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Mali: Couple makes decisions about sexual consent and contraceptives

It’s the middle of Ramadan in Markala, a town 35 kilometres from Segou, Mali. The area is home to a strong Muslim community and preparations for Eid are in full swing. But Oumou Coulibaly, a married girl of 18, is not at home with her husband. She is spending the holy month at her father’s home because of disagreements with her husband about sexual consent and contraceptives. 

In Mali, sexual consent and family planning are taboo subjects. 

Mrs. Coulibaly explains: “In our country, traditional and religious education teaches us that a married woman should not oppose the sexual desires of her husband. She must accept everything from the man in order to have blessed children.”

She says these beliefs are rooted in Malian society, especially among men.

Mrs. Coulibaly married her husband just two years ago. But like many young couples in the area, they are now in conflict over sexual consent and contraception. 

She says, “My husband never asks for my consent when he wants to have sex with me. Despite my opposition, he forces me to do it.” 

The principle of sexual consent requires that anyone engaged in a sexual activity must actively provide consent. It also means that anyone can withdraw their consent at any time. Sexual activity without consent is considered rape or sexual assault.

Tired of repeated, non-consensual relations, Mrs. Coulibaly decided to return to her father’s house while waiting for a resolution to the conflict between herself and her husband. Because she hoped to come to an agreement with her husband, Mrs. Coulibaly did not file a complaint with the authorities. She notes that her family and friends were opposed to her taking legal action. 

Mrs. Coulibaly says that taking legal action against her husband would be frowned upon by the community as something undignified, or likely to lead to a divorce. Also, problems between spouses are often settled out of court through community leaders called griots, who act as mediators to help couples resolve their issues at home.

In addition to sexual acts, sexual consent covers any sexual activity, including pornography, which includes creating sexual photos or videos. 

Mrs. Coulibaly says that sexual consent is lacking in this area too. Despite her refusal, her husband makes her take pictures of her private parts. She says, “He forces me to … He finds pleasure in that.”  

Idrissa Goro is a lawyer and coordinator of the Center for the Promotion of Human Rights in Segou. He says that the question of sexual consent is quite delicate in Mali. 

Mr. Goro explains that many Malians believe that sexual consent is not necessary before a married couple can have sex, even though sexual consent is upheld in national, regional, and international human rights agreements that Mali has signed. 

As Mr. Goro states simply, “It is necessary to obtain consent before any sexual act.” 

In addition, there are laws which require sexual consent in Mali. One law states that non-consensual sex is considered rape. Lack of sexual consent during a sexual act is punishable by five to 20 years in prison and a fine of between 250,000 to 800,000 FCFA ($398 to $1,272 US).

Another point of contention between Mr. and Mrs. Coulibaly is contraception. Mrs. Coulibaly says that, after the birth of her first child, she used contraception to avoid an unwanted pregnancy. 

She explains, “I used a contraceptive called ‘Jadelle’ because my first baby wasn’t even a year old yet. My husband didn’t like this.” 

She says her husband and her mother-in-law believe that contraception leads to infidelity in women, because it means that they could have relations with their lovers without fear of becoming pregnant. 

Hadizatou Coulibaly is a communications officer at a local organization called Actions de Soutiens au Développement des Activités des Populations. As part of her work, Ms. Coulibaly organizes awareness campaigns to fight myths and misconceptions about contraception. 

According to Ms. Coulibaly, these myths and misconceptions are often simply excuses made by people who do not want to practice family planning. 

She explains: “We often hear that contraception makes women more likely to cheat on their husbands. We explain during our awareness-raising sessions that this is false. Instead, contraception provides couples with methods to protect themselves against unwanted pregnancies.” 

Ms. Coulibaly says her organization also conducts demonstrations on how to use condoms. These sessions also help to fight the myth that condoms cause diseases. 

Despite these efforts, sexual consent and contraception continue to cause conflict for many young couples in Mali. 

Mrs. Coulibaly says: “After the talks [with a mediator], I hope that my husband has learned his lesson and will be more open to discussions about family planning, but also that he will give importance to my opinion in situations that concern me.” 

Mrs. Coulibaly advises her fellow women not to keep silent about sexual consent or contraceptives, and to seize every opportunity to improve their lives and relationships.

This resource was produced through the “HÉRÈ – Women’s Well-Being in Mali” initiative, which aims to improve the sexual and reproductive health well-being of women and girls and to strengthen the prevention of and response to gender-based violence in Sikasso, Ségou, Mopti, and the district of Bamako in Mali. The project is implemented by the HÉRÈ – MSI Mali Consortium, in partnership with Farm Radio International (RRI) and Women in Law and Development in Africa (WiLDAF) with funding from Global Affairs Canada.

Photo: Oumou Coulibaly with her husband and their child. Credit: Dioro Cissé.

This story was originally published in July 2022.