Faith Leaders Fight Gender-Based Violence in Mali
By Mackenzie Schiff
Gender-based violence is a gross violation of an individual’s fundamental human rights, and survivors often suffer lasting physical, psychological, and emotional harm. At the national level, the United Nations has found that gender-based violence has far-reaching social and economic consequences, from excessive healthcare costs to reduced productivity and gross domestic product. Yet, for nearly half of all women of reproductive age in Mali, physical and/or sexual violence is a tragic reality of life.
Faith communities throughout Mali have a powerful role to play in either combating or perpetuating gender-based violence (GBV). Historically, religious leaders in the country have blocked anti-GBV advocacy efforts, often due to a false belief that the holy texts (e.g., the Bible or the Qur’an) support gender-based violence. This view is largely reflected nationwide; for example, nearly 70 percent of Malians believe that female genital excision (or cutting) is a “religious necessity.”
Still, the immense power of faith leaders to shape popular belief and effect policy change presents an invaluable opportunity. That is why in 2016, the USAID-funded Health Policy Plus (HP+) project began partnering with Muslim and Christian faith leaders in a grassroots-level effort to combat gender-based violence and protect human rights.
“Most of our partners are surprised to see that HP+ works closely with faith leaders,” said HP+ Mali’s former Rights and Equity Advisor, Awa Keita. The secret to working with faith leaders, noted Awa, is to use a participatory approach. “Always ask for their advice and direction.”
When Awa met with the leaders regularly, they increasingly opened conversations on gender-related topics that had traditionally been considered taboo. One day, two female leaders and two Imams (Muslim leaders) brought up a recent case of gang rape that had outraged the Malian public and the international press. The leaders expressed that it was their responsibility, as faith leaders and as parents, to teach their congregations, communities, and children that such behavior is not acceptable.
“Faith leaders have told me that one of the strengths of HP+ compared to other partners is that HP+ has always consulted them in the design and implementation of activities.”
– Awa Keita
This candid discussion inspired a series of meetings focused specifically on gender-based violence and how religious leaders could lead the fight against GBV. These sessions led to the co-creation of essential advocacy tools including an extensive set of talking points in favor of ending GBV in Mali. HP+ and the Alliance of Muslim and Christian Religious Leaders (AMCRL), with support from Mali’s National Program for the Abandonment of GBV (NPGBV), co-developed two versions of the document—one for Muslim communities and one for Christian communities.
The talking points include passages pertaining to GBV from Muslim and Christian texts, selected carefully by AMCRL members. The leaders now have standard and specific faith-based arguments against GBV, which provide a strong foundation for future advocacy.
HP+ also worked with AMCRL to co-develop the organization’s 2020–2024 Strategic Plan, which defines strategies for influencing decisions at the individual, community, and political levels to eliminate religious obstacles to addressing health issues, including GBV, in Mali.
In July 2021, HP+ helped organize an advocacy event attended by approximately 100 religious leaders, representatives of women’s rights networks, and political decisionmakers. The event featured presentations of the religious talking points from AMCRL and the Islam Population and Development Network, a large alliance of Christian and Muslim congregations that have benefited from HP+ support and coaching to obtain additional program financing. The gathering demonstrated to decisionmakers that religious leaders will not be an obstacle to political action against GBV, which has been a problem in the past, and strengthened partnerships between organizations including NPGBV and AMCRL.
Now that its engagement with HP+ has ended, AMCRL is taking the work forward, holding community meetings across Bamako, during which they share the co-developed talking points and encourage open discussion.
“I can say without a doubt that our work with religious leaders has borne fruit in the fight [against GBV]. In the future, I hope to see a law forbidding gender-based violence passed in Mali.”
– Awa Keita
Between 2016 and 2021, HP+ partnered with more than 260 faith leaders, working closely with each group of leaders to understand the unique challenges they face, utilize and reinforce existing strengths, and base advocacy efforts on the tenets of their faith. Many leaders have devoted significant time and energy to fighting GBV, and they have been recognized widely for their efforts.
“Members of the AMCRL, such as Imam Thiam and Imam Traoré, who are also members of the High Islamic Council, are known for their courage, their determination, and their commitment to ending GBV,” Awa said. “They are invited by many organizations involved in fighting GBV to publicly share their views on the issue.”
“In the area of health…Muslims and Christians, they worked together.…We organized an awareness-raising campaign among religious leaders on the fight against gender-based violence.…The primary objective of this campaign was to raise awareness and train religious leaders on [combating] GBV in order to secure their total commitment to the fight against this phenomenon in their communities.”
– Imam Traoré during the Ouagadougou Partnership’s annual meeting
Now, as the Government of Mali seeks to pass a law against GBV, currently in draft form, the engagement of faith leaders is particularly essential. At this critical juncture, the trust and respect that faith leaders have earned in Malian society enables them to be formidable advocates for the passage of the GBV law. These leaders are independently conducting advocacy with policymakers and decisionmakers, arguing in favor of the religious and social importance of such a law. They are also helping to educate communities throughout Mali on the importance of supporting the law and, more broadly, engaging in the fight against GBV.
Over two-thirds (approximately 68 percent) of Malian women who have experienced physical and/or sexual violence have never been able to seek help or even tell another person about the violence they have suffered. For these women, for their families, and for all of Mali, the work of religious leaders to combat gender-based violence is monumental. The commitment and dedication of these leaders sends a clear message to survivors: We hear your suffering, we are with you, and we are fighting alongside you. Together, we will end gender-based violence.