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Making the Harm Visible
Global Sexual Exploitation of Women and Girls
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Prostitution in Mali, Fatoumata Sire Diakite









The Association pour le Progres et la Defense des Droits des Femmes Maliennes (APDF) was founded in 1991. We work on the protection and the defense of the rights of women. We work against the violence done to women and girls and especially on genital mutilation of girls. We think that prostitution is one of the forms of violence done to women and girls, even though we don’t work directly or only with prostitution.

Prostitution is qualified, as it is everywhere, as the oldest job in the world. It’s also called the commerce of sex. In Mali it’s called maki. The main reason women and girls go into prostitution is economic. The girls and women that fall into prostitution come from an economic background that is deprived. They come from families that have many children, where there are economic problems and a constant fight for survival. They belong to families with an absent father, and in which the burden of financial responsibility rests solely with the mother. There are girls who come from families in which a member of the family has a physical handicap. Also, there are women and girls from families who are forced to beg in order to survive. The personal economic problems of these girls and women have led them into prostitution. There is one woman who was in prostitution in Mali and one of the frontier countries, as an alternative to a lifestyle which was more trying. She said, "If I hadn’t fallen into prostitution I would have become crazy."

The other problem that has led women into prostitution is structural adjustment programs, which have created a new kind of poverty. These programs have led to people being dislocated from their homes. But there are also affective reasons, emotional reasons. Some girls have fallen into prostitution because of disappointment in their love lives. There is one woman who said, "I am a prostitute for pure pleasure. My husband doesn’t know it because he doesn’t come from this area." Further, there are materialistic reasons that induce girls and women into prostitution. There are some girls and women who enter prostitution simply to have money to be fashionable. These girls, at a certain point in their lives, choose prostitution on their own. In these cases they are usually educated girls.

In Mali, prostitutes are typically between 14 and 40 years old. They are both educated and uneducated. They are adolescents and adults. They are single and married. Some are called professional prostitutes even though they don’t like that term. Some are called occasional prostitutes because they have been forced into prostitution, or they have ended up there not by choice. Prostitutes work in hotels, restaurants, and brothels. They also work under trees in the street. Those that work under the trees in the street are the ones who are most exposed to and at the greatest risk of being victims of violence. Very often they are beaten, and not paid. When they are paid, the money is often taken away from them. Very often these women in prostitution are under the control of pimps, who are men and women. Regardless of the circumstances, these girls and women in prostitution are usually very exploited.

Mali is a country where culture and religion are very strong. We also have very strong community life. These influences in Mali society create a poor view of girls and women who are prostitutes. One girl said, "I don’t think any girl does prostitution out of the happiness of her heart." In other words, even when they are aware of community views, girls and women who end up in prostitution often feel they have no other choice. Girls and women who enter prostitution usually change their names and move to another part of the community in which they live. The society is not forgiving and does not help women who are in prostitution. The society does not criticize the men who buy the women, they simply attack the women, which means that girls and women in prostitution are very vulnerable. Often, these women have been thrown out by their families who judge them harshly, and society judges them harshly as well. The government has no policies on prostitution, it pretends there is no prostitution. The government closes its eyes even though we’ve published so many documents to make prostitution visible. If a prostitute gets pregnant, the father refuses to recognize the child on the basis that they weren’t the only ones to have had sex with the woman. This creates another problem, for the woman who is pregnant, as well as for the child who is going to be born.

When action in taken in Mali, it does not benefit or help the girls and women in prostitution. Often, when the police find and arrest prostitutes, they are taken back to the police station, locked up and abused. We work with girls who are arrested and in prison. We have started a center to help these women, so they can learn how to sew so that when they get out they can have marketable skills.

There is also the National Program to Fight Against AIDS, which works with girls and women who are in prostitution. The program drops off condoms in bars and hotels where there is prostitution. This is done with no charge to the prostitutes. The women are careful about safe sex. One girl said, "I never have sex with a client without using a condom, and if he refuses I make him leave." There is a big campaign to educate girls about AIDS. Prostitutes do have medical care, but are required to record their health status in a book that is a public record.

In conjunction with prostitution, the sex industry is proliferating through pornographic movies. There are posters on the streets depicting women in unbelievable positions. We take action in an attempt to change this. My NGO has written letters to the government, has spoken to Ministers, and contacted the press about these posters, to no avail. We believe that because none of these groups do anything about the posters, they have an interest in the pornography. We’ve asked to become part of the National Committee on Censorship. Every time there is a new minister, we ask him if we can become part of the Censorship Committee. We work with groups of young Moslems on this issue. Recently, the director of a girl’s high school called me saying that we have to try again to fight against pornography. Every time we start our fight, the posters are taken down, but every time we let up they go back up again. So our energy and time is spent working and doing, but the government does not aid us.

We need to put a lot of pressure on the government to respect women, specifically on the police and the Ministry of Justice. Eighty percent of the girls in prostitution come from the rural areas. After coming to the city and being disappointed, they enter prostitution and refuse to go back to the countryside. We’ve seen more and more that girls and women who are in prostitution are also involved in drugs. At some point they get pregnant and decide to abort or commit infanticide. And then they end up in jail. Their parents aren’t aware of what is going on, and they can end up in jail for years and years with no one following their case and without being judged in court.

We are putting pressure on the government so that there will be legal action against pimps and the brothel owners. Prostitution is violence against women and a violation of human rights. Therefore, we don’t think that the issue of prostitution should be looked at as an issue of money. Direct action has to be taken to help families, especially poor families, to help save their daughters from prostitution. The government has to become engaged and we want to be a part of it. The NGOs have a big responsibility, especially the ones that work for the rights of women. We have to be careful not to further victimize the prostitutes and make them feel guilty. Rather, we have to help them get out, and empower them. Our country has ratified the Convention Against Slavery. Prostitution is a form of slavery and must be recognized as such.

I think of my granddaughter. I think about what exists for her in this world where violence is the rule. In Mali, we don’t talk about prostitution, and the day we do start talking about it we will find out it’s too late. That’s why it’s important to organize now to fight prostitution in Mali.


Fatoumata Sire Diakite is the Founder and President of the Association pour le Porgres et la Droits des Femmes Maliennes in Mali. Ms. Diakite served as a delegate from Mali at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing and has represented Mali at meetings of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women and the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. Formerly a teacher and union leader, Ms. Diakite is an international activist against female genital mutilation, a cultural practice to which more than ninety percent of women in Mali are subjected. For her work against female genital mutilation, Ms. Diakite was awarded the French Legion Medal of Honor and was recognized by Paris Match as the "Joan of Arc of Mali." In 1998 she received the Hundred Heroines award in recognition of her leadership in the struggle for women’s human rights in Africa. Since 1997, Ms. Diakite has been a member of the Board of Directors of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women and served as the Coalition’s African Regional Coordinator.







Published by
The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, February 1999
Donna M. Hughes and Claire M. Roche, Editors
ISBN 0-9670857-0-50
Donna M. Hughes, dhughes@uri.edu