to come here to lecture us, about a tradition it does not understand, when it tolerates things like homosexuality and sex before marriage. For us these things are shocking - they make us vomit!"

Clearly, it is going to be a tough job to change attitudes and traditions that are not only so deeply entrenched but also so sensitive. But Fatoumata says that one effective way of doing this is to persuade the women who perform the circumcisions to stop. "Persuading one circumciser to stop could save the lives of hundreds of young girls," she says.

A fresh start

The town of Segou is a couple of hours' drive from the capital, with wide dusty boulevards adjacent to the River Niger. Here Fatoumata's organisation has set up a weaving project, which aims to provide an alternative income to women who used to perform circumcision for a living. It's also a potent signal of gender empowerment, as weaving is traditionally a male preserve in Mali's highly complex and stratified society.

The weaving project has enabled women to stop earning a living from circumcision
Fanta sits at a large loom, weaving a blue and white-checked cloth, against a backdrop of anti-circumcision posters. She's a gentle, quietly spoken-woman with a warm smile. She says she used to earn about 1000 CFA (about one pound) for each circumcision she performed, and often used to do several in one day.

Her mother and grandmother before her had performed circumcisions and it was a highly respected job in the community. Traditionally performed after months of preparations and initiation into womanhood, circumcision was a way of "keeping little girls clean and stopping them running after men." But once she learned of the dangerous consequences from infections and potential loss of life, she stopped, because she came to the conclusion that circumcision constituted violence against women.

Taking the message on tour

Theatre Don use music, dance and drama to get the message across
Theatre, too, is being used to change attitudes. We went to the southern village of Mana with Theatre Don, a travelling troupe of dancers and actors who put on performances about development and health issues in villages that have never before seen theatre. Director Karim Togola says it's a popular and effective vehicle for getting messages like this across.

The village of Mana enjoys a night of theatre
Hundreds of men, women and children gathered together under a star-lit sky to watch the a play that tackled the sensitive issues of circumcision head on, illustrating the medical dangers and social taboos. It was a lively tour de force, full of humour and music that had the audience shouting and clapping along as they recognised familiar scenes.

Afterwards, the chief of Mana village emulated his theatrical counterpart in the performance, by announcing that now they understood the dangers of circumcision the village would put a stop to the practice.

Will the elders stick with their promise to end female circumcision?
The following morning, sitting in his compound surrounded by village elders as three young girls pounded millet under a nearby tree, the chief repeated this pledge. But he also quoted a Bambara proverb to the effect that things would not change overnight.

Change will certainly come slowly if methods like these are all campaigners have to rely on. A more effective means, argues Fatoumata, would be to introduce a law banning circumcision outright. But although the government has been sitting on draft legislation for some time, it has yet to pass this law. Fatoumata believes the government is running scared of fundamentalist Islamic reaction.

Stamp it out - or let it die away?

High up on the hill overlooking the red dust that permanently envelops Bamako sits the seat of government and presidential palace. Here in his oak panelled office, Pascal Babu Couloubaly, the Chef de Cabinet of the President's Office, explains that in his opinion a law would not be effective because literacy rates in Mali are so low few people would be able to read it and it would therefore be unenforceable.

Aminata Traore, Mali's ex-Minister of Culture
He adamantly believes that it is for Africans themselves to address this issue, not for the West to campaign against something whose cultural context it does not understand. That's a view we also heard echoed by Aminata Traore, the ex-Minister of Culture; despite being against the practice herself, she too told us that the issue had to be resolved by Malians themselves.

Besides, according to Pascal Babu Couloubaly, now wearing his other hat as an anthropologist, circumcision has today largely lost its meaning as part of the rites of initiation and marriage. Marriages are no longer arranged and these rites have died away. Now all that is left is the operation, which is being performed at an earlier and earlier age, sometimes on young babies.

Will FGM have died out by the time this child grows up?
"Circumcision will disappear of its own accord, " he says "because it has lost its raison d'Ítre." And he says: "Circumcision is just a little cut of the clitoris, that takes five minutes, " he says, "What we really suffer from here is poverty, not circumcision."

"The best way to deal with this is not to lecture to people but to allow them to reach their own conclusions with dignity and humour, through things like theatre and education, and that way circumcision will disappear," argues Pascal. "This is democracy in action!"

Tim Whewell with his Malian counterpart at Radio Liberte, Bamako
Also in this edition of Crossing Continents, a report on the environmental catastrophe facing the mighty River Niger. And presenter Tim Whewell goes to work with the director of a local radio station, who is accompanied to the office by his own personal griot who punctuates his day by repeatedly singing his praises.

Theatre Don, Mali
mix of drum, dance and drama in Mana village
Aminata Traore, Mali
ex-Culture Minister: "Malian women can speak for themselves"
Links to more Crossing Continents stories are at the foot of the page.

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