The overwhelming majority of women in Mali still undergo female circumcision in their youth, but attitudes are changing, and now a US$2 million public awareness campaign by Plan International is set to change them even faster.
The children's charity held a meeting at this lakeside resort town in southern Mali last week to explain how the new money would be used to fight female circumcision - officially known as female genital mutiliation (FGM).
Boucoum Madina Daff, the Plan International official who will direct the five-year campaign, said the message that FGM was medically and psychologically harmful and morally wrong would be transmitted to Mali's 11 million people with the help of local radio stations, Muslim religious leaders and griots, traditional folk singers whose ballads often reflect local news and events.
The message would also be put out strongly through women's groups, she added.
A government national health survey in 2002 revealed that 91.6 percent of all women between the ages of 15 and 49 in this landlocked West African country had suffered female genital mutilation. This usually involves the surgical removal of all or part of the clitoris and sometimes other external parts of the woman's sexual organ during childhood.
A new survey conducted by Plan International confirmed that the practice was still rife in five densely populated areas of southeastern Mali. It found that in Kayes, Koulikoro, Segou, Sikasso and Mopti, 92.5 percent of adult women were circumcised.
But while older women still generally support the practice, many of their daughters have begun to revolt against it.
“It’s my job as a grandmother to see that my granddaughters are excised,” said Koumbare Bocoum, who lives in the capital Bamako.
Aware that her son and daughter-in-law were opposed to the practice, she took advantage of their absence from home last week to take three-year-old Anna and five-year-old Fadima to a woman in the suburb of the capital who did the necessary work.
The girls' parents were angry and appalled to find out what had happened when they returned home. They took both children to hospital for medical checks and to see if anything could be done to help them, but the damage had already been done.
Mali is a staunchly Islamic country. But like other organisations fighting FGM elsewhere in West Africa, Plan International is trying hard to put across the message that there is nothing in the Koran or other Islamic religious texts that calls for this painful and dangerous operation which can cause huge health complications, both at the time it is performed and later in childbirth.
Alhaji Zeidi Drame, an Imam who belongs to Islamic Action, an association of progressive Muslim intellectuals, told IRIN that "Female circumcision has got nothing to do with religion."
He described it as a hangover from more distant pagan times. "People have been practicing it since the times of Abraham and the Pharoahs," he said.
“Excision poses a problem to health and it has killed people," Drame stressed. "It is necessary that Imams impress upon people that this is an ancient tradition that has nothing to do with religion,” he said.
This is just the sort of message that Plan International would like more Islamic leaders to spread after Friday prayers.
Daff, who heads Plan International’s programme against all forms of female genital mutilation in Mali, also stressed that it was a cultural not a religious practice.
Women who have not undergone circumcision are seen as impure and dirty, Daff said.
Many Malians believe that God will not listen to the prayers of an uncircumcised woman and that such a person is susceptible to witchcraft and will bring bad luck to her family and future husband, she added.
“The beliefs and perceptions of many communities about uncircumcised women have considerably encouraged the continuation of the practice,” Daff said.
But not all Malian communities share such beliefs. Even among the large and influential Malinke tribe of southern Mali, there are villages where no importance is attached to FGM, she noted.
And in the desert north and east of the country, where Islam has suffered less dilution by traditional animist beliefs, female circumcision is much less common. The 2002 health survey found that only 17 percent of women in Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal had suffered FGM.
That however, may also have something to do with long memories of a tragedy in 1906, when a group of about 100 girls died from medical complications after undergoing circmcision at the same ceremony. Every single child who underwent the operation that day perished.
Today, Timbuktu, a dusty town at the top of the Niger bend, from which caravans of camels once set out to cross the Sahara, has one of the lowest rates of excision in Mali.
The women who perform female circumcision operations in the backyard of their home, generally charge 1,500 to 2,000 CFA francs (US$3 to $4), so even the poorest families can generally afford it.
But health experts are horrified at the consequences.
Doctor Moustaph Toure, a gynaecologist and obstetrician, pointed out to the Selingue meeting, that FGM could give rise to serious infections and severe bleeding and the use of instruments that had not been properly sterilised could lead to the transmission of HIV/AIDS.
He also noted that the amateur surgery often caused medical complications in later life, including 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, he noted.
Health experts agree that as well as the immediate side effects of excision, which these days include the transmission of HIV, complications during in pregnancy can be particularly severe.
Chances of death through hemorrhaging are increased and delivery can damage delicate tissue around the vagina, creating fistulas or large holes in the muscle wall, which leaves a woman incontinent.