Sadya Touré, breaking dangerous taboos
November 17, 2022
Sadya Touré is among a generation of women leaders resolved to be agents of change in their countries and communities.
For several years, this young woman activist has fought from the frontlines for equality and social justice in Mali. Despite threats and intimidation attempts, she remains determined to pursue what she sees as a life mission.
We spoke with her about how women and girls are affected by global crises and those close to home.
What are the major challenges a Malian woman faces today?
Malian women have many challenges, which the ongoing global crises only exacerbate. In a context marked by the security crisis, many women are affected by the conflicts. Climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic have also contributed to making women more vulnerable.
From a global point of view, the Malian woman faces an array of problems that are linked to her status as a woman. The earliest violence is excision: a woman must suffer in her flesh and must not cry even during this ritual because custom says that one must “suffer to be a woman”. I myself was 4 years old when I was a victim of female genital mutilation, the most traumatic event of my life. I was not fully aware of what was happening, but I understood that it was not fair.
Another type of early violence is child marriage, which mostly affects girls between age 12 and 17 years. In Mali, 55 percent of girls are married before age 18, and 15 percent before age 15, particularly due to the predominant position of the Muslim religion but also the intensity of prevailing customs and traditions. Social, cultural and economic constraints also have a major impact in determining the continuity of girls’ education and in hindering their path towards thriving and developing their abilities.
In Mali, in many traditional societies, femininity is perceived as destiny and implies submission and forgiveness, as evidenced by the Bambara saying “Mussoya yé mougnou ni sabali yé”, which means “Being a woman is to endure and forgive.” This proverb has caused and continues to cause great harm to Malian women, many of whom remain subordinate to men. Take for example, a family who lack financial means and is forced to withdraw one of their children from school; they would willingly sacrifice the girl’s education in favour of the boy’s. Social prejudices – such as “an educated woman is less of a woman than one who is illiterate”, “a learned woman is hard to bear” or even “she aspires to freedom and competes with men” – discourage women who aspire to independence and genuinely hamper their empowerment and their discernment.
Aren’t there laws to address these shortcomings and advance gender equality in the country?
The laws voted by the National Assembly in Mali and the regional and international laws ratified by the State are quite favourable to helping Malian women develop and flourish. However, most of these laws are not applied, because their application comes up against the prevailing traditional authority in rural areas, social norms and the ill-will of agents responsible for it. And although gender-based violence (GBV) is widespread, the bill addressing this topic has remained in the works for years and is deemed taboo due to religious leaders who continually threaten to take to the streets if the law were to pass.
How do you eliminate, or at least reduce, gender-based violence in the post-COVID-19 context?
Combatting GBV is an everyday battle. Sensitization and prevention must rest on solid religious and social arguments in order to speak to communities and allow for changing social norms that normalize violence. Prevention might focus on men since they are the predominant perpetrators, but women must also be trained to deconstruct received ideas so that they know how to recognize and contest situations of violence.
Alongside prevention, there is an urgent need to create services and support systems for survivors of violence. We must also invest in the legal arena; it is a real challenge for Malian women to obtain justice and reparations. The financial aspect is crucial because it empowers women, giving them the power to choose a safe space and to break away from violence. Creating income-generating activities and professional support is important, especially in the post-COVID-19 context where many lost their jobs, because it opens up new prospects for them.
Among the women who experienced physical and sexual violence in Mali, it is estimated that 68 percent have never sought help and never told anyone. How do we help them?
Breaking the cycle of violence and leaving a marriage in Mali is quite hard. Helping survivors to seek assistance and to follow through requires training women in leadership, self-esteem and confidence and addressing the financial issue. Career or business opportunities could indeed mitigate the loss of financial support from the husband following an accusation. Many give up on asking for help due to social stigmatization: a woman who takes her husband and the father of her children to court is seen as a bad woman. This is why sensitization remains very important to changing these stereotypes about women who ask for help.
What does the life of a female activist look like in the context of crises in the Sahel today?
Between prejudice and struggle. Our battles are misunderstood and accused of inappropriate ideologies. And with the current crisis that has created a sense of rejection of everything that comes from the West, human rights, women’s rights and democracy suffer as a result. Being an activist is already very hard, but even more so for a woman. The public space is becoming increasingly hostile towards feminists and those who promote ideas about human rights. The rise of extremist ideas in the Sahel further accentuates this trend.
There are also many day-to-day sacrifices in the physical as well as the digital world. In particular, social networks offer a plethora of opportunities counterbalanced by dangers. A simple controversy or an unfortunate comment can very quickly lead to intimidation attempts and online threats. This can just as quickly morph into physical danger. Nevertheless, the moral satisfaction of offering a smile, giving hope and restoring the dignity of many women and children through our activities is worth all the risks.
What do you expect from governments, civil society and the international community?
We expect governments to respect laws in favour of improving living conditions for women. Regarding the bill against GBV, the State must assert itself and disassociate civic life from religions. Other provisions in force, such as the Penal Code that condemns misdemeanours and crimes, must also be respected, along with international agreements on women’s rights. Civil society, for its part, has the right to monitor and take action. Above all, it has the obligation to remain independent vis-à-vis the State and to support the aspirations of the populations it serves.
The international community must do its best to create flexible budget lines that meet communities’ genuine needs and not impose solutions. Otherwise development aid will never serve the beneficiary countries. Budget decisions must be needs based, which differs from current trends. For example, there is a lot of talk about mental health today, which is in fact very important, but in our context, there are other urgent needs.
How was your semi-autobiographical novel Being an Ambitious Woman received in Mali and abroad, and what are your ambitions today?
The book has been well received both in Mali and abroad. People have received ideas about what it is to be an African or a Malian woman. Thus, depicting the Malian woman as an actor in her own life and her country’s development was sending a positive message.
My ambitions? In the short term, it’s about developing and growing the association Mali Women and Youth Empowerment, for which I am the president. It’s being able to create many opportunities for the rural and displaced women and girls we work with. I’m also working to produce as many books as possible, because they are all intangible proof of our lives and the battles we’re fighting in our times.
What gives you hope regarding women’s rights and their role in peace and security?
There are more and more women who have studied, who have gone to university, who travel and are open to the world. Social networks are now helping to raise awareness among many of them. They understand their contribution to the peacekeeping and security process and participate in the political decision-making that concerns them. The acknowledgement of their contribution enabled women to be on the Monitoring Committee of the Algiers Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation in Mali signed in 2015.
To liberate yourself, you must unlearn everything that you learned; it’s a long process but is also the path to women’s true empowerment. Working, reading, traveling can all foster an escape from systemic violence.
Member of the National Children’s Parliament of Mali since age 13, very early on Sadya became a voice against child marriage and all forms of violence against women and girls. Today she is the president of the association Mali Women and Youth Empowerment, which develops new opportunities for socio-professional development for young women, girls and vulnerable women in Mali.
A journalist by training, she is the author of the book Être une femme ambitieuse au Mali [Being an Ambitious Woman in Mali]. She uses her pen to reach the widest audience and is now working on a second novel on descent-based slavery in southern Mali.
Sadya was selected as one of the young inspiring leaders of the Generation17 initiative for her work promoting the Sustainable Development Goals. She has also served as an ECOWAS consultant on political issues affecting her country, Mali.
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