Bamako — When Dicko Ongoiba was a little girl, female genital cutting was such a tradition that no one in her community discussed it. The 40-year-old didn't even realize she had been circumcised until she was 10 and saw her younger sisters undergoing the same procedure.
Like her mother did, Ongoiba subjected her first six daughters to what is sometimes referred to as female circumcision. But in recent years she has learned more about ramifications, including more difficult child births, and now she wants to spare her two youngest daughters.
"It will not be easy, as we risk being rejected by the society, but what really scares me is that even if I don't agree with circumcision other women in the community might come and put them through it," she said.
On Thursday, the International Day of Zero Tolerance to Genital Mutilation, Ongoiba joined hundreds of residents of a town outside Mali's capital for a public declaration swearing off female genital cutting, which affects 89 percent of Mali's women and girls.
It was the second public declaration organized in Mali by the non-governmental organization Tostan, which has worked with 7,000 communities in eight African countries to denounce cutting.
The practice involves removing some or all of a girl's external genitals, usually without anesthesia. In addition to the loss of sexual pleasure, women undergoing the procedure face more difficult childbirths, urinary incontinence and other complications.
By getting entire communities on board, public declarations help reduce pressure that might otherwise discourage mothers like Ongoiba who don't want to see their daughters circumcized, said Tostan founder Molly Melching.
"It became a practice that was considered critical in the culture for good marriage," she explained. "You would just not dream of not having this done to your daughter. If you loved your daughter you would want her to have the best possible chance of being respected by the community and a man would never dream of marrying a woman who had not undergone the cutting."
There are three different types of female circumcision practiced in Mali, said Abou Amel Camara, Tostan's national coordinator. The most severe is known as infibulation and involves removal of external genitalia and the narrowing of the vaginal opening.
Camara said that in recent years the prevalence of female genital cutting had gone down in Mali, but very slowly. In some regions, the prevalence is as high as 98 percent, he said.
Although community leaders sometimes justify the practice on religious grounds, in recent years a growing number of religious leaders have noted there is no mention of female genital cutting in the Quran.
Prior to making a public declaration, communities working with Tostan complete a three-year educational "empowerment program" emphasizing human rights.
Tostan says the programs foster the type of "large-scale social change" that can spur communities to abandon a practice with deep traditional roots.
"We know that perhaps there will still be people who may be resistant to this as always when something like this happens, especially in an urban center," Melching said. "But we know that the people in our program and their relatives and their immediate neighbors ... they have really decided to abandon the practice which is amazing."
Associated Press writer Krista Larson in Dakar, Senegal, contributed to this report.