A Discussion with Bouaré Bintou Founé Samaké, President of WILDAF Mali (Women in Law and Development in Africa)
July 6, 2017
Background: Mali has experienced successive conflicts over many years, with violence disrupting daily lives and stymieing development, especially in the north but also across Mali. Terrorist attacks, a rise in extreme jihadi groups, bitter legacies of past injustice and violence, and weak governance that block education and health are among the factors that explain the country’s malaise. A group of Malian women leaders have joined together to demand peace and justice. As the president of Women in Law and Development in Africa (WILDAF) Mali Bintou Founé Samaké is a leader within this group, working actively to promote peace and a central role for women and issues that especially affect women and children. In this conversation with Katherine Marshall at Caux in Switzerland, she focuses on how she became involved in these issues, her ideas on roots of conflict, and her frustrations at the current impasse in work towards peace. She also comments on the appeal of extremist groups and responses to these groups. She is not optimistic that religious leaders are playing or can play positive roles in working for peace in Mali. She was at Caux as part of an Initiatives of Change (IoC) Forum on Just Governance, part of a group of Malian women leaders supported by the Swiss government.
Can we start with your own history: how did you become involved with efforts to bring peace to Mali?
I was born 1960, together with the independence of Mali. Both my parents were teachers, and I grew up in that environment. We were also a monogamous family, but we were seven brothers and sisters (my twin sister and I were the eldest). I also had lots of cousins and aunts and uncles because my father, especially, came from a very large family with ten brothers and sisters (also monogamous, as my grandfather had not wanted to be involved with polygamy). I was born in Ségou, though my father was a senior civil servant and that eventually took us to Bamako. Both my parents were well educated as were all my brothers and sisters. My father believed deeply in education and told us that it liberated people. He pushed for education for his own family and for everyone he had responsibility for. So then and now I live in a family of intellectuals.
Another principle that was very important in the family was solidarity. If you have solidarity, my father said, you will never lack for what you need. You need to cultivate that among others, and extend it to other members of the family. My father also cultivated non-violence. In my more than 50 years of life I have never heard my father raise his voice to my mother. That has marked me. My father dealt with many people who came to him with disputes, but he never engaged in fights or used violent language himself. I recently asked him about it because I was intrigued as to how he had managed to with my mother. She is a character, who is quick to seek control, to argue for women’s emancipation, that was not accepted at that time. She would not allow anyone to impose on her, and she was not very conciliatory. Even today I hesitate to raise some issues with her because I know how she will react! She favors raw truths, and in our society that does not always work. My father did not give me an answer except through his own example. My personality is based far more on that of my father than my mother!
And above all my father was optimistic and against bad habits. He is now more than 80 years old. He has always argued that you should not allow vices control you, whether cigarettes, alcohol, or Malian tea. We once had a small tea party, and my father came in and saw it. He was shocked and broke it up, dashing the teacups to the ground. He said to my sisters and me that we should not drink tea because if a time came when we could not afford tea, then we would do anything to get it, including stealing. Thus his advice was to beware of all vices.
Where were you educated?
I finished my baccalaureate [high school in the French system] in Bamako. I was a good student and went to study in Kiev, in Ukraine, at the international law faculty. When my twin sister and I left Mali, my father, at the airport, told us always to support one another. We came from a good family that was well educated, and we should not forget that we were abroad only to study.
At that time, telephoning was very difficult and expensive, so we kept in touch by letter. My father wrote long letters, full of detailed questions and advice. My sister was studying at a different university, in Krakow. When we received a letter, she took the bus to see me so we could share the letters and discuss his advice. He wanted to know every detail of what we were studying and how we were behaving.
And after university?
When we finished university, we went home to Mali. But we discovered that there were barriers to finding employment in the civil service. That was a problem because the mould for education was to prepare you for the civil service: we were not educated to be entrepreneurs. My father was very frustrated by the situation (he was retired at the time) but confident that we would find a way to use our education. A friend of my husband suggested a position at the military training school, and at the time I was willing to do anything. I filled out the forms and got the job, prepared for my training in legal matters, and did well. My father was very proud. Through the same friend, I learned about a position at the faculty of law and began to teach there. Thus, with a determined effort, lots of opportunities opened up.
This was in 1991, a time of change and hope in Mali. Opportunities were opening up, especially for women. There were women’s associations, and I jointed the ranks of women lawyers, helping to diffuse an understanding of the law and rights guaranteed by the constitution. Women needed to understand their legal rights and find ways to have access to justice. I was involved especially in training paralegals, giving women from communities basic notions of law and the ability to communicate it to their peers.
Are paralegals well recognized and appreciated in Mali?
Yes. When they finish their training, they receive a certificate. In practice, paralegals help women to address legal problems and they are present in all regions of Mali. We do a report each year on human rights.
How did you become involved in peacebuilding work specifically?
That began with the situation of crisis that dates from 2012. We (WILDAF, the association I lead) had been working with women in the three northern regions of Mali (Kidal, Gao, and Timbuktu), including specifically working to ensure that they could participate in elections (participation rates there had been the lowest in the nation). Our commitment was to raise the level. We had worked for seven years, starting at the level of communal councils, but also through schools and health enters. After seven years, 27 percent of elected posts in the three northern regions went to women. They form the largest group of women in the National Assembly (each region has one deputy).
When crisis erupted, I went to the network and organizations we had worked with and we were able to help many women, getting them basic necessities like food, healthcare, and clothing. We also saw the urgent need to begin to talk about violence, including sexual violence which was happening on a large scale. We documented many cases: a total of 170. We tried to give assistance and support to those involved. We asked them if they wanted to go to the authorities. Forty-three agreed to go. But you have a situation where citizens no longer respected and considered each other, so many of the victims were reluctant. They feared the authorities but also their own communities, concerned that if they were identified as victims that might attract more violence.
How did you meet Initiatives of Change and Caux?
It was while I was searching for ways to help the women we worked with that I learned about the organization and eventually was invited to come to Caux; this is my fourth year here. It was through the director of the Swiss Cooperation, who came to my office. She had heard about the work we did and wanted to help. On my side, I faced a dilemma: there were women I wanted to help, but I had no means. Women at that time were exasperated and wanted desperately to work for peace. And at the time we were rather frustrated with Switzerland because there was a view among civil society actors that Switzerland was supporting violence, notably by bringing in arms. Women speak the truth even if it is uncomfortable! The Swiss director listened. And she said that she could do something, offering an organization and a place where people talk about peace. Perhaps there we might find solutions to our problems. On my side, I was willing to go to the end of world for peace.
Through that contact, I found the IofC circles of peace: a neutral space, with no taboos, where we could speak freely, with no judgments. We could unload all our frustrations and sadness, and find compassion among others. We found a solidarity there. I wanted to build on this tool, so that we, as women in Mali, could speak to each other and understand each other better, and thus have a foundation to work together. Working with an IofC team (they came from Burundi), I found 15 women, including some from the Azawad [a northern region seeking independence] who were most resistant. In my discussions I emphasized that we were women, with a shared bond. This was not about jihadism but about peace. If Azawad becomes independent, that would be fine, and we would be neighbors. If it remains part of Mali, we are Malians together. But, I argued, we need to cooperate to find peace. These women were not willing to meet in Mali, so we needed to look for a different place. Eventually we agreed to meet as a group in Mauritania, with the support of the Swiss Cooperation and IofC.
Thus we met in Mauritania as a group, with the Burundian IofC team, to talk about peace. We invited women from different regions of Mali, as well as Malians in Burkina Faso and in refugee camps.
For an entire day we could not work, because there was so much hate, so many things that had not been said and we had felt we could not say. We used a wonderful method, which was simply to let everyone talk, rather like a market. There was hysteria and tears but very slowly everyone calmed down. It was then that we realized that we had reached the heart of the problem. That moment came when one woman broke down crying hysterically and all the others reached out to her in sympathy. We worked to calm her down. People were quiet, because there was too much emotion to speak through. From that point on we could talk. As we spoke we came to recognize that we all had problems and that they had much in common. Women in the Azawad region, the refugee camps, and in Bamako all faced the problems of no law enforcement, no water, problems in finding schools for children, and poor healthcare. We realized that all regions, the whole of Mali, had to take up arms against the government of Mali. We, the women, were not each other’s enemies. We live the same life. It is the climate conditions that are the problem: if you live in a desert and you do not have water and electricity, you cannot live. We needed to get rid of all the hate and work together.
From that point on we have used this tool as we try to extend our network across Mali, to come to a vision for the future. We have now worked with some 250 women, meeting in Mali, Mauritania, and Burkina Faso.
We have worked to spread the IofC vision in Mali, meaning putting people together so we can find the resources we need and mobilize for a vision of tomorrow.
What is the core of the vision that you are working towards?
We want to have far less focus on a vision of solving the problems with arms. We need to get our partners to invest in development. We have worked with women from South Africa, for example, where they begin with health worker training. If we could do something like that it would be a start. We need also to address the problem of what young people can do. The population of Mali today has 60 percent young people, and huge numbers are unemployed. They have nothing useful to do. So they are attracted to jihadism.
What is the appeal of jihadism?
The appeal of jihadism is to the young. Young men especially join armed groups because there truly is little else that they can do. They live in emptiness, without alternatives, without a vision. They cannot find a job and the schools offer little help. People come to them with promises and they are attracted.
The programs that are offered by the government and its partners are not workable. For a young person to give them a field and two steers is not helpful. They are not raised or educated for agriculture, so they simply sell the animals and are soon back in the same position. What they need is not nice words or meaningless programs but something concrete.
And to counter this we need a critical mass of women.
What about religious leaders? Are they a constructive force?
No. The religious leaders are part of the problem, and they specifically stand in the way of women’s rights wherever they can.
In Mali, everyone wants to get involved in politics because that is the way to get rich quickly, because it is the path to state resources. Our president wants to change the constitution, with a Senate where the president will appoint 30 percent of them, including religious leaders. It will be a mirror of elite politics. Already official leaders are no longer respected. Thus the proposal would make the situation worse, concentrating power and making it harder to bring change.
This involves above all issues for the rights of women. For Sufis and Sunni leaders, it is all the same: their view is that with women’s rights and equality, it is the end of the world. There is such demagogy in many places. We see this on Facebook where all the religious leaders have a page. You can see their views there plainly, as well as the reactions, and the anger that women’s rights provokes.
Thus religious leaders are not our allies.
Who are the players in work for peace today?
There are some groups who want peace and are working constructively. The president of the High Islamic Council has raised questions about taking up arms in the north and the same elsewhere in Mali. But they are less vocal when it comes to rape, violence and abuse, and theft, which are everyday affairs. And there are religious leaders who have supported the groups that occupy the northern regions of Mali. Even if they say that they do not get money from Saudi Arabia, they are always bargaining with the government or blackmailing them. They insist that their vision and needs be taken into account.
In short, the only groups that can do anything to work for peace are the young and women.
Another narrative of the root causes of conflict in Mali is the failures of development, meaning above all education, jobs, and healthcare. How far do you share that view?
Yes, absolutely. The situation of Malian schools is a disaster, as are other state programs and services.
It began with the reforms in the 1990s, with privatization of water and electricity and state enterprises. At that time Mali has few resources. Mining had not yet begun. And people who had money did not pay taxes. In engaging with the government people looked for links and patrons, not services. Corruption grew. The state got poorer and individuals got richer. The more resources they had the less they invested in productive enterprises.
Corrpution is everywhere. The state can’t control it. And there are few businesses, public or private. The only thing that remains is the government apparatus. A visible example is a main road in Bamako. Every year it is rebuilt. Every year when the rains come it turns to mud. They then dig it up and redo it. That is one example among many. Clinics are a disaster. They have no equipment or supplies. Private clinics also have little.
What about family planning?
That also does not work. Malians have six children and the lowest use of family planning in the world. People fill out forms but get no service. There are spots on television, but those who need it are not interested in television spots. You need to go to the village and explain. When you go to a clinic you find no one there. There may be brochures, but no one can read them.
In 2012 more than a hundred schools closed. The schools are empty, and people have used school desks and benches to cook with. The furniture has all been burned. And what are the students doing? They are joining the armed groups.
Where would you begin with reforms and building a nation for peace?
We must begin with education and health. Both systems are not working now. There are poor services, failures to support systems, and discrimination at every level.
Mali’s constitution calls for a lay [secular] education. But now 40 to 50 percent of schools are madrasas, and the state has no control. Will the graduates have a good education? Will they find jobs? The split, bifurcation of the system increases the inequalities in the system. In the past all young people went to school together and thus shared something in common. That is no longer true. And in state schools there is little learning, as well as in the university. There is no library at the university. Students get a diploma simply for sitting in classes.
What are next steps?
The 2018 elections are likely to be a rendezvous with history for Mali. We need a Plan A and a Plan B. And it is women’s groups, working together, that can make a difference. But mobilizing resources is a constant problem as are the political and security crises. Women’s voices, despite UN resolution 1325 and Mali’s commitments, are not part of governance processes. Only a national mobilization can move us ahead. The peace accord of June 2015 is null and void as it is not being implemented.
Note: Some Key Dates
- Mali’s independence: 1960.
- March 2012 military coup, followed by successive attacks by armed groups and militias in the north.
- Jihadist occupation of the north and its progression toward the South.
- French military operation (Serval) between January 2013 and July 2014.
- June 2015 peace agreement following negotiation process between different stakeholders of the conflict, under the mediation of Algeria.
related | Women and the Fight Against Violent Extremism in Mali (in French)