Traditional practices and sexual health

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Last month I visited Sikasso, south of Bamako. Sikasso is apparently the second-largest city in Mali but I was shocked by how different it is to the capital. I was there to help carry out an assessment to understand the current situation with regard to adolescent sexual and reproductive health.

Here in Mali, it is common for girls to get pregnant at 15 and drop out of school. Many parents, far from preventing this, encourage their daughters to sleep at their boyfriend’s house because of a lack of space in the family home.

Marriage or violence

Many of these girls will go on to be married, often to much older men. If she does not wish to marry, a girl will often have to flee her home or risk violence.

After receiving permission from local community leaders, we were able to talk directly to the girls, their families, teachers, health workers and even the mayor.

I found a society that still believes in magic, healers and traditional medicine. In many villages the girls told me about a place where women are not allowed to go – the case de l’idol or ‘house of the idol’. This is a sacred place where the community goes to make sacrifices and worship. Only men are allowed inside, and it is believed that if a woman enters, she will die.

Belief in traditional ‘contraceptives’ such as hanging ropes of shells or spider webs is still strong here, increasing the likelihood of early pregnancy.

A case for child protection

Although our project started out purely focused on sexual health, we were concerned enough by our findings to extend it to include child protection. Female genital mutilation (FGM) is a common practice here, and in some schools children are beaten with whips when they fail to pay attention.

Yet these children appear to have no systems or support in place to protect them. Hence as a result of this assessment,we are looking forward to strengthening this programme by adding a Child Protection component to solve some of the problems these children face daily.