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Canadian Support for the National Policy on Gender: Improving the Lives of Mali’s Women

Photo of the director of PROJES, Louise Camiré, surrounded by a group of women during a field mission.

In a traditional and religious society like Mali’s, the issue of equality between men and women is a sensitive one, and it must be addressed delicately.

Project background

Mali’s efforts for the advancement of women have come up against many institutional and sociocultural obstacles. Women continue to have limited access to social services and production resources, their rights often go unrecognized and they exercise limited decision-making at all levels. Real progress has been made through several programs and projects implemented by government, development partners, NGOs and women’s civil society organizations. Nonetheless, much remains to be done to reduce the inequalities between women and men in legislation, policy and daily practice.

The data put forth by the United Nations Development Program in its Human Development Report 2016 are indeed telling: the average number of years of schooling in Mali is 1.7 for women and 3 for men; the employment rate is 50.1% in women and 82.3% in men (a discrepancy that is not surprising, given the fertility rate of 6.4); and, the portion of seats women hold in parliament is 8.8%. These facts place Mali among the bottom five African countries for women’s participation in politics.

The traditional nature of Malian society, accentuated by the growing importance of religion, often impedes women and men’s equal participation in society, even though informally women do much of the subsistence work for the family. Unfortunately, tasks reserved for women often go unrecognized and unpaid.

How, in this context, can widespread social change be spurred and implemented? How, through legislation and instruments that support democracy and human rights, can citizens of both genders be treated equally and have the same opportunities for developing and self-realization? How can all citizens be solicited to take part in social issues and decision-making that affect the entire community? How can international aid benefit all members of Malian society equally and fairly?

Canadian involvement

Canada was among the first countries to promote gender equality in Mali. For more than 40 years, its development efforts have sought to foster the full and equal participation of all citizens. This strategy was launched with the publication of its 1976 guidelines, followed in 1984 by its innovative Women in Development policy. In 1999, Canada reiterated its commitment through the adoption of its Policy on Gender Equality, which considered gender equality as cross-cutting to all publicly funded development aid.

Since the early 1990s, Canadian aid has initiated and supported a series of structuring projects and programs on gender, to reinforce the capacities of civil society and government actors in various sectors, including the associative life of groups and associations (strategic planning, statutory authorities, member accountability, etc.); gender and equity; human rights; defense; and the implementation of development policies. These civil society projects included the following CIDA/CECI’s Project for Democratic Development and Human Rights (1992 to 1996); the Reinforcement Program for Canada-Sahel Cooperation; CIDA/CECI’s Women’s Rights and Citizenship project (1998 to 2005); and the Support Fund for Women’s Participation in Elections starting in 2006. Thanks to Canadian support, many civil society organizations forged partnerships with peer organizations in French-speaking Canada through various programs and projects (DCF, Uniterra and others). Active work with Malian partners was done by several Canadian organizations: the NGO Mère et Monde, the Quebec government’s council on the status of women (Conseil du Statut de la femme), the association of collective kitchens (Regroupement des cuisines collectives), a women’s health network (Réseauquébécoisd’action pour la santé de la femme), a community workers association (Regroupement des intervenants et intervenantescommunautaires) and many more.

In this context and starting in 1998, Canadian aid in Mali developed a gender and equality strategy with two main objectives: to support projects and programs in Mali aimed at reducing obstacles and limitations to women’s skill building; and to strengthen the capacities and broaden the scope of action of the Malian government and women’s associations and NGOs.

The Gender and Development Fund (GDF) was the first Canadian initiative that specifically and directly targeted the advancement of gender equality. The GDF was founded in 2001 and brought support to the Malian Ministry for the Advancement of Women, Children and Families (ministère de la Promotion de la Femme, de l’Enfant et de la Famille; MPFEF), particularly in developing an action plan and carrying out activities to strengthen institutions. The GDF also funded initiatives by women’s organizations. In place between 2000 and 2007, it amounted to Can$3.25 million, directed mainly in response to MPFEF requests.

Sub-projects on reproductive rights, family planning, support for legal reference centres, school retention for girls, women’s participation in local management committees and the fight against genital mutilation also proved useful for recipients in targeted regions. However, these actions were very limited in scope, and therefore did not lead to synergy that would have influenced national and regional policies and programs. In other words, the benefits were very specific but non-structuring. Support for the development of the 2002 to 2006 Action Plan focussed project implementation, rather than on influencing policy.

To conduct a study analyzing the strategic issues and institutional framework in Mali around gender, Canada partnered with the World Bank in 2005. Using a participatory approach, this study had the merit of taking an unflinching look at Mali’s limitations and obstacles to progress in the advancement of gender equality at all levels (legal, institutional, societal, economic and cultural). This Canadian-funded study’s institutional assessment of the MPFEF took a critical but constructive look at possible scenarios for Mali to adopt a relevant and effective national mechanism to promote equality between the sexes. In particular, the study’s recommendations focused on the development of a national policy for gender equality and equity, combined with a national action plan.

The Canadian support for the Gender Equality Project (Projetcanadiend’appui à l’égalité entre les sexes; PROJES) was developed from these recommendations. Granted a budgetary envelope of Can$4.89 million, PROJES spanned from 2007 to 2011, and was implemented by the Canadian centre for international study and cooperation (Centre d’étudeset de coopérationinternational [CECI]).

PROJES was a prolongation of CIDA support for the promotion of gender equality through the Gender and Development Fund (GDF). It was structured differently, however, in that the interventions no longer responded to requests, but instead, were planned from the start with partner organizations and fit into a coherent and structuring program focussed on national and key gender equality issues on which partners agreed.

The project was built around women’s rights, reproductive health and governance. It fell under the priority action areas for the Canadian program in Mali and for Malian national programs. One of the PROJES’s first results was the development of a National Policy on Gender for Mali. While there were too many observations underlying this document to list here, it can be said that each emphasized the following gender inequalities between men and women:

These observations reflect discrimination, violence and inequality toward women, who are subjected to injustice that goes unresolved without political will. With support from the PROJES team and the participation of many stakeholders, the process of developing and adopting the National Policy on Gender spanned two years. Two government committees were formed: (1) an ad hoc committee tasked with making proposals to the MPFEF and overseeing the task forces (developing a calendar of activities, drafting a reference framework for the consultants being recruited, selecting consultants, orchestrating regional tables, etc.); and(2) the Council Support Committee, made up of representatives from all ministries, the anti-poverty technical unit, the Quebec employment council (Conseil du Patronat), the African Union’s African Committee on Women’s Rights, civil society organizations and leaders representing technical and financial partners. This committee was tasked with validating the first draft of the Policy.

The director of PROJES, Louise Camiré, surrounded by a group of women during a field mission

In March 2008, a mission to Mali by Christiane Pelchat, then president of the Quebec council on the status of women (Conseil du Statut de la femme du Québec; CSFQ), was an opportunity for the MPFEF to learn about the methodology used in the Quebec government’s gender equality policy and to retain a process adapted to Mali.

With support from Canadian specialists, the work teams not only drafted the Policy, they also submitted a related action plan for the recommendations stemming from the consultations, as well as a communications strategy. The latter was a key element in addressing a sensitive issue like equality between women and men.

Only mentioning funding from the GDF and PROJES for gender equality in Mali would make for a limited and sectorial view of Canadian aid. Gender equality indeed lies at the very core of Canadian development and is a fundamental value in each of its field support initiatives in Mali. Across sectors, Canadian aid advocates for women’s full participation and for results that improve living conditions for both men and women.

Involvement of other partners

The Council of Ministers’ adoption of the National Policy on Gender and its first three-year action plan, in November 2010, was the product of many years of joint effort by the MPFEF, technical and financial partners, and civil society.

Technical and financial partners

The Gender Topic Group (Groupethématique genre; GTG) of Malian technical and financial partners is one of 13 subject-specific groups founded in 2007, in the wake of drafting the common strategy for country assistance (Stratégie commune d'assistance pays; SCAP) and of developing and organizing the technical and financial partners to make aid more effective. This cross-cutting group was set up to lead the dialogue between the Malian government and civil society on gender-related issues. It is one of the partners’ coordination frameworks that boosts the efficacy of foreign aid.

Tasked by Canada, which spearheaded efforts from 2007 to 2011, the GTG made great advances for gender equality in both practice and partner positioning. That an active, open and constructive avenue for dialogue was set up among technical and financial partners, with support from the MPFEF and civil society, is an appreciable accomplishment.

With Canada’s leadership, technical and financial partners’ political dialogue around male-female equality led gender to be considered more broadly in Malian development policy via the strategic framework for fighting poverty (Cadre stratégique de luttecontre la pauvreté; CSCLP). Finally, on Canada’s suggestion, gender was one of four priority themes included in the partners’ 2011 work plan for ongoing dialogue with government.

Civil society

Regional consultation has given civil society a key role to play. Spanning more than three months, the consultation process was led by the pivotal constituency of Women’s Rights and Citizenship (Droit etcitoyenneté des femmes; DCF), an umbrella organization grouping eight women’s organizations. (Association des juristes Maliennes, Association Malienne des droits de l’homme, Association pour le progrès et la défense des droits des femmes, Comité d’action pour les droits de l’enfant et de la femme, Collectif des femmes du Mali, Forum Malien d’appui à la démocratie et aux droits humains, Observatoire des droits de l’enfant et de la femme, and the Réseau des femmes Africaines ministres et parlementaires).

This coalition enrolled advising members from the Coordinating Office of Women’s Associations and NGOs (Coordination des associations et ONG féminines), from the MPFEF, from the Ministry of Territorial Administration and Local Collectivities (Ministère de l’administrationterritoriale et des collectivités locales; MATCL) and from the Ministry of Justice.

Photo of Ambassador of Canada, Virginie Saint-Louis, at the Presidium with the government and civil society

The communication strategy involved many civil society stakeholders—both male and female—who became partners in implementing the Policy. Regional groups were formed, made up of local MPFEF directorates, members of the DCF’s pivotal constituency, the regional assemblies, traditional communicators, the Coordinating Office, the National Youth Council (Conseil national des jeunes; CNJ), the Federation of Rural Women (Fédération des femmes rurales; FFR), as well as key partners and influential leaders, including religious leaders of various faiths.

By facilitating dialogue and coordination with the MPFEF, the drafting of the National Policy on Gender validated civil society as a credible partner and an active ombudsperson for women. In doing so, it allowed women to take a seat at the centre of debate on the country’s gender equality issues. The project gave rise to special partnerships with workers in the field.

“One of the strengths in the process of developing the National Policy on Gender has been the development of peer educators among members of women’s organizations, traditional communicators, religious leaders and young activists. This has greatly facilitated communication.” – Ms. Awa Djiré, former PROJES coordinator.


The first major result we should consider is surely the adoption of the National Policy on Gender and, especially, the consensus obtained on the principles it defends. The strategy for developing the Policy, particularly in terms of communications, did everything possible to foster a sense of ownership in civil society. Local peer educators were trained in each region (about 90 educators per region). In all, 985 peer educators were at work throughout Mali and 32% of these were women. They were tasked with the following: distributing communications materials and using them as teaching tools during information sessions on the Policy; answering community members’ questions; ensuring a presence that enforced equal behaviour and practices; and serving as role models. The strategy also set out a mechanism for gathering opinions about the document itself. In all, 114 opinions were gathered in the regions, with more than 75% being very favourable to a policy on gender equality.

Alongside the development of the National Policy on Gender, training was given to the trainers themselves on gender-based analysis, results-oriented management and gender-sensitive budgeting. A core group of trainers was put in place in each ministry to replicate the gains.

Unlike the Persons and Family Code (the development and adoption of which met with great resistance), the National Policy on Gender was ratified easily, perhaps thanks to its participatory and inclusive approach. A strong political willingness seems to exist at the highest level of government to implement the National Policy on Gender.

“Since [the ratification of] the National Policy on Gender, we observe a shift in major religious leaders’ discourse, like that of Sharif OusmaneMadaniHaidara and the Imam Diallo, who participated in the ‘He for She’ education campaigns on countering violence against women.” – AlassaneSanogo, Director of CECI Mali

The detailed three-year action plan appended to the Policy sustainably anchors the involvement of Malian authorities, who will provide 40% of the budget. The remaining 60% will come from technical and financial partners. Moreover, a global fund of 500 million CFA francs is voted each year under the Financial Act for the Economic Empowerment of Women and Children.

Photo of a female official from Macina, in the Ségou region, who was elected with support from PROJES.

Moreover, in addition to the adoption of the National Policy on Gender, major changes are underway. The Policy’s action areas are indeed instruments of major change, and they will affect the recognition and exercise of fundamental equal rights in the construction of women’s and men’s social identity, in the struggle against sexist stereotypes, in the protection of women’s integrity and dignity, in the development of human capital, and in the allocation of resources in ways that favour fair and equitable economic development. Here are some of the most evident changes:

Rising above the personal level, these structuring results fit into the very modalities of state functioning. These gains obviously require a culture of vigilance; it is not enough to include them, they must also be monitored and enforced. These instruments nonetheless make it possible to call for the egalitarian treatment of Mali’s women and men, and these gains reflect the government’s desire to bring about change in organizational culture and in society at large, for the benefit of all Malians.

Challenges encountered

In a traditional and religious society like Mali’s, the issue of equality between men and women is a sensitive one, and it must be addressed delicately. The contribution of religious leaders must be handled with care: while their involvement helps quickly convince the public, their positions on gender equality are rarely progressive. While certain factions show openness to women’s rights, others overtly impede them. Of the 114 opinions collected in the validation stage of the Policy, six unfavourable, and five of these six were from religious groups. However, we cannot conclude that all religious groups disagreed with the project. In fact, of the 20 opinions collected from religious groups, 9 were very much in support of the project and, among these, 6 were Muslim. Six other religious groups also said they were in favour of the National Policy on Gender. Among religious leaders, 75% (15/20) were in favour of the draft policy. In this situation, it was important to be able to count on supportive groups to influence the opinion of the others, who required more extensive dialogue.

Tact was also needed to gain acceptance of gender equality in a society that is, for the most part, polygamous. The very concept of gender equality is misunderstood as confrontation between women and men, leading to the domination of women in all spheres. Changing this mindset was one of the conditions for reaching the Policy’s objective. The idea that equality between women and men, as laid out in the draft and remained central in the final National Policy on Gender, gradually earned the approval of all.

Communication was delicate and rife with pitfalls:

Lessons learned

While there is no shortage of lessons stemming from Canadian support for gender equality in Mali, it is too great a goal for any conclusions to be drawn so far. However, very important lessons can already be learned from the support experience, and these are already being applied to ongoing work between Canada and Mali to instill a culture and practices of equality between women and men.

Despite Canadian interest in bringing about change in partner countries, this social debate belongs first and foremost to Malians. Any guidance in managing this shift must respond to requests from stakeholders, and be based on the instruments of change and their use. To effectively guide this process, Canada must be able to remain in the wings, while also actively encouraging the debate’s protagonists. It is essential for Canada to adopt a positive but removed attitude if Mali’s government and civil contributions are to be valued, and if its players are to feel they are the primary instigators of change in their own political and social settings.

It also became obvious that since the consultation process recognized the plurality of civil society and involved various social groups from the very beginning, this facilitated consensus during the draft phase of the National Policy on Gender. The Council of Ministers’ unanimous ratification of the Policy on November 24, 2010, is proof in point.

The participatory approach brought out the goal’s common ground and, at the same time, tightened ties between stakeholders. Both parties realized that the target could not be reached without close collaboration. A true partnership between the government and civil society developed, and all participants felt they were decision-makers in their own futures, without anything being imposed.

The Malian experience of developing a large-scale national initiative has shown that, as soon as one of the two parties works in isolation or does not adequately involve the other, the targeted groups tend to develop misconceptions about the cause. They then show obvious hesitation, reticence and lack of support. The messages in the National Policy on Gender received the approval of all parties.

Moreover, local leaders must be specifically included in the process from the start. Given the role they play in their communities, leaders receive great consideration and their opinions are valued. Any initiative introduced with the support of these leaders is received with greater openness than are messages brought in from the outside.

Thus, the “relay” role that pool members and peer educators played in their communities helped make the National Policy on Gender known, with a view to getting it accepted.

Finally, the more diversified the target audiences, the more strategies must vary, particularly in styles of communication, according to regional specificities, mentalities, habits and customs. This is all the more important in a country like Mali, where there are many ethnicities and languages. These differences can be addressed more naturally when the “relay” agents are themselves members of these groups. This also allows populations to understand, in their own words, the road travelled and the path ahead.


We would like to sincerely thank the following for their assistance in creating this impact story:

The Impact Stories series of Canadian aid in Mali was produced by the Field Support Services Project (FSSP) and in collaborationwith the above-mentioned stakeholders.

Rue Sotuba/ACI, rond-point de l’ancienne chaussée
Bamako, Mali
Tel.: +223 44 90 44 45
Note: The FSSP received funding from the Government of Canada.

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