It’s worth noting that I’ve been wanting to write this post for some time, but have always put it off in order to further assess my ideas, challenge my assumptions and give Mali another shot at proving me wrong.

But, a recent issue of Newsweek that was sent in a care package (thanks, Lizzie!) has given me reason to write now.  The issue, dated September 26, 2011, bears the title “Where Women are Winning – The Best and Worst Countries for Women.”

While skimming the table of contents, I noticed that Newsweek pulled together a global women’s progress report for this issue, and I instantly wondered where two countries fell in the rankings – the United States and Mali.  My assumption was that the United States would be in the top ten, but not in the top five (we’ve come along way, but certainly have room to improve) and that Mali would fall somewhere in the bottom ten.  Upon flipping to the report – on page 26, for those who have access to the magazine – I saw that my assumptions were correct.

On the page titled, “The Best Places to be a Woman,” the United States was ranked number 8, with an overall score of 89.8 on a scale of 100.  This score was determined by assessing the country in the areas of justice, health, education, economics, and politics.  The comment given was, “compared with Europe, the U.S. has poor family-leave policies and reproductive health services. But in school, girls are soaring.”

Turning to the page titled, “The Worst Places to be a Woman,” I was saddened, but not surprised that Mali was ranked the 5th worst place in the world to be a woman, with an overall score of 17.6 – in the company of Afghanistan, Chad, Yemen, the Democratic Republic of Congo in the bottom five.  The comment read, “The majority of women have been subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM); there is no pending legislation to ban the practice.”

Although the comment about FGM is true and incredibly disturbing (more to come on this in a bit), I find the individual scores for each area incredibly interesting and worth discussing.

Among the bottom ten, Mali ranks higher than only one country in the area of education (25.8), and that country is Chad, which received a score of “0.”  Could education be the key to improving the status of women in Mali?  After living here for more than a year, I would say improved education among both boys and girls would be an excellent place to start.

In politics, Mali has the highest score (49.8) amongst the bottom 10, likely due to the number of women in political office here and the appointment of a female prime minister within the last year.  This shows us that the status of women is not totally dependent on the number of women holding political positions.  Progressive men and women alike must be in power to ensure gender equality in policymaking, and these policies must then be enforced to create lasting change.

In health, Mali received a score of less than 30, compared to the U.S., which received a score of 92.8 for this category.  Certainly a woman’s health has a direct effect on her ability to succeed.  On a daily basis, I see women who are unable to go to the doctor due to the cost, I meet pregnant women who aren’t going to prenatal consultations, and I watch sub-par health care being provided to women and girls at the local health clinic.  Without health, how can women – or anyone, for that matter – thrive?

I see this report as an interesting assessment of progress across the globe, and I encourage you to check it out, along with similar reports produced by the World Economic Forum and the World Bank.

But I’m assuming you are reading this blog for insights from someone living and working in the field, rather than a regurgitation of facts and figures.

So, you’re probably wondering, what is life like for a Malian woman?

I hate to disappoint, but I don’t know. And I never will know, because I, just like you, am not and never will be a Malian woman. I can’t tell you how she feels to live her entire life in a society where women are seen as unequal to men.  I can’t tell you what it’s like for her to be told that school is no longer an option, because a man with three other wives has claimed her as his fourth.  I can’t tell you how she feels about her life experience, having no access to information that would suggest a life lived in any other way.

The perspective that I can provide, is that of a western woman who is thankful everyday that I was born in the 8th best place for a woman to live, rather than the 5th worst place for a woman to live.

According to my worldview and the experience I’ve had here, Newsweek is right – Mali is one of the worst places for women to live. The education of girls isn’t valued and, in the classroom, girls are out numbered 5, 10 or even 20 to 1. Young girls are subjected to the brutal cultural practice of female genital mutilation for fear that they might otherwise be promiscuous.  Women have little to no say in the selection of their husbands, and often find themselves joining one or more other wives in their new home.  On average, women here have 7 children, and often start their families in their teenage years.  Due to cultural norms, women carry out labor-intensive household chores from dawn to dusk (and usually before and after) with little or no help from their husbands.  Take a deep breath…

Against all of my will, I’ve accepted the fact that this is the reality and in two years of service I won’t be able to change the fabric of Malian society.  What I haven’t accepted, is that this must always be the reality and that change isn’t possible.  As they say here, “dooni, dooni” or little by little.

Recently a trainee in the new group of volunteers asked what experience we had with FGM and how we went about working to change this practice in our villages.  My response was that although I have very strong opinions about the practice, I only feel comfortable talking about it when asked directly.  I told her that there are campaigns being run by international NGOs and local Malian organizations which have the tools, language skills and resources needed to push this movement, but that even with all of these resources and all of this education, the practice is driven by the elder members of the community and my opinion on the matter will likely not change their strong beliefs.  They know that westerners don’t do it, and that we disagree with the practice. As far as I can tell, they also have no intention of changing their tradition to make “us” happy.

Her response was, “But aren’t we supposed to be agents of change?”  And, yes, we are, but a sea change of this scale cannot be carried out during any volunteer’s two years of service in Peace Corps.  This change comes from years of pushing both from outside the country, as well as from within its borders.

Take, for example, the women’s rights movement in the United States – women in the late 1800s decided that we deserved the right to vote, and the struggle for true gender equality continues today.  For more than 100 years, we have been taking small steps to improve the lives of women and to improve our society as a whole.  If small steps are being taken here in Mali now, the road ahead will certainly not be short and easy.

So what is our role, as agents of change, in this slow process?

My advice to this trainee was to seek out the people in her community that want to be local advocates for progress and plant in them seeds of change.  As members of the community who are seen as neighbors, rather than strangers, they have the ability to foster and grow the ideas and replant them in others, both during our two years of service and for many more to come.

My personal strategy has been to identify people that are willing to have an intimate, respectful dialogue rather than throwing around these conversations with community members who are unfaltering, illogical and unwilling to change.  I’ve found that conversations with these stubborn individuals prove to be incredibly frustrating and degrading, and do nothing but further separate me from my community.

Ultimately, I hope that my living here provides women, men, girls and boys an opportunity to discuss differences and talk about ways in which they can initiate change here. I hope that men and women in Mali and throughout the world come to the realization that gender equality is good for societies as a whole and that no country can reach its full potential while leaving behind half of the population.  I hope that Malians notice that the places where women have rights, access to good health care and a quality education, and a roll in political life, are places where the economy is growing, the populations are thriving and life is better for men and women, alike.  I hope that my work with my women’s association will provide the women of the group with income that is theirs to keep and will provide them with even a small bit of economic power in their homes.

My goal here is not to try and completely change the society in two years, but to push the envelope and empower the people who will be here for years after I leave.  The men and women that are pushing for progress across Mali are fighting a tough battle, and they need encouragement and reassurance that their work is worth it.  This is their country and only they have the ability to make long-lasting, meaningful change.

So, I must say “Bravo” to Newsweek for dedicating a full issue to women’s progress, or lack there of, in the world.  Seeing the issue pushed me to write about this topic, which permeates my everyday life in Mali.  I’d be happy to answer any questions you might have, as well.  Feel free to leave a post here and, when I’m within reach of the Internet, I’ll be sure to follow-up.