A number of women’s rights groups have filed a case against the government of Mali at the Ecowas regional court to try and force the authorities in Bamako to take action against Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). The initiative could set a legal precedent and have wider implications on the continent.
The legal filing, confirmed by RFI on Monday, at the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) Court of Justice in Abuja, Nigeria, is challenging the Malian government’s failure to enact laws or policy to make FGM illegal.
“We are going ahead with this to see if it can push the current government to take action,” said Grace Uwizeye from Equality Now, an international organisation working to protect women and girls.
“This is our last resort to see how we can support and protect the women and girls in Mali from this practice,” said Uwizeye.
FGM involves the partial or total removal of external female genitalia and has no health benefits, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).
The procedure can cause infection, create problems with childbirth and leads to an increased risk of newborn deaths. It also leads to bleeding, problems with urination and cysts, WHO warns.
Mali is a party to international human rights instruments, such as the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (Maputo Protocol), which specifically includes articles against the elimination of harmful practices such as FGM.
Nevertheless, despite signing the Maputo Protocol, as well as the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), successive governments in Mali have failed to criminalise the practice.
“There have been many governments in place in Mali, so we can’t wait any longer,” said Uwizeye, a consultant for the non-governmental organisation, referring to various governments in power before the current military junta who have also not acted.
The case, which was filed on 29 March 2021 could set a legal precedent and establish case law in West Africa and the African continent as a whole, using a regional court to hold a state accountable for its obligations to protect women.
Such legal action has previously been taken against the Malian state in relation to child marriage, but using similar legal avenues for stopping FGM would be a first, according to Uwizeye.
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Equality Now has partnered with the Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa (IHRDA), the Malian Association for the Monitoring and Orientation of Traditional Practices and the Association for the Progress and Defense of Women’s Rights in the legal challenge.
FGM remains common practice in Mali and the authorities have been relying on awareness raising, but this is not enough, Uwizeye told RFI.
“The biggest challenge is coming from the religious leaders, who really keep on believing that the practice is a religious requirement, but it’s not,” she added, describing how many religious figures had actually publicly denounced the practice, and gone as far as issuing fatwas against it.
Yet not all spiritual teachers have taken a stance against it, and “a certain group of religious leaders” continues to have an influence on the government, making them reluctant to outlaw FGM, according to Uwizeye.
The Malian government has previously considered outlawing the practice, as reported by the local media, although no change in law has ever been enacted.
Some 89% of women aged 15-49 years old are cut in Mali, according to a 2018 demographic and health survey, carried out by Mali’s national statistics agency, with funding from the US Agency for International Development.
Almost three-quarters of girls aged 0 to 14 years old are circumcised and the vast majority of girls are cut before they are 5 years old, the survey said.
A majority of men and women think the practice is required by religion, but the more educated a person is, the less likely they are to think it should continue.