Focus on cross-border FGM in Burkina Faso and Mali


Josephine Wouango, anthropologist, has shared her knowledge and the first conclusions drawn from her research on cross-border FGM between Burkina Faso and Mali.  

Josephine Wouango is a lecturer at the University of Liège, Belgium, and a qualitative research expert supporting various organisations. She is currently assisting the Belgian Development Agency (ENABEL) as an expert on their West African bilateral cooperation programs on gender equality and sexual and reproductive health and rights, and contributing an anthropological lens to help them better understand the contexts and the needs of their target population.

“As an anthropologist, I am used to saying that I’m a researcher whose laboratory is located within the communities.”

For the past ten years, she has conducted and led research on child protection and gender inequality (child labour, violence against children, and girls’ education), including a PhD on child labour policies in Burkina Faso (2012, University of Liège). She has also conducted research in Senegal, in Quebec and the UK.

“My experience enables me to question the one-size-fits all approach to rights, protection and participation of vulnerable people, mainly children.”

First steps in the field

Joséphine joined the Population Council  (Population Council, 1996) in November 2017.

“I had the honor of leading the Burkina Faso and Mali cross-border legal obedience study as a principal investigator. We aimed to assess people’s knowledge of law in general and FGM law in particular, their motivations to continue the practice or to abandon it, and the underground practices of FGM including crossing the border to perform it. We used a mixed method that allowed us to gather rich data on current practices, and most importantly on the future intention to cut or not. My team is about to complete our report and we would be happy to share our final findings with the members of the CoP during a webinar for example.”

First grass-roots experience

The first thing Josephine did when she joined the PopC program was to travel to the border between Burkina Faso and Mali to conduct a site inspection.

“I spent time at the border control because of the paperwork. It was sometimes time consuming to wait there, but, as an anthropologist, it was a great opportunity for me to observe how people were checked on each side of the border. Whether in Burkina Faso or in Mali, the security forces at the border would check people’s ID documents, nothing else. I was sitting there and asking myself:

  • How can one know that the women sitting in the buses with the kids on their laps or on their backs have not been to Mali to cut their daughters?
  • If they have, how could one know about it, and how could one control it?”

Preliminary results of the report

The current observation is that we lack studies on cross-border practices of FGM. Cross-border practice exists in Burkina Faso. It is documented and is one of the major challenges the government faces in it’s relentless fight against the practice.

In the preliminary results of our Burkina Faso / Mali cross-border study (2019, in progress), the participants clearly explained that it is very easy to cross the border to go to Mali and have the girl circumcised without anybody knowing. Officially, we are going to Mali to visit an aunt / uncle, to attend a wedding, a baptism, the funeral of a parent, but unofficially it is often to take advantage of the trip to  conduct FGM on the girl.

“We asked our participants how people behave since FGM is prohibited in Burkina Faso. Frequently, the answer is: “They cross the border and do it on the other side”, and sometimes they also say that they “do this during the rainy season”. The government agents who work in these areas and who we met expressed their difficulties in taking action against this situation.”

“Besides, in Mali, the law does not prohibit it. They need to be educated on the issue. So the guy, he takes the girl here, he crosses the border, he will excise her and he comes back, quietly! There you go, so you can see how complicated it is. This is what they do. They know that by doing this here in Burkina, if we catch them, it will be a problem for them.” A resource person, Burkina Faso

“The real difficulty is the border because there are many access routes and people will never tell you that they are going to Mali to cut their daughters. Sometimes neighbors and even husbands don’t know, do you understand? This is the difficulty at the border because we cannot control everything.” Security guard, Mali.

In fact, security agents do not concern themselves with cross-border FGM. Besides, how would they stop it? They are already overwhelmed by checking the many people who cross the border daily from both sides, and in a security context which is going from bad to worse

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