Mali: Women Speaking French is the Key

Don Osborn dzo at
Thu Nov 20 22:57:11 UTC 2008

I'll have to find the time to respond to this in more detail, but I'm
reminded of a student in a class on language in development who asked "why
not just teach everyone English?" Nothing is wrong and certainly there can
be benefits for more Malian women learning French, but this is far from a

The obvious flip side of this proposition is that the government could do a
lot more in the indigenous languages, beginning with Bambara, which most of
the population speaks as a first or second languages. The amount of the
population that speaks French (almost all as an L2) is much less than speak
Bambara. In fact a lot of people don't speak French (or don't speak it well)
in what we call Francophone Africa (or English in Anglophone...) - women
more than men, yes, but this is a significant fact that needs more
discussion in the context of development and educaiton in Africa.

An obvious question is why more effort has not made by governments such as
the Malian one, to use the major L1s and local lingua francas for
communication. There are a number of answers, but one of them has certainly
been the role of French as a language of elite closure (per Meyers-Scotton;
I don't have the reference handy). The result is anomalous situations like
laws being made, promulgated and enforced in a language that a large part of
the population does not master (Halaoui 2002; I happen to have this in my

Teaching more people, and in particular girls and women, the French language
may seem like an obvious solution, but it would have costs:
* As a sole strategy it would take time and mean that many people in the
meantime would be out of luck
* The option of promoting change in the vernacular, as it were, would be
* There would certainly be repercussion in the local lanuages and cultures
of ignoring them in favor of what is still largely a foreign language

Teaching women French is not "the key," however much it may be useful and
desirable in the framework of a larger strategy. 

I'd finish this quick set of thoughts by citing the Senegalese author
Boubacar Boris Diop who has moved to publishing in his native Wolof
language: le français n'est pas mon destin. 

Don Osborn

Halaoui, Nazam. 2002. "La langue de la Justice et les Constitutions
africaines." Droit et Société 51/52: 345-367.

> -----Original Message-----
> From: owner-lgpolicy-list at [mailto:owner-lgpolicy-
> list at] On Behalf Of Harold Schiffman
> Sent: Thursday, November 20, 2008 9:39 AM
> To: lp
> Subject: Mali: Women Speaking French is the Key
> Input Paper 2 Mali- Robin
> November 19, 2008 by robins3977
> Women Speaking French is the Key
> In researching the country of Mali, I have developed a hypothesis that
> the intersections of economic situations and the traditions of culture
> in Mali are the key to why the literacy rate and simple communication
> of women in French is so low, and can also be the key to reversing the
> problem. I would like to further explore these dynamics through the
> availability of prior research using statistics and narratives of
> Malian women. I believe that this aspect of non-literate, non-
> communicative women in the French language is one of many forms of
> discrimination of women. The main language of governing in Mali is
> French, and the political structure is based in the French language
> (Mali-Statistics). If the women, for one reason or another, are unable
> to read, understand or communicate in the language of government
> policies, how are they expected to be able to have an impact on their
> political or economic situation?
> Mali is an extremely poor country whose livelihood depends on the
> export of cotton (Ford 2). As seen from an economical standpoint, this
> is not the best position for the country to be in; cotton is a cash
> crop, and cash crop's profits rest solely on supply and demand. When
> Mali is producing a large amount of cotton, the demand goes down-
> therefore, the profit goes down; and when a small amount is produced
> because of droughts for example, more money is made per share because
> demand has increased, but the country is producing significantly less
> cotton. It seems to be a downward spiral. Mali is agriculturally based
> with little industry contributing to their Gross Domestic Product; so
> Malian families generally spend much of their time working with the
> crops. According to a Malian woman interviewed by Frank Dall, the
> children, mainly girls, are needed to sell produce from roadside stands
> or look after the other children in the home while the parents work in
> the fields (Dall 2).
> As stated before in my first input paper, the education in Mali is
> essentially not free. The pupil's family must provide a desk and chair,
> chalk and other supplies plus make monthly contributions to the school.
> When the family is working so hard just to maintain their food source,
> it is financially difficult to send a child to school. Most families
> cannot afford to pay for education and the ones that can, may only be
> able to afford to send one child to school (Dall 3).
> The statistics given in my first input paper clearly show that boys are
> being educated at nearly double the percentage of girls that are
> receiving an education. The literacy rate reflects the same. So we know
> that this choice that favors the schooling of males over females is
> being made, but why? According to some narratives of Malian women there
> are a few reasons. The male is expected to carry on the legacy of the
> family, the male is supposed to become the provider of the family, the
> girl could be provoked into promiscuity by a "westernized"
> school setting, or that men are generally intimidated by educated
> women, and the parents are afraid that their daughter will not be able
> to find a husband if she has an education (Dall 3.)
> When it comes down to this choice, culture plays a major role in the
> decision-making process of the family. Muslim religion by nature is
> very patriarchal; and with over 90% of Malians practicing Muslim, then
> the religion plays a major part in their culture (Schultz 14). The book
> of Islam is Qur'an and it does not in anyway suggest the discrimination
> of women should occur in society, but it does say that the man is the
> "leader" of the family (Badawi). I do not believe that it is the direct
> Islamic religion that provokes this treatment of women in their
> society; however, I do believe that placing the man in this position of
> power allows for centuries of interpretations through the perspectives
> of those males who hold the hierarchical power.
> Some would argue that all of this inequality that I have just listed
> above will change soon with the implementation of democracy, adult
> literacy programs, and propositions of education reform. Cynthia Enloe
> reminds us that just because a law is passed, it does not equal
> immediate change; therefore, I would conclude that just because a
> democracy has been installed into Mali, it does not equal change. For
> example, a woman was allowed to run in this last election in Mali, but
> she only received 0.05% of the popular vote (Ford 64). This directly
> shows the law allowing a woman to run for president, but the country
> not embracing this change. As for adult literacy programs, even though
> they are potentially a great idea, causing a trickling effect of a
> mother learning to read, then teaching her children and a social
> networking for the women coming together, they seem to be less
> effective than hoped for (Puchner440). Also, I don't believe that they
> are unanimously teaching the French language, which would open up a
> window for the most amount of change in women's ranking in society.
> Social constraints keep most women from participating completely in
> these programs whether it is due to husband's wishes or chores that
> restrict her from participation (Barka 19). As for school reform, if
> the government can find a way to truly make education free, then some
> significant changes in enrollment will be seen, but until then it will
> remain the same.
> I'm not suggesting that all women becoming fluent in French is the
> answer to end discrimination; however, it is a start in the right
> direction. I agree with Laurel Puchner when she says, "There is
> evidence that schooling for girls may have beneficial socio-economic
> outcomes in developing countries as well, and that these outcomes may
> derive more from the changes in general attitudes and practices
> influenced by schooling rather than from literacy skills themselves."
> This discrimination involving a language barrier is being pressed on
> women young and old. We see this in young boys being chosen over young
> girls in the family to receive a formal education, which includes
> learning French. We see it in older women staying so busy in the
> household that they are unable to achieve social interaction with other
> women outside the confinement of their home; not to mention the
> constraints placed on them by their culture such as denying women of
> status outside of the home (Schulz 22).
> These factors tie together in a dynamic, circular relationship with one
> influencing the other keeping women oppressed. Women are so poor that
> they must work to survive causing them to be unable to receive an
> education that allows them to converse in the language of policy making
> and influence. Because of this poverty the family sometimes may only
> choose one child to go to school. The cultural aspect of Malians
> normally places the male child as the best candidate; he is then able
> to converse in the language of policy making. This cultural choice then
> in turn affects the young women's chance at changing their
> opportunities to hold different positions in the hierarchical level of
> decision making in the family, let alone the country.
> Change cannot be made unless this circle is broken. Amartya Sen reminds
> us that this situation is all the women know. They do not see any other
> opportunity of freedom for themselves. Similarly Catharine Mackinnon
> asks the question- how does one organize against something if it isn't
> really realized to exist? I believe that women conversing in French
> would open up the opportunity for women to realize and fight for their
> freedom from oppression and enter into the world of policy making and
> government to have influence in the decision making of their well being
> and to better represent women as equals.
> Works Cited
> Badawi, Jamal A. "The Status of Women in Islam." Islam For Today 8
> (1971): 2.
> Barka, L.B. "Women Literacy Program in Mali." Journal of the African
> Association for Literacy and Adult Education 6 (1992): 15-27.
> Dall, Frank. "A Problem of Gender Access and Primary Education: A Mali
> Case Study." HID Research Review: Research Findings of The Harvard
> Institute for International Development 2 (1989): 6-7.
> Ford, Neil. "Mali: Touré Wins Second Terms with Ease" African Business
> 332 (2007) p.64-65
> "Mali-Statistics." UNICEF. 4 Nov. 2008
> <>.
> Puchner, Laurel. "Researching Women's Literacy in Mali: A Case Study of
> Dialogue among Researchers, Practitioners, and Policy Makers."
> Comparative Education Review 45 (2001): 242-56.
>             —"Women and Literacy in Rural Mali: a Study of the Socio-
> economic Impact of Participating in Literacy Programs in Four
> Villages." International Journal of Educational Development 23 (2003):
> 439-458.
> Schulz, Dorothea E: "(Re)Turning to Proper Muslim Practice: Islamic
> Moral Renewal and Women's Conflicting Assertions of Sunni Identity in
> Urban Mali" Africa Today 54:4 (2008) p.20-43
> Smith, Alex D. "Innovations in Mali." Review of African Political
> Economy 25 (1998): 285-87.
> Works Consulted
> Enloe, Cynthia H. 2004. The Curious Feminist: Searching for Women in a
> New Age of Empire. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
> MacKinnon, Catharine A. 2006. Are Women Human?: And Other International
> Dialogues. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
> McClintock, Anne. 1995. Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality
> in the Colonial Conquest. New York: Routledge.
> Povey, Elaheh Rostami. 2001. "Feminist Contestations of Institutional
> Domains in Iran." Feminist Review 69, winter: 44-72.
> Sen, Amartya. 1999. "Human Rights and Economic Achievements." In The
> East Asian Challenge for Human Rights, ed. Joanne R. Bauer and Daniel
> A. Bell. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 88-99.
> mali-robin/
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