A human rights activist since she was a teenager, Maïmouna Dioncounda Dembélé is a leading figure in her country's women's movement and an expert on gender equality.
On the occasion of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, celebrated on November 25, Maïmouna Dioncounda Dembélé, who has headed CECI's office in Mali since the spring of 2020, gives us a picture of the situation of Malian women and talks about the long struggle to combat violence against women. She also agreed to talk about her unusual journey as a committed woman and to share her vision of feminism.
You like to present yourself as a feminist. For an "African woman from Mali", as you define yourself, it is not an insignificant claim...
In a country as conservative as Mali, being a feminist is still very much frowned upon, and feminism is a pejorative term for many. When we talk about feminists, we are talking about insubordinate women, women who do not fit into the formal framework and who are not truly accepted.
For a very long time, especially in French-speaking Africa, we lived a rather soft feminism. There were activists who asked for privileges, for some minor rights, as if they were gifts, as if they were asking for favors.
Now, with social networks, we have this new generation of feminist activists who appear out of nowhere. They make very radical, very assertive speeches, organized by young women who have very strong personalities.
I love that feminists, their speeches and their fight are upsetting! But it is true that at the moment, there are a lot of misunderstandings around the question of feminism: it is now thought to be radical, because it is different from what we have known. It is quite common to meet women here who will say they are human rights activists but not feminists. It has become very difficult for many to support it, and people have started to have a very bad perception of feminism: it is now the discourse of assimilated women who defend non-universal values and ideas coming from the West.
So there is now also a whole discourse on the construction of an African feminism, based on our own experiences and our own values.
How is this African feminism different?
Of course, we share the same struggle as our activist friends in Europe and Latin America. What we want is equality. It is a social, economic, legal framework, much more favorable to women's rights. It is about improving our living conditions. There is a system, a social organization, which is patriarchy, which does not suit us. We must shake up these male privileges and from there, gradually deconstruct the inequalities that exist. So that's the goal, and we all agree on that level.
Now to achieve this, we will take different paths in Africa. The fights we choose, the themes we tackle, the angles of analysis we favour, the approaches we use in the field are really very different, because all that depends on our experiences and the societies in which we live, but also on the realities of women and men in these societies and on the context as a whole.
I am considered - in the Malian context - as a rather radical feminist, and it is true that in institutional advocacy activities or on social networks, I hold a strong and frank discourse. But I also work on the field, and I don't say the same things when I am in villages. I know that a different approach is needed to bring the communities themselves to gradually deconstruct what has been built up to now. There is a lot of work that needs to be done at the community level, with people who are at a different level of understanding, and we need to develop an approach to accompany them.
You were born in Bamako into a Muslim family that is religious and respectful of traditions. Your father has two wives and you grew up with twenty brothers and sisters. How did your feminist sensibility come about and develop in this traditionalist environment?
At the beginning, there were a lot of little things that I didn't find normal. For example, the fact that my older sisters would do the laundry on weekends, starting at 5 o'clock in the morning and going on for hours. They would wash the clothes of the whole family, and I didn't understand why my brothers, who were physically stronger, didn't help them. And the answer I was given, "because they were boys," seemed odd to me.
Later, in school, UNICEF set up a system of student governments in some schools. I became the minister of this government in my school, and I was in charge of issues related to children's rights and girls in particular. It was at that time that three of my schoolmates became pregnant. We were 14 years old at the time.
One of them disappeared for a while. When her parents came to the school for an explanation, the principal said they had no information. So I said that my friend had a relationship with one of our teachers. He was arrested by the police for abduction of a minor ... then released at the request of the parents themselves ... who gave him their daughter in marriage!
What shocked me at the time, and I think this is what really oriented me, was that all the students had mobilized for the release of our teacher, because for them, he had done nothing serious. And also that all the teachers had been protesting for their colleague to be released because what he had done was not wrong.
But I, even though everyone was saying the opposite, was sure and certain that I was right. I told myself that I had the right to think differently, and to disagree with the majority.
Was this first stand a turning point for you?
Yes. I was at the top of my class and I ended up getting bad grades. I received physical abuse from my teachers. And when I went to complain to the principal, I was told that I deserved it... My mother asked that I be moved to another school.
But before I left, a teacher offered to put me in touch with people from UNICEF who were working on human rights issues - "you'll have a lot to say!" she assured me.
So in high school, I continued my activism and human rights education. Even then, it was clear in my mind that I wanted to work with NGOs because I felt they had a huge impact on the ground, much more so than other services I knew. I wanted to develop approaches that would make a difference at the community level.
My senior year in high school, I went to the Amnesty International office myself and suggested that they create student clubs for human rights education. When I graduated from high school, I became the national youth coordinator at Amnesty. And that was the beginning of a long history of activism.
And today, that's what I'm most proud of: that I was able to be an activist despite my social environment, despite my Muslim, Malian upbringing. To have decided that I can be right, even if everyone tells me I am not. To be able to express myself, to assert myself. And to feel that I am making myself useful.
Eight years ago, you left the family home to live alone. Today, in your thirties, you are single and childless. It is an understatement to say that your profile is atypical for Malian society. How have your life choices been and still are perceived?
It is true that my profile is atypical! (laughs). But I decided to live my life responsibly.
In Mali, marriage is an indicator of social success, so you have to get married and have children. For society, this is the most beautiful aspiration for a young woman. Living alone is not done either, it is not common because all your life you have to be under the protection of a man - your father, your husband, your brother or later your son.
So of course, when I decided to go and live on my own, there were a lot of reactions! Everyone tried to reason with me. And I kept hearing: "If you leave, you will never find a husband, you will have a bad reputation".
Even today, some of my brothers and sisters keep telling me: "Find a husband! Even if you were to become secretary general of the United Nations, as long as you are not married, it is as if you have absolutely no value, you are nothing!”
I left for several reasons: I needed my own space and I couldn't work with people who I was asking to become independent, to be autonomous from their husbands, while I was attached to my family, while I was attached to such a patriarchal value. And it was also to create a precedent in my family, and I tell my brothers: today if my nieces want to leave, nobody can stop them from doing so. That said, it was difficult, I lost a lot of people at the beginning who preferred to distance themselves, but today everyone is back.
And what my family said about society's perception of a woman who lives alone, who makes her own choices and decisions, was not incorrect. To this day, people still think that I am being supported by men. I live alone, I have a house, a car, I travel a lot, so for them, there is necessarily a man behind all these expenses because they are unable to consider that a woman can live her life being responsible for herself. They voluntarily decide not to take into account the fact that you work and that you live on your salary.
You have been active in human rights organizations, particularly in the area of gender equality, and have become an advisor on gender-based violence. Today, in November 2021, how do you see the situation of women in Mali?
I will take you back to a study commissioned in 2002 by the Ministry for the Promotion of Women, Children and the Family of Mali. This study identified twenty or so forms of discrimination against women. Among them were child marriage, female genital mutilation, levirate, sororate, force-feeding, sexual violence, but also the low participation of women in public affairs, whether in politics or in associations. Today, in November 2021, the picture revealed by this study carried out almost 20 years ago has not really changed much. Not in a good way anyway. In fact, what has happened is that we have lost progress since 2002.
In 2009, for example, under pressure from religious leaders, the code of the person and the family became even more retrograde. For example, the legal age of marriage for a young girl is 16, and she can be given in marriage at 15 with the agreement of her parents and the competent authority. In case of disagreement, the opinion of the father alone is sufficient. The code also stipulates that the wife must obey her husband and the husband must protect his wife.
The crisis of 2012 has put all issues related to women's rights on the back burner. In the situation that Mali is currently experiencing, issues such as defense, security, diplomacy are priorities. Not women's rights.
Not to mention that with the crisis, new forms of violence have appeared, such as collective marriages, i.e. when several men take the same young girl in marriage, as well as sexual slavery and human trafficking issues. These were forms of violence that Mali had not experienced before.
So yes, there are successes that must be highlighted, which have been achieved with all the awareness-raising activities in the field, villages that have committed to no longer giving children in marriage, to no longer mutilating girls, these are successes, often isolated initiatives carried out by NGOs, but it is difficult to quantify this because there is a weakness in state coordination around these issues.
What about the draft bill to recognize gender-based violence, which was written by civil society and submitted to the government in July 2017?
It has been blocked for four years, especially by the religious community which refuses to move forward because of the provisions regarding female genital mutilation, age of marriage, marital rape and inheritance - since for them I cannot claim the same inheritance value as my brother. In spite of all the work, all the fights carried out to try to make the political and social environment in Mali more favourable to women's rights, the weakness of the legal system remains, and this is a real problem.
Because the absence of laws and clearly established rules leaves too much room for interpretation by lawmen and for traditions?
Absolutely! There have been several incidents recently that make me say that the situation is becoming worrisome: a young artist who posted her video in which she dances in a bikini was arrested. Young girls have been imprisoned for homosexuality. And, in an interview, when it was pointed out to a deputy prosecutor that there is no law that prohibits these practices, he replied: but it is not just a question of law. Look at the situation, it simply goes against all our morals.
This new tendency to restrict women's freedoms by using the famous provision of the penal code related to indecent assault, tells me that we have not evolved much. It is clear that the weakness of the legal system is due to patriarchy.
Is it only this patriarchy that feeds violence against women?
Even before talking about violence against women, I find that, more and more, in Mali, we are beginning to lose the sense of dialogue and we tend to settle disagreements through violence, verbal or physical, and this is already an indicator that violence is becoming structural in our communities.
But yes, I think that violence against women is really rooted in the social organization which is patriarchal. All the authorities are held by men: political, religious, social, economic, and women are seen as belonging to men. The system objectifies women and makes them an inferior being who depend on a man who has to decide for them because they are not considered to be rational enough.
Having said that, I don't put all the responsibility solely on men. It is a social system in which everyone has played a role and the main vehicle of this system in our society in Mali, unfortunately, is women.
It is our mothers who tell us that a good wife is a woman who puts up with everything without ever saying anything, who puts up with violence, insults, beatings. It is our mothers who tell us that a good wife is a woman who is patient, submissive, and who must do what her husband tells her. It is our mothers who tell us that if we don't study, it doesn't matter, because a husband will take care of us one day. It is our mothers who take the girls to the excisor, who is herself a woman.
On the other hand, who tells the boys that girls are human beings and that their bodies must be respected? That they cannot do anything without their consent? No one is saying that.
And in fact, the study conducted in 2002 by the Malian Ministry for the Promotion of Women, Children and the Family concluded that all Malian women without exception had been victims of at least one of the discriminations identified.
What do you think are the best ways to fight against gender-based violence?
I think that there are two axes of intervention: institutional change and social change.
As far as institutional change is concerned, we carry out advocacy actions to sensitize the government and to bring the authorities to see the importance and the necessity of legislating on these issues, of setting up programs that work on these problems, of having shelters for women, of having a judicial authority specialized in issues of violence against women and of institutionalizing, for example, the care of the victims. For it is not only a question of providing a legislative framework, but also a holistic support system - a service that at the moment is mainly offered by NGOs.
As far as social change is concerned, I think it has to go through two dynamics: on the one hand, the deconstruction of many beliefs, myths and stereotypes; and on the other hand, the valorization of other beliefs. Because there are beautiful values in these communities. There are men who are considered in their community as "wearing a pagne" because they help their wives in the housework, because they send their daughters to school. They are singled out.
We call them model men, we give them the floor, we give the floor to the women and girls of their families to share their experiences. We value the economic activities or the political commitment of certain women, we value the support and the help of their husbands.
At CECI, equality between women and men is our pillar. More than that, it is our DNA. Whatever the project, women are the main beneficiaries of all the actions we have on the ground here in Mali. And in all our projects we have a large component dedicated to the fight against gender-based violence.
Do you think that a day like November 25, which is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, can contribute significantly to the fight against violence?
More than November 25, I am interested by the 16 days of activism that follow it.
It's become a campaign period, which allows for debate, which allows for discussions on issues that aren't necessarily talked about every day. It allows people who do not talk about violence against women to do so, because there is a synergy of actions of all actors, including on social networks.
And above all, this campaign ends on December 10, which is International Human Rights Day. For me, making this link allows me to say that women's rights are human rights and that violence against women is a violation of human rights. It's essential for me to get that message out: human rights are feminist.