A growing, UNICEF-supported campaign in Mali is helping to protect a new generation of young girls by raising awareness of the dangers of female genital mutilation.
"I will never allow this to happen again to any of my children."
Mariam watches her daughter, Assetou, shyly leave their sitting room, before she explains one of her biggest regrets.
It was three years ago when she let her nine-year-old daughter Assetou undergo female genital mutilation / cutting (FGM/C), whereby a traditional circumciser cut off her clitoris using a razor blade.
Assetou’s grandmother took her along. It had seemed the normal thing to do. But to Mariam’s horror, the night after Assetou had undergone the procedure, she haemorrhaged. "I was really worried. I thought my daughter would die because of what had been done to her."
Assetou has since been to a medical doctor to make sure there was no permanent damage.
An estimated 85 per cent of women in Mali have undergone FGM/C. It used to be confined to teenage children, but now females of all ages are being subjected to it, including babies and married women.
Sy Kadidia Toure councils a young girl who has suffered from serious complications of female genital mutilation/cutting in Mopti, central Mali. © UNICEF/MALI/Giacomo Pirozzi
There's no law against FGM/C in Mali. But there is a major communication drive, supported by UNICEF, to end this and other harmful traditional practices performed on children in Mali, especially on girls. Activities include radio and television spots, street theatre and digital mobile cinemas showing stories about women’s rights, health and FGM/C complications. These have drawn massive crowds and encouraged communities to talk about the issue.
"It's not easy to change people’s behaviour, " says Sy Kadidia Touré, an anti-FGM campaigner. "It's a long process."
Sy Kadidia Toure educates local women about the risks of FGM/C. © UNICEF/MALI/Giacomo Pirozzi
Pressure from other women, particularly grandmothers who have themselves undergone FGM/C, and religious leaders keep the practice deeply entrenched in Malian society.
And in a nearby home, a group of religious leaders explain why they favour the practice. "This part of the woman (the clitoris) is dirty, and when it is cut off, it reduces her sexual desire. In our culture a man can have four wives, so if she has a high sexual need, she will not be able to wait for a man while he is with his other wives."
Touré talks to the religious leaders about some of the dangers of FGM/C. One of the leaders. Youssouf Guindo, concedes that they had not heard this before, and wants to hear more.
Despite resistance to ending the practice, there are signs of hope. Fanta Bathily, who has been trained to give talks on FGM/C to women during literacy classes, believes that attitudes are changing.
She altered her view on FGM/C after she heard about the complications suffered by her friend who was cut. She now says that she will not put her youngest child through the trauma of FGM/C. "Women allow their children to be taken for it, because they do not really believe the dangers."
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Names have been changed to protect privacy
Gemma Parkin is a Media Officer at UNICEF UK