Tradition, taboo and sexual education in Mali, West Africa


I am always surprised by the high number of young adolescents who report parents or teachers as sources of information about sexuality and contraception in the U.S.  According to CDC, more than 60% of male teenagers and 80% of female teenagers have discussed with their parents about sex education. In Donaldson’s article discussed in class, more than half of sexually experienced female and male adolescents reported parents or teachers as sources of information on birth control and sexually transmitted infections/HIV. In Mali this is far from the reality of girls and boys when it comes to seeking information on birth control, condom use, sexually transmitted infections (STIs) or HIV. This is mainly due to cultural barriers and the place given to women and girls in our society.

Sex is still taboo…

In countries like Mali, even among adults, sexuality is not an easy topic to discuss. In many cultures, girls and women and only girls and women receive the usual “birds and the bees” talk just before she is “handed” to her husband.  For many parents, education about sex is not only avoided, but also prohibited because many believe that talking about sex with children is another way of encouraging or promoting it. Despite the high rates of teen pregnancy (37%) and its related severe consequences, parents are still reticent to discuss sex with their children.  Because abortion is legal only for medical reasons when the life of the mother is in danger, many girls are victims of post-abortion complications performed by unskilled professional (infertility, infections).

No sexual education in schools…

If parents do not provide the information about sex at home, what about in schools? This is also another contrast for Mali when compared to the U.S. In my country, the enrolment rates for girls are 27% in elementary school and only 6% in secondary school. Even those who are educated do not receive a formal sex education because of the lack training of teachers on these topics. Also the fact that most of these messages are promoting abstinence contributes largely to their failure to reduce teen pregnancy. 

I know but I don’t have the choice…

Despite the lack of discussion between parents and adolescents about sex and no formal sex education curriculum in schools, many young girls do benefit from currently available methods to prevent pregnancy, HIV and other STI.  Even those who have knowledge about the risks of unprotected sex or the importance of family planning do not benefit from this opportunity. In the recent DHS in Mali, only 3% and 6% of sexually active female and male teenagers respectively reported having used contraceptive methods. Traditional practices and customs put pressure on young adolescents to have sex without protection to avoid stigmatization. Requiring the use of condom during sex or seeking any other contraceptive methods for example are not seen as good practices but rather associated with condemnable attitude or behavior, especially for young girls.

They rely mostly on their peers…

One of the best ways to improve the knowledge of young adolescent about sexual and reproductive health is to identify the sources of sexual health information and to make sure the adequate information is provided. In the case of Mali, many organizations like family care international are working on the ground with young adolescent as peer educators by providing training on sexual education and life skills enhancement. These groups of peers will serve as reliable sources for other young adolescents and will provide them adequate and accurate information on sexuality, disease prevention, family planning and access to adolescent friendly health services and contraceptive methods.     

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