In Mali, drought is a familiar and regular feature of daily life. The country's northern half is an arid desert, sparsely populated and currently in a state of secession following a rebellion by Tuareg fighters aligned with Ansar Dine, an islamist group. Despite its relatively small population of just over 14.5 million, water is a major public health issue. Only 16% of the population having regular access to clean drinking water and sanitation while the rest spend a lot of time and energy on water collection from local wells on a daily basis. Almost half the the population consumes water without boiling it thoroughly which leads to widespread cases of chronic diarrhea. This, along with pneumonia and malaria, are the leading causes of infant mortality. Water collection, like many other domestic duties, is often the job of young girls of schooling age who are expected to help their mothers around the house. Only one in two Malian girls goes to school and fully two thirds of these don't complete their basic education, often because they are taken out of school to be married off at a young age. Malian women on average have 6 children and have a life expectancy of only 54 years. The health challenges for Malian women are many. Almost two thirds of mothers are anaemic making them less likely to be able to breastfeed their children effectively. 238 out of every 1000 children born in the country are dead before they reach the age of 5.
In a very traditional and conservative society, education for young women is not deemed a priority. The resulting lack in awareness amongst women leads to some rather disturbing perceptions. Only one tenth of women believe they have the right to refuse sex with their husbands.
Only 12% believe they have the right to make their own decisions about their health and three quarters feel that domestic violence is justified. The practice of female genital mutilation, also known and female circumcision, is widespread, with an estimated 85% of women being affected.
The Malian government has been trying to improve the situation with a number of programmes supported by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, UNICEF and UNICEF's largest corporate donor IKEA. The 'Friendly Schools Programme', promoted by the Ministry of Education and supported by UNICEF, tries to make schools places where children, particularly girls, will want to go. Improved sanitation and drinking water facilities are designed to improve children's health and separate latrines for girls and boys aim to keep girls at school, many of whom drop out because of a lack of privacy, especially during menstruation.
While sex education for younger pupils remains relatively basic, focusing on abstinence and faithfulness the key message is slowly filtering through: Girls grow up to be mothers; and educated mother is better able to look after herself and her children and make informed health decisions; and healthier children have a better chance of survival and a higher life expectancy. Illiteracy, lack of awareness and the persistence of harmful and hurtful practices lead to stagnation.
Matias Costa went to southern Mali where he visited some of the schools that are trying to draw girls into education and make a difference.