Mackenzie Schiff l Palladium - Mar 07 2022
Why Muslim and Christian Leaders Are Key to Ending Gender-Based Violence in Mali

Credit: Health Policy Plus

Gender-based violence is a gross violation of an individual’s fundamental human rights, and survivors often suffer lasting physical, psychological, and emotional harm. At the national level, the United Nations has found that gender-based violence has far-reaching social and economic consequences, from excessive healthcare costs to reduced productivity and gross domestic product.

Yet, for nearly half of all women of reproductive age in Mali, physical and/or sexual violence is both a tragic – and legal – reality of life.

Faith communities throughout Mali have a powerful role to play in either combating or perpetuating gender-based violence (GBV). Historically, religious leaders in the country have blocked anti-GBV advocacy efforts, often due to a false belief that the holy texts support gender-based violence. This view is largely reflected nationwide, with nearly 70 percent of Malians believing that female genital excision (or cutting) is a “religious necessity.”

Still, the immense power of faith leaders to shape popular belief and effect policy change presents an invaluable opportunity. And it’s why in 2016, the USAID-funded Health Policy Plus (HP+) project began partnering with Muslim and Christian faith leaders in a grassroots-level effort to combat gender-based violence and protect human rights.

Advice and Collaboration with Faith Leaders

The secret to working with faith leaders, notes HP+ Mali’s former Rights and Equity Advisor, Awa Keita, is to use a participatory approach. “Always ask for their advice and direction.”

When Keita met with the leaders on a more regular basis, they increasingly opened conversations on gender-related topics that had traditionally been considered taboo. In one instance, two female leaders and two Imams brought up a recent case of gang rape that had outraged both the Malian public and the international press. They expressed that it was their responsibility, as faith leaders and as parents, to teach their congregations, communities, and children that such behaviour is not acceptable.

This candid discussion inspired a series of meetings focused specifically on gender-based violence and how religious leaders could lead the fight against it. These sessions eventually led to the co-creation of essential advocacy tools including an extensive set of talking points in favour of ending GBV in Mali.

HP+ and the Alliance of Muslim and Christian Religious Leaders (AMCRL), with support from Mali’s National Program for the Abandonment of GBV, co-developed two versions of the document—one for Muslim communities and one for Christian communities. The talking points include passages pertaining to GBV from Muslim and Christian texts, selected carefully by AMCRL members, giving leaders standardised and specific faith-based arguments against GBV, which provided a strong foundation for future advocacy.

HP+ also worked with AMCRL to co-develop the organisation’s 2020-2024 Strategic Plan, which defines strategies for influencing decisions at the individual, community, and political levels to eliminate religious obstacles to addressing health issues, including GBV, in Mali.

In July 2021, HP+ helped organise an advocacy event attended by approximately 100 religious leaders, representatives of women’s rights networks, and political decisionmakers. The event featured presentations of the religious talking points from AMCRL and the Islam Population and Development Network, a large alliance of Christian and Muslim congregations.

The gathering demonstrated to decision-makers that religious leaders will not be an obstacle to political action against GBV, which has been a problem in the past, and strengthened partnerships between organisations.

Faith-Based Advocacy

Between 2016 and 2021, HP+ partnered with more than 260 faith leaders, working closely with each group of leaders to understand the unique challenges they face, utilise and reinforce existing strengths, and base advocacy efforts on the tenets of their faith. Many leaders have devoted significant time and energy to fighting GBV and have been widely recognised for their efforts.

“Members of the AMCRL, such as Imam Thiam and Imam Traoré, who are also members of the High Islamic Council, are known for their courage, their determination, and their commitment to ending GBV,” Keita notes. “They are invited by many organisations involved in fighting GBV to publicly share their views on the issue.”

Now in 2022, as the Government of Mali seeks to pass a law against GBV, the engagement of faith leaders is essential. The trust and respect that faith leaders have earned in Malian society enables them to be formidable advocates for the passage of the GBV law. These leaders are independently advocating with policymakers and decision-makers, arguing in favour of the religious and social importance of such a law. They are also helping to educate communities throughout Mali on the importance of supporting the law and, more broadly, engaging in the fight against GBV.

Over two-thirds of Malian women who have experienced physical and/or sexual violence have never been able to seek help or even tell another person about the violence they have suffered.

For these women, for their families, and for all of Mali, the work of religious leaders to combat gender-based violence is monumental. The commitment and dedication of these leaders sends a clear message to survivors: We hear your suffering, we are with you, and we are fighting alongside you. Together, we will end gender-based violence.

For more information, visit HP+ or contact