In the second of three blog posts about our My Rights My Voice Programme (MRMV), programme coordinator Sitan Cisse shares her experience of growing up in Mali, and how it has motivated her to campaign with young people for the right to good education and sexual and reproductive health services.
Nelson Mandela said: ‘Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world’.
I like this quote because I am the living proof of this. I’ve experienced female genital cutting, and fought for my right to a decent education. Now at 37, I work with young people to help them realise their rights to sexual and reproductive health and education. This is my story.
Growing up as a girl in Mali
I was born into an illiterate, polygamous and very large family. Like millions of women all over the world, I was not likely to be able go to school. But I have a determined mother, who despite the death of my father fought body and soul to put me through school and ensure my school fees were paid.
Like millions of women.. I was not likely to be able go to school.My father died when I was six, and at that time I was living with my mother’s aunt who didn’t have any children. At the age of seven when I went back to see my mother after my father’s death, she decided to send me to school. At the same time she also put me through the painful ordeal of female genital cutting (FGC) due to her ignorance of its harmful effects.
FGC is a traditional practice in Guinea – at that time all girls generally went through it before they started school.
My mother was a fabrics seller. She travelled to Liberia and Sierra Leone to buy fabric to sell in Guinea. This business has enabled her to raise and take care of her ten children, of which I am the youngest. My mother has never been to school and was never taught to read and write. She has always regretted this and sent all her children to school. She is a woman of very strong character who is now 78 years old. I pray to God to look after her for a long time to come as she is a great inspiration to me.
The deal with my mother was that I take my studies seriously in order to escape child marriage.As a child, I thought that my mother didn’t love me because she was hard on me. I had to do household chores every morning before going to school. Even though my mother insisted that I study, she also made sure that I learned the traditional duties of an African woman. The deal with my mother was that I take my studies seriously in order to escape child marriage.
Mali has one of the highest child marriage rates in the world – on average, one in two girls will be married by the age of 18. In 2010, 55 percent of 20-24 year old women were married or in union before the age of 18.
As I was very intelligent and wanted to study, I completed my schooling without ever repeating a year – I even got my baccalaurÃ©at with merit.
Working with young people on their rights to health and education
Now I have a Master’s degree in Public Law. Since the end of my studies, I have focused on the promotion of child and youth rights and it’s a personal fight. I’ve managed many programmes in this area with INGOs. Now I am working for Oxfam’s My Rights, My Voice programme, which supports young people to claim their rights to education and sexual and reproductive health services. This involves working with young people to build their capacity as campaigners and leaders, raise awareness about their rights, and help them engage with important decision-makers in Mali so that their voices can be heard.
My Rights, My Voice is special for me because it is has a strong link to my own experience and gives opportunities to young people that I didn’t have when I was their age. For example, I never went to a training or awareness-raising session on sexually transmitted infections (STIs), HIV or AIDS until I was 20. This meant I was vulnerable because I wasn’t aware of the risks.
When I had my first period at the age of 12, I didn’t know who to talk to as I had never heard about it before, so I dealt with it all by myself.
I managed to avoid going through FGC a second time – the person in charge of making the cut the first time thought the clitoris had not been cut enough. And at that point, my mother said no.
Today, I am 37 years old, I am a happy mother with three children and I am a role model for many of my friends, the young girls in my family and family circle, but also and especially for the young people whom I work with. I am certainly not rich but the little education I received allows me to work and provide for the needs of my family as a mother. My children go to school and I decided not to put my two daughters through FGC.
Quite simply, I want to say that women’s empowerment happens when we educate and empower girls. I have experienced this personally and I’m excited to be working to empower other young women through My Rights, My Voice.
- Read more about our My Rights, My Voice programme
- Download the MRMV 2013 annual report
- Download the MRMV Mali programme overview
MRMV Malian youth activists campaign for their rights to health and education services in the run-up to the 2013 Presidential election in Bamako. Credit: Kadidia Baby
Author: Sitan Cisse
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.