Extreme poverty and a high proportion of child marriage and female genital mutilation. These are some of the biggest challenges for the coastal country of Mali in West Africa. In recent years, the country has been marked by a protracted conflict between separatists and Islamist terrorists.
What was once a trade and cultural center in the region is today marked by the conflict between the government and a large part of the people in the north, called the Tuaregs, who believe that they are under-prioritized and want independence. Peace talks have improved the situation, but the conflicts still affect many people’s everyday lives. Half the population is estimated to live in extreme poverty, figures from the UN show. After several years of crisis, Mali now looks set to gradually implement the peace agreement signed in 2015. But the conflict continues and the threat has spread to neighboring countries, which requires more coordinated and organized conflict management.
Child marriage and genital mutilation are big problems
Mali’s lack of child rights monitoring makes it a challenging country for children to grow up in. Trafficking, child labor, child marriage and other serious abuses are widespread – especially in rural areas. Genital mutilation is another serious problem, according to a reportfrom 2014, three out of four girls in the country have been genitally mutilated at the age of five. More than every other girl under the age of 18 has been forced into child marriage. A girl who is forced into a marriage gives her worse conditions to take power over her own life. This often means that she has to drop out of school to take care of the household instead, which in turn means that she is less able to support herself and remain in poverty. Not infrequently she also gets pregnant even though she herself is a child. Figures from the World Bank show that in 2016, 171 out of 1,000 girls aged 15-19 were pregnant.
Girls underrepresented in school
The level of education in the country is very low. The proportion of children starting school is certainly increasing, but girls are still severely underrepresented. Just over half of the girls go to school for the first six years. But just under half of them go on to further studies. Research shows that for every extra year that a girl goes to school, her future income increases, which in itself increases the possibility that her own children will also be able to complete their schooling.
This is what Plan International is doing in Mali
Plan International has been working on site in Mali since 1976 to strengthen children’s and young people’s right to survival, development, protection and participation. We work especially to strengthen girls’ right to decide over their own bodies and sexuality, among other things by actively working to stop genital mutilation. Through several information initiatives and advocacy work, we have got several villages in the country to stop female genital mutilation.
We have also been involved and contributed to a bill that bans all forms of gender-based violence.
For young people, we provide opportunities for support and vocational training, so that they have greater opportunities to get a job and support themselves in the future. Through a special project that Plan International Mali worked on, conflict-affected parents were given the opportunity to get a temporary job and help build a school that was destroyed in the conflict.
In this way, both the family received an income and the children got their school back. In northern Mali, we are building special safe places where children can come to get help to deal with what they have been through, but also the opportunity to play and just be a child for a while.
Savings groups protect women from domestic violence
By being financially independent, women in Mali become stronger. The savings groups have given rings on the water that reach both the children and the city council.
Awa Dembele is 55 years old and comes from the Ségou region in the southern part of Mali. When she became a widow five years ago, she was left alone with 16 children and grandchildren. Awa believes that poverty makes women dependent and vulnerable.
– That is why I was so active when we established the savings groups in our village. In short, the system of saving and borrowing has changed my life. My first loan was 50,000 francs in 2009, with the help of a mentor I started a small farm. Now I supply the village and its surroundings with shea butter, fruit and vegetables throughout the year, says Awa Dembele.
Her loan eight years ago was around SEK 800. Now she also has a small shop that sells household utensils.
– I can afford to take care of my family and let my oldest son go to school. My latest achievement is a house of my own in town. It has cost me all my savings, but I am very proud of this, says Awa Dembele.
Plan International is now launching a comprehensive save-borrow program to strengthen people’s resilience in the area. More than 2,500 groups have been started so far and almost 44,000 women are participating. Through the groups, women increase their income and in this way it becomes possible for them to invest in their children’s education and health.
– The situation for the women in the village is much better today than before. We have created a sense of solidarity. Baptisms, weddings and funerals – now everything is platforms to support each other and give advice. My role has been to mediate and reconcile with men in general, and spouses in particular, says Awa Dembele.
Financial stress is often most pronounced in connection with food shortages or other disasters and risks leading to violence in close relationships.
– When the rainy season comes, I give loans like food and seeds to many men in the village. I use these opportunities to talk to them about the importance of peace and quiet in the family.
The savings groups have even influenced the composition of the city council.
– It was not easy, but today I am very happy to be able to tell you that the Council accepts both women and men. All my sisters are happy because they feel safer at home and experience less violence. This is how we want it, we want to live in harmony – it benefits the whole village, says Awa Dembele.
Sexual and reproductive health
Kani’s sister survived genital mutilation
Grandma mutilated my little sister when she was five years old. She was bleeding all day and my parents had to take her to a health clinic located far from our village during the night. Fortunately, things went well after she had surgery.
Kani, 11 years old
Female genital mutilation is one of the most serious forms of abuse of girls and a violation of their fundamental rights. The custom is based on old traditions and beliefs that have an unjust link to religion. Plan International collaborates with local leaders, organizations and communities to stop this practice. We do this by raising awareness and promoting girls’ rights without offending existing beliefs, which has led to more people abolishing the custom.
Agricultural groups secure the farmers’ livelihoods
Through the project, we have developed 40 hectares of land and been able to buy equipment and seeds. Thanks to this, we have had good harvests and the crops increased by 45 percent. It allowed me to support my family for seven months. The new motor pump guarantees better irrigation of the soil.
Yero Coulibaly, a farmer from the Timbuktu region
The unrest in northern Mali has exacerbated the food situation in the area, where it is now estimated that three million children and adults are suffering from food shortages. To increase food security, as well as farmers’ livelihoods, Plan International has created agricultural groups. There, farmers help each other by sharing skills to improve their agriculture by diversifying and promoting alternative crops. It helps them reduce their vulnerability.
Facts about Mali
Population: 17 million
Life expectancy: 57 years
Infant mortality rate: 68 per 1,000 births
Proportion of children starting school: 64.4%
Proportion of women in parliament: 8.8%