June 8th, 2013 was a historic day for 30 communities from the Koulikoro region in Mali. Many representatives from these Bambara communities – including women, men, young children and teenagers gathered in the village of Fégoun near the banks of the Niger river to publicly declare the abandonment of female genital cutting (FGC) and child/forced marriage in their communities. The declaration is the result of decisions made in each community that these practices were harmful to the general wellbeing of community members. Community members discussed the effects of these traditions using new information on health and human rights gained through Tostan’s Community Empowerment Program (CEP), with classes led in local languages from 2010 to 2013 in partnership with Project Muso Ladamunen and Sini Sanuman. Tostan is extremely grateful for support in implementing this project from USAID, the Greenbaum Foundation, the Vitol Foundation, and Planet Wheeler.

Traditionally, communities in Mali have been resistant to abandon these practices. The latest figures put the prevalence rate for FGC at 85.2% (DHS 2006) and for child/forced marriage at 71% (PRB May 2011) in the country. The recent confusion due to the 2012 coup d’état and war in the north have also complicated efforts by NGOs working on this and other long-term projects seeking sustainable change.

However, little of these complications were evident at the declaration itself. With hundreds of community members gathered together, many of whom were related or had not seen each other in a long time, the declaration took on a celebratory air. In addition to singing and dancing at the declaration and the celebrations the evening before, participants put on a play during the event which showed an individual family having discussions which led them to decide not to cut their daughters – a scene which had played out recently in hundreds of community members’ households.

Diarra Awa Sow, a member of her Community Management Committee’s (CMC) social mobilization team in the town of Koulikoro and the mother to three young girls – aged seven, five and one – was able to convince her family to abandon FGC after sharing with them some of the harmful effects the practice can cause. “I’m very happy today” she said at the declaration. “We were all on the path to continue the practice, but now we have changed course.”

Awa, as she is usually called, was inspired to share what she had learned with everyone in her community after talking with her family. Through the CEP, she learned all about the difficulties women face where she lives, and hoped that through sharing this information, things could improve. Awa is dedicated to ensuring the public declaration has a lasting effect – “I am a part of this community, and I know that I am not going to cut my daughters. I hope that my example will show others that they don’t need to do it either.”

The public declaration in Mali was the first in the country by communities who had participated in the Tostan CEP, and follows another major public declaration by 92 communities in Guinea. Next weekend, on the Day of the African Child, 242 Pulaar communities in the region of Kolda in Senegal and 40 Mandinka communities in The Gambia will also publicly declare their abandonment of female genital cutting and child / forced marriage.