Members of the Northwestern Access to Health team with community partners and  former traditional cutters in Douentza
Members of the Northwestern Access to Health team with community partners and former traditional cutters in Douentza

(WOMENSENEWS)– Siaka Traore wages war from a closet. 

The closet, which doubles as his office, is the back room of an open air storefront in the Djiguisseme neighborhood of Bamako, the capital of Mali. The courtyard itself has reverted to the pastoral, with goats and chickens nosing for scraps among the weeds. But the closet is outfitted for a 21st century battle. 

Traore is director of a Malian nongovernmental organization called Sini Sanuman, or “A Healthy Tomorrow” in English. Sini Sanuman is mounting a tireless effort to end all forms of violence against women in Mali – most importantly, female genital mutilation, or FGM. At 89 percent, Mali has one of the highest frequencies of FGM in the world.

Traore comes to the fight from an interesting direction. His mother was a traditional cutter. When he was a boy, two girls died after being cut by his mother and Traore asked her why that was so. She told him it was due to witchcraft. That stayed with him for many years.

When he grew up, he became a merchant and owned a grocery store. One day, an American woman, Susan McLucas, walked into his grocery store. She was carrying posters about FGM and he asked her what they were. She talked to him about the dangers of FGM: how the blade can transmit HIV and how FGM can cause tetanus, other infections or hemorrhage.

After she left, Traore put up her posters all over his store. Because of the posters, people came to him with their questions about FGM and he became known in the community as a wise advocate against the practice.

His Mother Repents

Traore also talked about FGM with his mother, who lives with him. One day, she came to him and said, “Son, I have been reflecting on our discussions. I have come to understand that you are right. Those girls did not die from witchcraft. They died because of me. I ask your forgiveness and everyone’s forgiveness now.”

Traore’s mother then joined him to advocate against FGM, especially with older women and traditional cutters.

With his mother and a small army of volunteers, Traore conducts a wide range of anti-FGM activities, including educating traditional cutters and community leaders on the dangers of the practices; disseminating information concerning legal protections and hotlines; and finally, lobbying the National Assembly to pass a bill, pending since 2009, that would render the practice of FGM illegal in Mali.

When I met with Traore recently, he asked my colleagues and me if we had ever seen FGM take place. None of us had. He told us that to truly engage in the struggle against it, we must see it. And then he showed us a video on his computer.

Taken with a cell phone (with the consent of those present, Traore told us), the girl’s face is blocked out. She appears to be 12 or 13 years old. She is shaking with fear. The women quickly move from brisk to threatening to menacing. They forcibly hold her down. They call her a bitch. They say they will not live with her if she remains impure. The knife is old and dull. The excision takes long minutes to perform. There is lots of blood. The girl is crying and pleading, struggling and calling out, “I am dead! You have killed me!” After the act is over, the women forcibly close her legs, throw a cloth over them and walk away. They’re done with her.

Deeply Shaken

We were deeply shaken by what we’d seen. This was not a rite of passage. There was no recitation of the Sunnah, as sometimes occurs in male circumcision ceremonies in the Muslim world. This was nothing but an ugly, brutal act that can exist solely for the purpose of subjugating the girls forced to endure it.

The Northwestern Access to Health Project, which I direct, partners with dedicated local leaders such as Traore in sustainable community-based initiatives to end FGM in Mali.

Last year, I wrote for Women’s eNews about our project in Douentza, where we worked with traditional cutters to provide them with a capacity building, substitute source of livelihood in exchange for their abandoning their old profession. An evaluation of that project after six months shows significant success: in their words, the cutters of Douentza have “put down their knives” and are raising sheep and selling ice cream.

In the next phase of our work in Douentza, we’ll enroll more cutters in the project and also increase our education and community outreach efforts. In that regard, we’re helped immeasurably by Traore and Sini Sanuman, who have convinced more than 150 cutters to put down their knives across southern Mali.

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