LONDON (TrustLaw) – "In Mali, when a girl has not been cut, it means she is dirty, she is loose," says Bamako-born singer Bafing Kul.
This concept baffled Kul, who struggled to understand why, in order to be pure, women in his country needed to be subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM) - a traditional practice involving the total or partial removal of the external genitalia.
The cutting, which is often done with razor blades or scissors and no pain relief, can lead to permanent physical and psychological damage.
"FGM is an injustice against all women ... It is a practice that destroys women, one that threatens their physical and moral integrity - and their health as well of course," the 33-year-old singer told TrustLaw.
More than 80 percent of women and girls aged between 15 and 49 have undergone FGM in Mali. Worldwide up to 140 million girls may have been subjected to FGM, the World Health Organisation says.
Human rights activists say the high prevalence of FGM in Mali reflects a society in which women have little or no say.
Kul, who now lives in Paris, said he felt compelled to join the fight against FGM following the experience of a close friend.
"I had a friend – she was more like a sister than a friend to me – who hadn't been cut, and really because of that people looked askance at her. They would criticise her," he said.
"They sensed she was radiant and full of life and I thought they interpreted that in the wrong way."
At the request of an NGO, Kul wrote a song to raise awareness about the harm done by female genital cutting and expose the popular misconception that the practice is required by Islam.
"Especially in Mali, it is not tradition that influences people, it is religion. Culture has blended with religion and people think that Islam requires it (FGM)," Kul said.
Many popular African artists were also asked to get involved but refused because speaking about the practice was so taboo at the time, he said.
When EH EH EH EH! (Exciser c'est pas bon) first came out in Mali about 10 years ago, the song known as "Little Girls from Africa" in English wasn't well received.
Kul was threatened and insulted. He decided to flee to France in 2002, where he started campaigning for the Commission for the Abolition of Sexual Mutilation (CAMS).
VOX POP FILM
Now working on a project with humanitarian cultural organisation Mélodies du Monde, Kul plans to hold 22 concerts in Mali as part of a campaign to raise awareness about FGM and get health workers to explain to communities why the practice is so harmful.
He said practical grassroots action was what was missing in the campaign against genital cutting in Mali.
"Sometimes there seems to be more interest in conferences and talks rather than in a more practical approach," he said when asked about the initiative for a worldwide ban on FGM to be presented to the U.N. General Assembly later this year.
"That's all good but it cannot replace the messages that one can deliver directly to people by engaging with them."
Aside from his music, Kul has also highlighted the problem of FGM in a short film in which he asked men and women on the streets of Bamako about their views on FGM.
The replies give an idea of what Kul and other campaigners are up against as they try to change deeply engrained beliefs.
“It would be a disaster to stop excising women because they would take too much pleasure,” says one man in the video.
But it’s not just men who voice their approval of the practice. One young woman says that “women must be excised otherwise they would go wild”.
Kul released his latest album last year. Yelen is a mix of traditional rhythms and reggae beats produced by Micael Sène, who has worked with Bob Marley and the Wailers and Ivorian singer Alpha Blondy, considered the pioneer of African reggae.
It features his anti-FGM anthem ‘EH EH EH EH’.
"In my next album, I will go back to that song. I am going to sing it each time until this practice is abandoned," Kul said.
(Additional reporting by Angela Kounkou)
This article is part of a Thomson Reuters Foundation multimedia package on FGM
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