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Let’s Bring Sexual and Gender-Based Violence Out of the Shadows in Mali

In Bamako, Mali, last month, I sat in on a workshop about training health workers to comprehensively care for victims of sexual and gender-based violence. From the heated debates going on around the room—including when and if a husband has the right to beat his wife and whether or not the wife considers it acceptable—it was clearly a topic not often discussed openly. In fact, this kind of training curriculum is unprecedented in Mali.

The United Nations Development Program estimates that up to six in ten women worldwide will be confronted by physical and/or sexual abuse at some point during their lives. But every country is at a different stage of acknowledging the existence of and responding to sexual and gender-based violence.

The working group found 2,383 cases of violence against women in 2012 and 3,330 in 2013.

Prevalence and Perceptions in Mali

During the 2012 armed conflict in northern Mali, many of the horrifying human rights abuses that we heard about involved violence against women, including some of our own Fistula Care Project clients who were recovering from repair operations when rebels threw them out of their hospital beds. The working group on violence, convened by the United Nations in the aftermath of the armed conflict, found 2,383 cases of violence against women in 2012 and 3,330 in 2013. But it is not just in the context of an armed rebellion that the women of Mali have been victimized.

A 2002 study commissioned by the Malian Ministry for the Promotion of Women, Children and Family identified more than 20 different types of violence perpetrated against women in Mali, ranging from verbal insults to female genital mutilation to exclusion from inheritance rights. The study also revealed that perceptions about what constitutes violence against women vary greatly in Mali. While the prevalence of female genital mutilation among respondents was as high as 94% in one district, 87% of female respondents in that same district said they do not consider female genital mutilation to be a form of violence against women. “I was always told that an uncircumcised woman is at a greater risk of accidents during birth,” one woman explained. “To avoid these risks, girls are circumcised.”

The government of Mali has not ignored the problem. In 2010 it adopted its first national gender policy and quickly developed a 2011-2013 action plan based on the policy. Responding to violence against women and girls features prominently in the action plan, although it’s unclear when we may see a progress report on the plan. 

Looking Ahead

Through the global CapacityPlus project, IntraHealth International is collaborating with Mali’s Ministry of Health to develop a training curriculum and tools to train health providers in the northern region of Gao to respond to sexual and gender-based violence. In addition to responding to a specific need for this type of training among Gao health providers in the aftermath of the armed conflict, this curriculum directly relates to one of the National Gender Policy Action Plan’s expected results: “Improved support for women and girl victims of violence and/or harassment.”

We’re hoping to eventually validate the curriculum and tools at the national level with the Ministry of Health and to scale up the training to make sure that health workers across Mali have access to the information and skills they need to offer comprehensive and effective services to survivors of sexual and gender-based violence. But training health workers is just the tip of the iceberg. In order for real change to happen, the support network for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence in Mali needs to be much, much broader.

We need police officers, lawyers, and judges. We need village chiefs, religious leaders, teachers, and peer educators. We need fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters. We need entire communities to band together not only to support those who’ve already been victims of this form of violence, but also to say, “No more.” If communities in Mali can begin to understand what sexual and gender-based violence is, they can begin to learn how to prevent it. Do you have any thoughts on or examples of sexual and gender-based violence strategies that could be successfully implemented in a post-conflict setting or otherwise? Please share your ideas and comments.


At the workshop in Bamako, Mali, health workers role play during an exercise about how to counsel a victim of sexual or gender-based violence.

At the workshop in Bamako, Mali, health workers role play during an exercise about how to counsel a victim of sexual or gender-based violence.