Women's rights groups in Mali are suing the government for not doing enough to protect girls from circumcision, known as Female Genital Mutilation or FGM. Activists say the case shows how difficult it is to change the practice in Mali.
Malian dancer Fatoumata Bagayoko is also an activist who speaks out against female circumcision, also named by the damage it causes - FGM. The United Nations says Mali has the highest rate of FGM in West Africa.
Eighty-three percent of Malian women undergo the cultural practice, which is often forced on young girls.
Bagayoko was a young infant when the procedure was performed on her, but she says it took a while to realize her trauma.
Speaking from next to her outdoor dance studio, among colorfully painted homes in a small neighborhood next to Bamako’s abandoned railroad, Bagayoko describes the moment when she realized what had been done to her at just seven days old.
It was when I went to the village, she said, and I saw these little girls running around, who were taken by force so that they would be cut, and the tears that these girls...the fear that they had, she said, that I read on their faces…it was there that I understood.
Women’s rights groups filed papers in December to sue the Malian government in Court of Justice for regional bloc ECOWAS for failing to stop FGM.
The Malian Association for the Monitoring and Orientation of Traditional Practices (AMSOPT) is one of the plaintiffs.
Brehima Ballo, the project manager at AMSOPT, speaks from the courtyard outside the office in a quiet Bamako neighborhood.
He said we, who are the defenders of human rights, who defend women and children, we think that the state has the responsibility and the duty to protect these girls, he said, who didn’t ask to be cut.
Mali’s activists went to ECOWAS after decades of struggling against conservative religious leaders, who blocked attempts to outlaw FGM.
The U.N. Children’s Fund says about a fifth of villages have agreed to stop FGM, and the lawsuit could open needed talks on banning it.
Sylvie Fouet, a UNICEF Mali representative, explained over Skype how this case could potentially impact the fight against FGM in Mali.
“We need to move, and the next stage is to encourage leaders and communities to stand for that. And obviously get the 80% that’s missing. So that conversation and that exposure may help to do so,” said Fouet.
Meanwhile, Bagayoko teaches dance as a way to connect with girls and raise awareness of FGM.
She also visits villages and speaks to elders about the practice from a place of cultural understanding.
Every year, every era has its reality, she said. They did this, they had their reality at the time. But, she said, they didn’t think of the consequences that this can pose.
A government spokesperson and the Ministry of Women and Children did not respond to requests for comment.
The ECOWAS court has not yet set a date for hearing the case against Mali’s government.